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Federico Hewson


[T]here’s socially engaged art, there’s socially engaged business, and there can also be socially engaged horticulture; flowers working for different social issues, whether that’s fundraising or awareness or development.

Federico Hewson is a writer, curator, and activist currently based in Berlin, Germany. Hewson is the creator of the Valentine Peace Project and an advocate for Fairtrade International, a global and independent organization that certifies producers within the trade industry with a Fairtrade Label if they agree to maintain a high ethical standard of economic, social, and environmental conditions. Hewson works to shine a light on unethical labor conditions within the flower industry by writing and curating poems and informational passages on beautifully designed wrapping paper. Through this, the consumer can learn about the story behind the flowers and the many hands that have touched them. In addition to his work on Fairtrade flowers, Hewson is a performer and peace activist.

Sarah J Halford: Can you tell me a little bit about your creative practice and how you came to it?

Federico Hewson: I was a performance artist for many years and then did dance theatre. At the same time, I was a peace activist, working on conflict issues and peace education. I wanted to combine the two, and began using flowers as a vehicle for socially engaged art. I created the Valentine Peace Project, which is a community of peace artists and activists who distribute flowers with poems as a demonstration of peace around Valentine’s Day. Over time, this also became a way to give attention to issues of injustice in the floral trade.

Flowers are beautiful and artistic in their own sense. You know, there’s socially engaged art, there’s socially engaged business, and there can also be socially engaged horticulture; flowers working for different social issues, whether that’s fundraising or awareness or development. They also have a political role as symbols for many revolutions, up to the current Tunisian Jasmine revolution, which was part of the Arab Spring.

SJH: How does the Valentine Peace Project work?

FH: Basically, the Project receives poems from people around the world and distributes them along with flowers on February 14th. I started this project about 10 years ago, and have since given it over to someone in Amsterdam, but at the time I got great poems from flower workers to professional poets – I got a poem from David Whyte and also from Yoko Ono – to school kids, and then from young people who worked on flower farms in Kenya or Zimbabwe. I think these soulful words can speak across the borders through which flowers travel.

By distributing them, we engage in direct community action where we can commit random acts of kindness and encourage the people who receive them to reflect on peace and what it means to them. Poetry is a great medium for this, because it can facilitate an intimate reflection of our deepest selves, regardless if one can write or not. It can provide an opportunity for people to talk about peace and all faces of love, which makes it a mechanism to illuminate global connectivity between grower to receiver of flowers, and a more global valentine.

Poem by: Anonymous Student from Marlborough High School, Los Angeles, California

Since I’ve turned over the Valentine Peace Project, I’ve begun to focus more on flowers’ relationship to Fairtrade. In the US, 80% of the flowers are imported from Colombia, which doesn’t qualify for Fairtrade or have Fairtrade flower farms. I felt like that was the entry point as an activist, to make change by helping to make more ethically-traded flowers come out of Colombia.

SJH: What exactly does it mean for flowers to be unethically grown and traded?

FH: It means that workers are working very long hours, particularly around holidays, and they make about $8 per day. A lot of them are women, so they’re also dealing with harassment issues. Unfortunately most flowers in the world aren’t [Fairtrade], but it’s especially a problem in the US. So, what Fairtrade does as a certification system is come in and check out the farm, its work practices, and also the protection of the worker’s health – it outlaws certain pesticides for their sake and for the environment’s sake. It’s a way to protect workers and to illuminate their conditions. For instance, can the workers unionize?

Fairtrade is quite strict because there are other labels that the Colombian flower industry has itself, kind of a self-certification, which most labor organizations don’t take seriously, especially in the US. So, Fairtrade is independent and is part of a world-wide movement, and can maintain a strong series of standards. Flowers are part of a the greater movement of ethical trade in general, such as cocoa and coffee.

There’s also a premium for Fairtrade products; part of the premium goes back into the community. So, if the farmers have a school, it goes to the school, or simple things like getting a refrigerator. It’s something that’s specifically targeted for the workers and the community, because a lot of the farmers are living and working right by the farm, schools are there, community staples are there. So, rather than a race-to-the-bottom type of pricing, with Fairtrade you have a more honest pricing that reflects the true cost.

SJH: What’s the process of convincing the landowners to participate in Fairtrade like?

FH: There are campaigns of course, and Fairtrade has a reputation, but it does cost the landowners more not to cut corners.

