Through photography, music and comedy, these three Eugene artists are responding to the political climate with creativity.
Words by Caitlin Howard
Photos by Duncan Moore
There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” wrote Toni Morrison in “No place for pity, no room for fear.” “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Here in Eugene, artists are heeding Morrison’s advice in the wake of an election that left some feeling marginalized and uncertain.
In their studio on W. Bertelsen Road, Tracy Sydor and her husband Rob Sydor are fiddling with their Pentax 645z camera. The large warehouse is mostly empty and dimly lit. One of their children is asleep on a divan in the corner; the other is waving around an enormous American flag that is attached – upside down – to a long wooden pole.
“I think it’s really important for people to see how politics are impacting people in a visual way,” Sydor said of her intentions for the photo shoot.
The piece is called “Dissent.” It draws on elements from the Women’s March on Versailles – one of the earlier and most crucial events in the French Revolution when thousands of women stormed the castle outside of Paris. It’s no coincidence that this particular shoot takes place less than three weeks after the largest demonstration in United States history: the Women’s March on Washington. Close to 3 million people flooded the streets in all 50 states and around the world.
“Dissent” also incorporates elements of the famous Italian Baroque painting “Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi, in which Judith is beheading the army general the night before he plans invade her town.
Historically, patronage-based systems meant that artists reflected the beliefs of the patrons who funded their work – typically the wealthy, ruling elite, according to James Harper, a University of Oregon professor. In the 19th century artists became idealized as independent voices that should critique politics and mainstream society, he said. This shift led to artists like Sydor who express frustration at political leadership in their art and provide an avenue for the voices of those not heard.
Sydor seeks to create a sense of solidarity and empower her subjects, which is why in addition to her anti-establishment projects, Sydor uses her photography to promote awareness about domestic violence. Her commercial photography work is her main source of income, she said; she makes her community pieces readily available to whoever participates.
In “Dissent” she seeks to capture the frustration that Americans expressed with their vote, with their participation in protests, with their social media accounts. She wants to turn that frustration into something tangible and beautiful.
“I feel like when somebody sees something it’s much different than when somebody hears or reads something,” she said.
The set for “Dissent” includes a backdrop of seven boards painted a dark, eggplant brown. In front of them is a mattress covered in silky blue, red and white sheets. Next to the set is a handful of sharp daggers and swords of varying sizes and a loaded crossbow.
Sydor grabs the crossbow and slings it over the shoulder of Etain Wilday, the model who will pose as Judith. “I love Tracy’s vision,” says Wilday. “I’m a simple creature and I love waving weapons and screaming. There’s been so much angst recently, it’s great to have a vent for that.”
Once Sydor has successfully placed all of her subjects, armed with pitchforks and scythes, into the scene, she gets behind the camera, shouting orders to make sure she can capture every individual face in the photograph. The camera begins to snap.
At Sydor’s insistence the women start to yell as their bodies lean forward toward the bed, weapons erect, the upside down flag billowing behind them. Sydor continues to maneuver onto the set between shots to move arms and props so that she can see everyone.
She gets the shot she’s looking for in no time and everyone releases. The women exude triumph as they mill about the room looking for their belongings. They exchange hugs with one another and, especially, with Sydor, who promises to email the final photo to everyone, encouraging them to share it widely.
“That’s a fundamentally political project,” said Harper of art that aims to criticize a regime by expressing the views of a group that feels silenced. “Giving voice to the marginalized is anti-authoritarian in and of its nature.”
And Sydor offers more than just voice and ownership. She gives her subjects a purpose, even if it’s only in a photoshoot, and a much needed release.
These days when I see an American Flag / It might as well be a Confederate flag / And I know / I wanna watch it burn,” a scratchy voice laments in tune with a desperate acoustic guitar riff. The voice belongs to Entresol, also known as Joshua Isaac Finch, and the song is “The Battle (Watch it Burn)” from the musician’s most recent EP “Battle for the 21st Century.”
“That’s not something I would have recorded a year ago,” they said of the track that was recorded out of anger at the end of October – about two weeks before the presidential election.
That’s a singular “they:” Finch is a big, loud, friendly person with shaggy brown hair and piercing blue eyes who does not identify as either gender. Even walking into a dark bar in the middle of a bright day, Finch is impossible to miss. The bar is Old Nick’s Pub in downtown Eugene where Finch works as a booker, scheduling concerts for the venue. A year prior Finch didn’t spend much of their time on the job screening potential performers for racist, homophobic or misogynistic content, but that’s a regular part of the process now.
A year prior Finch also didn’t feel the same ambivalence toward the American flag as is expressed in the song. As the election finally rolled around, things changed.
“There must be some issue or set of issues that divide a society significantly in order for protest music to gain traction,” said Courtney Brown, a professor at Emory College and author of “Politics in Music: Music and Political Transformation from Beethoven to Hip-Hop,” which explores how music is historically linked to politics and society. “The current climate in the United States and Europe is perfect for protest music.”
As the election drew closer, Finch was frustrated by a specific demographic of Americans that were rallying around the emblem of the United States, calling themselves patriots. “I feel that the people stomping their feet about patriotism are 90 percent of the time a particular type of patriot – a I-would-like-150-years-ago-to-be-now patriot,” they said, referencing an era when inequality and intolerance were rampant.
