Blog / 2019 / Job with Justice Travel Log, Part 5

May 6, 2019

I’m contributing to a book about collective bargaining and how it can be used by more than just labor unions. Since I’m painting portraits of the workers whose stories are featured in the book, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling to meet these workers and photograph them.

What follows are some of my notes from these adventures. You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 of my travels throughout the United States as well as my reflections about a kind of union for American visual artists.

Long Beach Island, New Jersey

March 19 and 20

I didn’t go far this time. The co-authors of the book Smiley and Sarita were at the Jersey shore for an intensive writing retreat. As part of the book’s process, they had decided to interview each other and write their personal narratives in the same way as they had done for the other workers. This gave me the chance to learn about Sarita and to relearn about Smiley.

double portrait of a black woman and a white woman painted in acrylics
Gwenn Seemel
detail of Smiley and Amanda
2018
(See the full artwork and watch me make it here.)

You see, I know Smiley a little better, having met and painted her and her partner Amanda before starting work on this book project. But this more formal interview reordered the stories Smiley had already told me about herself and, in the process, recontextualized them.

It’s fascinating how the same information shared in a different setting and with a different structure can give the information more nuance. The interview with Smiley proved to me how vital it is to tell and retell our stories to the people around us—how crucial it is to listen and relisten to our loved ones.

Both Smiley and Sarita began organizing early on. The way they talk about the power of bringing people together reminded me of this old blog post, which describes the parallels between drug use, religion, and art.

I spend a lot of time around other artists and devoted art lovers. It’s part of my job, but it’s also an active choice. I like to surround myself with people who get why I am so committed to creativity. There’s a comfort in our shared understanding.

Listening to Sarita and Smiley talk about organizing in similar terms—emphasizing how it brings purpose to their lives and how it could save the world if only others saw it as they do—left me shaking my head. Not because I don’t believe them, but because it’s exactly how I feel about art. It gives me hope that, together, we will succeed.

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