I did an action around International Women’s Day, where I was giving out roses with information on them about where these roses were from and that there were mainly women workers who labored over them. The idea was to honor them, too, as a part of this International Women’s Day. I believe that if we can take that further, it can become a marketing mechanism for the supermarket that would be dealing with the Fairtrade product. That makes the flowers a premium product, which can interest landlords to invest in Fairtrade, at the higher cost that that would ask of them, but knowing that they had a more special product particularly around that time. That, to me, is how our activism can work; by coming up with ideas that are win-win situations for all players in this, whether that’s the trader and the supplier, the florist or the supermarket.

SJH: Can you tell me about a time when when you were able to create a win-win situation?

FH: Tony Chocolonely is a company that I worked with in Holland, which is slave-free chocolate. They use a lot of artistry in the way their brand looks or feels in the chocolate bar itself and in the packaging. When you open the wrapper, you have a map on the inside which gives a lot of information about the cocoa and where it’s from. The artistry is a tool for illumination – where the product is from, the story of the workers, information, design – so that you have a strong, beautiful, ethical brand. When you’re buying that chocolate, you know that you’re paying for a different purpose and message, which is a win for the consumer, and the fact that you’re buying it because of that message is a win for the supplier. In all ways there’s a stronger connection to the cocoa workers.

SJH: Who would you say is your ideal audience, or maybe in this case it’s your ideal consumer, for this work?

FH: What’s nice is that with special products like this, people who wouldn’t normally buy flowers that frequently will buy them when there’s something connected to a deeper message that’s meaningful; they want to help the women of Colombia, and want to show solidarity with them and Fairtrade. They also want beautiful roses that are more poetic, meaningful, and connected to community.

All of this can be connected to so many products – flowers, chocolate, clothing – where we don’t know the story. When the customer is in the dark, it’s easier for unethical issues to prevail. But rather than just slapping on the Fairtrade label, we can get stories from farmers and present them in artistic ways, and even get writing directly from the workers. In that way, it can be participatory – they would be telling their story themselves. It’s a dialogue between consumer and worker.


SJH: Can you tell me more about your chosen artistic medium for communicating the workers’ stories?

FH: I would say writing. I started by collecting poems and gathering direct statements from the voices of the farmers. There’s something very intimate and vulnerable about a poetic statement that you know is coming from someone that wrote it just for you as a consumer. That can be quite moving. It was also interesting for me to learn that the schools that are near these flower farms have poetry writing contests, so they’re already writing, and I hope to get their permission to incorporate their work. It’s the voice of those kids, which is powerful.

SJH: So, if the art is a tool for illumination, as you said, and it gets people to connect with the information, what’s to say that people are going to do something based on that connection?

FH: Well, I think that it’s first an effective way for them to learn about Fairtrade, which they might not know of, and then to think about asking questions about where their other products are coming from and asking suppliers directly. I think it pushes thinking along those lines. It’s also a way to feel connected to a global community. I don’t think that’s a small thing. So, its goal is to create a more participatory consumer so that they’re not just purchasing blindly. You’re participating when you’re buying something, so thinking differently about that participation is a step in the right direction.

SJH: What about the cost? Fairtrade products tend to be a little more pricy. There are some people who think that Fairtrade is really great, but they can’t afford it. So, what would you say to that consumer?

FH: That becomes tricky because a lot of things aren’t priced appropriately in the first place, so when you’re getting cheap products there’s usually a human or environmental cost. I think it’s part of a consciousness shift around the price of things and their true cost, and to spend more mindfully. I’d rather pay a little more for something [with good ethics] every now and then rather than get a cheap one often. So, it’s part of recognizing the work that went into that in order for it to come to you. I think people get that.

Also, the more popular this becomes and the more available ethical products are, then the cost, in the long-term, can become lower. So many hands touch a flower before it comes to you, and yet people want it at a super low price. It calls into some other issues about shopping habits and things like that.

SJH: Right. I always wonder about whether it’s activism appropriating capitalism or capitalism appropriating activism. How do you personally reconcile some of those tensions that come up between activism and business?

FH: Well, I think that it’s a very fertile ground. I was involved, and still am a bit, in the social entrepreneurial movement, where you can have business with a charitable purpose and charities with a business end. I think it’s a very interesting tension; some call it “Capitalism 2.0,” where the bottom line is a different type of bottom line, where the product is helping to build communities. Not only is the project making money but it’s making change. To see products as activist tools is very exciting. They can be more meaningful and connected and priced correctly and tell the story of how we buy things. It doesn’t become just a few at the top who make money – it’s a partnered product and a partnered business.


