Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, two figures who show up often as stand-ins for American politics in editorial cartoons and graphic narratives. But read between the images and the lines, and you can see how those symbols evolve with artists incorporating them to take on challenges of democracy. For artist, Eric García, based in Chicago, be brings these and other symbolic characters out in his work to engage nationalism, white supremacy, and exclusion. For his recent monumental poster, Monument to Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, he highlights a historical figure worthy of more spotlight, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, a labor leader and anarchist organizer from Chicago whose impact on the history of labor is astounding.
As García shares, “The five-day work week with the weekend, these are all monumental laws that we don't even realize, they're intricate in the workforce nowadays. And yeah, she was a heroine that a lot of people need to know about. And not many people do. The whole holiday of May Day was born out of, right here in the United States, there in Chicago during that Haymarket riot. And people don't realize that history,”
We speak to García about Parson, how he learned about her, and how he could better honor her.
García’s Monument to Lucy Gonzalez Parsons is included in the High Line Joint Art Network’s New Monuments for New Cities..
In 2019, Monument Lab was research residents of New Monuments for New Cities and interviewed artists from each of its 5 partner cities – New York, Chicago, Austin, Houston, and Toronto – about monuments, memory, and public space.
Paul Farber: Eric García, welcome to the Monument Lab Podcast.
Eric García: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Farber: Glad to have you here. Can you share with us who Lucy Gonzalez Parsons is and how you decided to honor her in your proposal?
García: Lucy Gonzalez Parsons is a really interesting historical figure that I've been kind of enthralled with for a number of years now. And I've done a number of projects using her as a character, or a persona. She was born in 1853, and she passed away, she lived a long life, until 1942. But she was originally from Texas, of a mixed race lineage. She's African-American. She's also Native American, and also Mexican. And she eventually went on to marry Albert Parsons, who is a white man. And because of the situation and the times they were living, in Texas, in the late 1800s, this kind of biracial marriage was frowned upon, and actually dangerous. So they fled to Illinois and eventually landed up in Chicago. They were both very political, and they were activists, they were also anarchists. And they believed in fighting for the rights of laborers and the rights of people who worked hard in this new mechanized industry during that time in the United States. And eventually her husband, Parsons, was involved in the Haymarket riots, and he was hung during that situation. And she went on to live a long life of continuing to organize for the labor rights that we still use today. The eight-hour workday was a direct impact, and something we almost take for granted today. But it was thanks to Lucy Parsons and the people that she was organizing with, made this great contribution to not only our society, but worldwide. The five-day work week with the weekend, these are all monumental laws that we don't even realize, they're intricate in the workforce nowadays. And yeah, she was a heroine that a lot of people need to know about. And not many people do. The whole holiday of May Day was born out of, right here in the United States, there in Chicago during that Haymarket riot. And people don't realize that history. A lot of people in the United States don't think of May Day being a United States day of celebration, but it's an international day of celebration that was born in the United States.
Farber: It's my understanding that in Chicago there's a small memorial and park named for Lucy Gonzalez Parsons. As you were designing your proposal, were you thinking about places where she's honored? And especially given what you've just mentioned, which is, many people feel the effects of her work but don't necessarily know the story.
García: Yeah. Unfortunately, she's a Chicago heroine, but not many Chicagoans know about her. And the few that do, they always wish others knew more. There is a park, there's a little monument dedicated to her. And it's significant, but it's minuscule in contrast to how much she actually did, not only in Chicago, but nationally and internationally. So with this new Monuments Project, I just wanted to expand what she did and who she was for more a broader audience to recognize who this important historical figure was. So the cool thing about the Monuments Project is that we were given the task of creating an image that was going to be produced in a two-dimensional form, and then five different cities were going to reproduce this image in a number of ways. Some cities did projections, some cities did wheat paste, some cities did an actual little two-dimensional light board. And I wanted Lucy Gonzalez Parsons' image to be plastered all over in these five different spaces, five different parts of the United States, for more people to understand who this person was.
Farber: When encountering your poster, in a few of the cities in which it was shown as part of New Monuments For New Cities, I kind of immediately pictured it as a sculptural monument because here you have a figure who's shown larger than life, and at the same time, because of your practice as a cartoonist and as an illustrator, there of course are the imagined elements. And you've combined the hand-drawn image with photo collage. When you were creating this, did you picture a sculpture in the traditional sense, or was that too limiting of a form for you to imagine this monument?
García: Well, that was part of the challenge. How do you create a monument? When I think of monument, I think of a three-dimensional object, and the parameters they gave us, this was just an idea of a monument. This was just a two -dimensional illustration of what a monument could be. So yeah, I could literally see this as a three-dimensional object. I can see this being built out of steel or metal that's cut out, that's laser cut, and has this exact image on it. So that was in the back of my mind, could this actually be a physical three-dimensional thing that you could go up to and walk around? But because of the limitations, I had to also render it and make it understandable that this is a two-dimensional piece as well. And then when I was considering the style and how it was going to look, I was referencing a lot of these Soviet posters, or socialist posters that I've seen where they use the many as the one. So they would photo collage a horde or a giant mass of people, and they would crop it into a larger image, like a fist or a uniting symbol that equals one. So that's how I got the stylization of what my poster is going to be like. So if you look at the poster, it's Lucy Gonzalez, and she's standing, and her dress is filled with an enormous amount of people. And all these are fellow activists and friends that I know, and they're also historical activists from back in the day, that they're all combined in this mass that fills her dress, that creates the population, that creates the one, the united figure of Lucy Parsons.