Finch’s anger and frustration at the political climate they were witnessing led to the birth of the song. “I wanted one more step of detachment between me and this democracy,” they said.
Brown also explained how “trauma of some sort may be needed as a catalytic factor to spur the eruption of significant protest music.” Finch’s music is tied to trauma less because of the music itself but because of Finch’s gender identity. It’s only been in the last few years that Finch has come out as a queer, non-binary individual. Entresol’s music genre is now self-labeled “Queer Noise/Pop/Folk.” At first, coming out was about “visibility, and not hiding.” But Finch realized that the politics of today, where, for example, the bathroom rights of transpeople are making headlines regularly, gender fluidity “doesn’t get to not be political.”
Despite this nuanced identity, Finch is still typically perceived as a male person. “I still benefit a lot from male privilege,” they said. For example, the EP before “Battle for the 21st Century” features a photo of Finch naked on the cover. Heavy shadows and visual distortion hide anything explicit, but a hairy chest and big round belly are out for everyone to see. Finch is adamant that if they were a female, that photograph would receive harsh and abusive criticism.
This veil of privilege allows Finch to take a stand in a way that others may not. Because of this, Finch feels a deep sense of responsibility to use this advantage to speak up on behalf of the local queer community. Finch said that within the normally warm and safe bubble of queer folk, “no one feels safe right now.” In this troubling context, “my shit can take the back seat,” Finch said.
Finch’s dedication to stand up to the status quo and support the queer community through the local music scene promises to remain a top priority. As Finch bellows into the microphone at Luckey’s in downtown Eugene on a Saturday night, a couple embrace as they sway back and forth to the music, cheering loudly with their hands applauding above their heads between songs.
“I like the idea of normalizing being kind of a ‘Queerdo,’” Finch said. “I like the idea that life doesn’t have to look any particular way.”
Cienna Jade Simmons is funny. She jokes about her propensity for drinking and for promiscuity, and the fact that at 28, she only just moved out of her mom’s house. She dresses haphazardly, in baggy layers of bold, rainbow patterns that clash bluntly. Big, thick-rimmed glasses straddle the ridge of her nose.
But the funniest thing about her is her laugh: It’s explosive and contagious, rattling her body from head to toe. She claims it’s the reason why she kept getting invited back into the comedy scene as she was first starting to make a name for herself as a local comedian.
Since the presidential election, Simmons believes the power of laughing is more important than ever. Particularly so in Eugene, where most of her following leans to the left of the political spectrum.
“It didn’t impact me as hard, and that did sort of give me a sense of re- sponsibility for all the people that were just sort of side swiped by it,” she said.
Leigh Anne Jasheway, comedy instructor and University of Oregon professor, said that comedy has long been a resource during emotional times. “There is value in just laughing,” she said. According to Jasheway, one theory as to why humans turn to laughter for relief is because it provides both a physical and mental release – similar to crying. Another is that when a group of people laugh together it creates a sense of social bonding. That feeling of community or solidarity feels inherently supportive.
Simmons has witnessed the rich power of community within the Eugene comedy scene since November. She specifically remembers one of her fellow comedians struggling to come to terms with the election results. “Coming to comedy and seeing you guys and talking to you,” he told her, “it’s the only thing that’s keeping me together.”
Simmons’ own comedic inclinations were born during a phase of her life when she was struggling with severe depression. “I think it’s a defense mechanism,” she said. “For, like, every time that we feel awkward or uncomfortable or like afraid or hateful.” She had long turned to writing for solace and release, drafting short stories and poetry, but was unfulfilled by her inability to share her work. So she started writing jokes and getting in front of an audience.
“Comedy always comes from negative emotion,” said Jasheway. “Comedy takes the expression of negative emotion and puts it out there in a palatable way.” In other words, comedy puts negative emotions into terms that people can process, which helps explain why comedy news is so popular among the news platforms of today.
And Simmons doesn’t even need to make jokes about politics to provide solidarity and support. In fact, she tries not to; she says she’s never made a Trump joke on stage.
On the second Saturday following the inauguration, the mood was somber at Bleepin’ Funny!, a bi-monthly comedy show at Sam Bond’s Garage in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. Politics were at the fore of everybody’s mind and most of the performing comedians’ sets. Simmons couldn’t help herself.
“Just because there’s a woman cradling an infant on the label doesn’t mean only baby-obsessed women take those vitamins,” Simmons told the audience about a bottle of prenatal vitamins a potential beau had noticed while at her house. “I take those vitamins because I don’t trust the government,” she whispered into the mic. “Or corporations. Pretty sure they care more about fetuses than they do about us.” Audience members at the family-oriented event erupted in a wave of laughter that was accompanied by exchanged looks and eye rolls that seemed to say, “ugh, I know right?”
The negative emotions at the heart of comedy can be overt or hidden under layers of unrelated jokes. Either way, the positive still occurs. Release and bonding take place under the pretense of any punch line, and with Simmons getting up on stage to deliver it, that relief won’t stop.