SJH: Can you tell me about an action that you’ve done with this work that you thought was particularly successful?

FH: Ah, that goes into measuring, which is kind of daunting because it’s not like when [the poems] were being passed out in the streets I was there to see if people read them or if they just took them home and threw them away. Did they read it, go to the website, and start asking people about Fairtrade flowers in the store? That, I don’t know. But it’s also about visibility. Doing this project gives attention to Fairtrade and I think that’s part of my job – popularizing it and making it more visible and known. The bigger picture is harder to measure, though. But the more publicity and the tension that the artistry can bring, to me, that becomes a kind of measure of success.

SJH: Aside from measuring it, what have you done within this work that you really liked and enjoyed doing?

FH: I held a teach-in at NYU, which was great. It got a lot of people talking and thinking about Fairtrade. What was nice was it didn’t feel like it was just activists, there were artists and their friends there, too. And so we were able to creatively think about some ideas on how to illuminate the variety of relationships with workers in the flower trade. I was happy about it. The more people talk about where things are from, I think is good. It honors it by creating a discussion around it. Some people there told me that they left that teach-in looking at flowers in a different way – at the bodega, the supermarket, wherever. That felt very satisfying.

C4AA’s Steve Lambert talks Artistic Activism on Al Jazeera

Steve Lambert was a panelist in-studio on Al Jazeera’s The Stream on Monday and Tuesday’s show. It aired internationally and the topic was “Art and Activism.” He was a guest with Molly Crabapple, Annya San, and Rajkamal Kahlon.

You can watch archived versions of the shows below or on the Al Jazeera site.

Monday: Art and Activism

Al Jazeera site: The Stream – Art and Activism

Tuesday: Art and Activism Part 2

Al Jazeera site: The Stream – Art and Activism Part 2

C4AA Fundamentals Webinar #4: What we’ve learned from history

Dec 09, 2016 12:00 PM EST

REGISTER NOW – FREE – and receive an archived copy of the session.

Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert dug back into social movements through the ages. What did they discover? All successful activism has been artistic activism.

Through examples, going back thousands of years, we’ll examine the lessons from creative movements of the past, finding the kernels of ideas you can apply in your work today. Many workshop participants describe this section as affirming and enlightening in how the artistic application of activist principles brings about significant change.

This webinar is fourth in a series designed to cover the fundamentals of artistic activism. We don’t have answers, but we can provide some structure to your thinking and planning around how to creatively, and effectively, respond in the weeks to come.

Sign up on our mailing list to be notified of the next webinar in the series.

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the webinar.

If you enjoy these, consider donating.

Jam econo

Dana Gould

Dana Gould

Dana Gould served as a guest host on Kevin Pollak’s podcast recently, and he had this exchange with his guest. I love the term “jam econo,” which isn’t just about money.

Jonah Ray: A lot of people want fame and money and if they have a knack for comedy they use that to get fame and money . . . lot of people go too big (in) how they go about things. Mike Watt, of the Minutemen, has this saying, “We jam econo.” Stay within your means. Do what you can within your own self. Don’t get further in your life or career on credit. Do it within your realm of possibilities.

Dana Gould: That was an understanding I came to about my stand-up career, and I think this applies to all people who consider themselves craftsmen or artists. It took me decades to come to this conclusion. So much of your career is, “if I get this, then I’ll get this.” Your career is now. You’re here. This is it. It’s great. If you are actively building your career, you’ve made it. If you are working at Barnes & Noble trying to gin up the balls to do an open mike, you haven’t made it. If you do an open mike, you’ve made it. The rest is just a level of degree.

Support Artistic Activism on Giving Tuesday

Giving Tuesday” is a great reminder to donate your time and money to groups you love. If you would like to support the Center’s work in the next year, or years, as we grow to help more groups win against the dark forces out there, here are some options:


Simply donate what you can. Your tax-deductible contribution will allow us to serve communities who normally wouldn’t be able to afford our programs and help us focus on the most important work we can do.

Become a C4AA Sustainer

Becoming a sustainer will help individuals and groups create more effective progressive activist campaigns over the long term. We know that the next four years will take persistence and innovative, and a solid foundation for the Center will mean we can carry out our ambitious strategy for taking on these challenges. Sustainer memberships are tax-deductible, monthly, and will automatically renew, however, you can contact us to cancel the coming year at any time without penalty.

C4AA Sustainer Level


Encourage others to donate

Share this! Tell your friends that you donated. You can use the hashtag #GivingTuesday

Double your impact

Ask your company to provide Employee Matching Gifts, if they don’t already. Email us to send you info so C4AA can be added to your company’s list. Supportive employees at Google and Netflix have already done this.

Help find sustainable funding

Do you know a foundation that seeks to support making activist campaigns more effective across the U.S. or in their region? Let us know.

Why C4AA?

The Center for Artistic Activism has been helping make more creative activists and more effective artists since 2009. For the past few years we’ve helped some of the most vulnerable people under some of the most repressive regimes around the world. Now we will turn our attention back home, and use what we’ve seen work elsewhere to help build a vibrant alternative to the worldview that has dominated this election.

Negative predictions come easily and the world has enough bitterness. Right now the world needs your vision, your optimism, and your empathy. It needs your drive and motivation. It needs your most compelling stories, your creativity, and it needs your humor. We need new ideas of how the world can work, and new ways to get there. The Center trains people to use these ideas in effective campaigns through proven methodologies. The Center for Artistic Activism will spend the next year training groups and individuals who are looking for creative and effective ways to counteract bigotry, hate, misinformation and fear.

Evoking the invisible


Drawing from Within, a solo show of drawings by Bill Stephens, is on view in the Wayne Williams and Tom Insalaco Gallery at Finger Lakes Community College. It isn’t a large space, but Bill’s drawings fit perfectly into it, and the show makes a striking impression when you walk in. Everything is framed and matted in such a way that his line drawings look, at a glance, as intricate as old engravings. He uses pens with an extremely fine point, creating form with cross-hatchings, Durer-like, never using solid blacks or grays. I’ve seen previews of this work at our get-togethers for coffee, and I’ve always been impressed, but the work makes a much deeper impression when you see it gathered together this way–the cumulative effect demonstrates how consistently his vision has emerged in this new direction for his work. His world holds together, stylistically, from each drawing to the next. They offer glimpses, from slightly different angles, into his unique and integrated inner world. Some of his images look almost like illustrations from Dante: clusters of souls migrating toward something beyond themselves.

What’s most interesting to me about Bill’s work is that the drawings are the outcome of a process rather than an attempt to render something already visible. His puts down lines and follows where they lead him, a journey to discover the forms that emerge as he improvises his way to an image that often fuses landscapes with botanical, animal, and human shapes. Everything seems an extension of everything else. The end result is surrealistic, and his process echoes surrealism’s “automatic writing,” letting the subconscious guide the hand. Yet as much as I was surprised to be reminded of Dali in many of these drawings, the feelings they evoke are far from the cool theatricality of Dali’s eerie, melting shapes. He’s enthralled by nature, and his enthusiasm infuses everything with a warm energy. He isn’t wedded to any particular sort of landscape–you can find echoes of his wooded Western New York backyard as well as the mesas of the Southwest. Mostly these are dreamscapes where vaguely recognizable forms emerge from the least expected sources–much of what he depicts seems to want to grow a pair of legs, even rock formations.

Bill’s talk about how and why he draws was completely extemporaneous and casual, yet it was often eloquent, and consistently illuminating. He says that each time he sits down in the morning in his studio, he brings a beginner’s mind to what he’s about to draw. For reference, he often refers to the notebooks he fills with quick, adept sketches when he travels, many times jotting quick, haiku-like impressions in the margins. He passed around these notebooks during his talk. The words hover around the edges, subordinate to the drawings. He and his wife, Jean, also an accomplished artist, are both enthralled by nature, and in their work they invest a spiritual depth into the simplest, most common and familiar aspects of the natural world, animal, plant and mineral.

In the days since Bill’s talk, having seen how intensely he’s venturing into this new series without knowing where it will lead, I’ve begun to realize that his process is, for me, a microcosm of how an artist’s career ought to evolve. The best work emerges from an effort to do something more and more consonant with the inarticulate feel of applying a medium in a certain way to a support–without knowing exactly where the effort will take you.The more you let other considerations come into play, the more they drain the life from the final image. Bill Santelli rode down to the show with me and on the way back we talked about how hard it is to stay focused on this factor of feeling one’s way forward in a particular painting, and, in a larger sense, in one’s career. The only reliable guide is to simply keep attempting to paint, or draw, what you most want to see. And you can work for years, or decades, without quite knowing what that is–or be constantly struggling to stay focused on it. Paint only what you want to look at: it sounds like the easiest thing in the world, but everything conspires to make you ignore that desire for any number of reasons: because what you might do won’t sell, or get shown, or be critically recognized, or because you want to belong to a particular “school” of work that has other requirements for admission. In these drawings, Stephens is answering only to what he wants to see emerge, line by line, and drawing by drawing, without any other consideration in play. And yet, groping forward in this way, sticking to process, he gets results that have an unexpected imaginative resonance.

In The Duino Elegies, Rilke spoke about how nature wants to “become invisible” through a certain kind of human reverence for it:

Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us? – Is that not your dream,
to be invisible, one day? – Earth! Invisible!
What is your urgent command if not transformation?

I suspect in Rilke’s own life, this meant translating the tangible world into poetry. With Stephens, it’s just the reverse. His line, as he puts it down, creates its own necessity, so that while he draws he isn’t copying what he sees, but rather hopes his experience of nature will be translated, subconsciously, into tangible images that convey what might otherwise remain invisible, even to himself.


Rebecca Bray joins the C4AA

img_2424We’re growing!

We’re excited to announce that our new manager, Rebecca Bray, will be joining the team soon. Rebecca isn’t new to artistic activism. Back in 2002 she was one of the producers of “The Meatrix” an online animation about factory farming that went viral. And she’s been involved in video activism and creating environmental art installations for many years. She was an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam, and was a co-founder of Windowfarms, the R&DIY urban agriculture project, and Botanicalls. She was also a participant in our first program (the College of Tactical Culture) before we were called the Center for Artistic Activism! Because of her exceptional work, we interviewed her when we were conducting field research in 2009.

We are thrilled that Rebecca will join us to help the Center for Artistic Activism achieve our mission!

Letters From Home

This project came out of our recent Arts Action Academy at the Queens Museum. It was conceived of and completed in 24 hours.

Residents of Queens are sending Donald Trump postcards to remind him of the home he seems to have forgotten.

Donald Trump grew up in Queens, the most diverse neighborhood in the world. Today, Queens is a sanctuary for everyone. Populated by 2.3 million residents, 48 percent of Queens residents are foreign-born. Over 138 languages spoken here every day in this densely populated and vibrant community.

On Sunday, members of that community were invited to write to Donald Trump and remind him of the great things about his hometown.

Learn more at




Please visit:

Press: Letters to Donald Trump from His Childhood Home of Queens on Hyperallergic

Photos by Manuel Molina Martagon and Robert Ransick

C4AA Fundamentals Webinar #3: What is Artistic Activism?

Friday December 2nd, 12-1pm EST

Founders of the Center for Artistic Activism answer the question, what do we mean when we say “artistic activism” anyway? Through looking at disparate examples, we expand the thinking on the the ways creativity can affect power. (Many past participants cite this section as one of the most inspiring.) But we also talk about common mistakes in thinking about art and activism and how you can avoid them in your work.

This webinar is third in a series designed to cover the fundamentals of artistic activism. We don’t have answers, but we can provide some structure to your thinking and planning around how to creatively, and effectively, respond in the weeks to come.

Signing up on our mailing list is the best way to be notified of the next webinar in the series.

Please, please, please, tell us what you think with this quick survey. Your answers will help us improve.

Share the webinars with others.

You can sign up for C4AA Fundamentals #4: What we’ve Learned from History now.

And you can support this work with a quick donation:

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Or donate any amount monthly ⬅ this is really what we prefer.

Also, if you have a project idea you want to develop with a small group, fill out this form.

And check out, and add to, Actipedia.

Best in Show

Candy Jar #9, oil on canvas, 52" x 52"

Candy Jar #9, oil on canvas, 52″ x 52″

Candy Jar #9 will be awarded Best in Show tonight at The Red Biennial, presented by The Cambridge Art Association, on view at the Kathryn Schultz Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The exhibition was jurored by Joseph D. Ketner II, the Henry and Lois Foster Chair in Contemporary Art Theory and Practice at Emerson College, Boston. He also holds the position of distinguished Curator-in-Residence. His professional expertise is as a curator and art historian specializing in European and American Modern and Contemporary Art, and nineteenth-century African-American art.