Farber: You also have in this design two clocks that portray 9:00 and 5:00, and of course, you've made these connections with labor and the protections for workers. I was also thinking about the way that monuments are traditionally meant to be timeless, so to speak. And so, the concept of time is something that you're playing with here. And of course the idea that a monument traditionally celebrates a figure, single figure who's isolated. And here you've included her legacy. Were these connections that you were trying to play out as you were thinking about this project?
García: Yeah. She's kind of a time traveler, if you will, because her legacy still lives on. Hopefully, through this project and many other projects that I know of that are trying to honor her in other ways, her legacy is still going to live on to the future and inspire more activists. So this is a person from the past who still has tremendous relevance right now in this day and age. So she not only is a part of the past, but she's part of the present, and hopefully, continues to be part of the future as well. And yes, so even if you see the different figures that I've placed, the photo collage figures inside there, they're past and present, they're people from the 1800s, and there's people from the present. So yeah, all of that's part of it. She's depicted of having these four arms. So I wanted her to be in motion. So she's not only stagnant, but she's moving in time. She's doing multiple things at once. So she has movement and a timeliness that makes her active and not stagnant. So two of those arms are being thrust into the gears of the machine, or the mechanism that the industry is pushing through. So she's stopping the gears. She's stopping the clocks. She's creating a certain time for leisure maybe, or for the work to end, that eight-hour time period. And then her other arms, the ones that above that, she's bending her arms and holding her fists up to it. So she's showing her strength. She's making a muscle with both of her arms because she's a strong woman, physically and mentally. And then she's also, the arms above those, she's breaking these clasps of chains that are wrapped around her arms. So she's not only breaking this idea of capitalism or the workforce that controls her, but also of who she is, of being a child of slavery. She's breaking those chains of not only racism, but the industry that controls her, of capitalism. And above that, there's an even extra note of breaking of capitalism as she holds the dollar sign and cracks it in half. So yeah, so time is very much relevant in this poster.
Farber: When did you first learn about Lucy Gonzalez Parsons? And was it in a school setting, or did you have to find out about her outside of kind of traditional spaces of learning?
García: No, it was definitely not in the school setting. It wasn't in normal curriculum, that's for sure. It wasn't until I moved to Chicago much later in life and began to learn about the history there and the different activist struggles, and finally someone told me about this woman activist who was a big part of it. And yeah, so it wasn't in school where I learned about her. Definitely not.
Farber: As an artist, you've worked in some really powerful ways in public spaces, as a muralist, but also as an editorial cartoonist. And I'm curious, for you, what opportunities does working in public space offer you? And what are opportunities working in that imagined space of an editorial cartoon? And how do you balance the parameters, but also possibilities of both?
García: Murals and political cartoons are for me two different spheres to work within. So they're both created similar as they both have the capability of expressing my politics and my artistic vision. A mural though is on a fixed position. It's there on a wall in a certain building, in a certain neighborhood. And it lives there in a public space. And what it allows me to do is it allows my art to be free, and public, and out in the open. So you don't have to go to pay entrance to a museum to see it. You don't have to go to a gallery. It's out in the streets. And hopefully, what it's doing is teaching you about a little bit of history or some politics, right? So it's doing this activism out into the streets. Now, it is in a fixed position. So you will have to go to it. You can't take this wall to the next city over and show other people what this wall or what this mural is telling you. Now, the political cartoon, it's more nimble in its movement, but it is public as well. It is in the printed newspapers, and it's also in various platforms on social media and different posts on the internet. And my ultimate goal in creating both of these is to reach a broad audience. I want people who are walking down the street and see that mural, I don't necessarily only want people who agree with my politics to see this. I also want people on the other political spectrum to happen to walk by and see this. Or I want people who do not know this history to walk up on the mural and find out something new, to find out a new perspective or a new part of the history that they weren't aware of. Sometimes, a lot of times, the history books that we read leave out a lot, especially in primary education. So I want these histories and these stories not to be censored, not to be overlooked. And that's why I'm doing these types of, I guess you would call it community outreach. The tricky part of social media with the political cartoons is, now you can cater your social media so you can only get what you want. So a lot of my political cartoons might not reach that opposite political sphere that I might want to engage with. But possibly in the newspaper, it could, because I guess you can cater if you like to read a right-wing newspaper versus a left-leaning newspaper, but hopefully, whoever picks up that paper, you could be in for a surprise of what you might find in the editorial political cartoons if you were to see something I'm creating.
Farber: Something that I appreciate about editorial cartoons I see playing out in your work is this interchange between actual people and the allegorical figures. And I'm thinking about the ways that you've used Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty alongside US presidents, border guards at the US/Mexico border, and others. I've always wanted to know, from the perspective of a cartoonist, how do you imagine the interaction between those actual people, or the interaction between people who are living today and symbols that exist through time but clearly conjure a feeling, or a place, or even a mentality for those encountering it?
García: I have a common cast of characters that I use in my cartoons, Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty being two of the more frequent that I use. And I've developed personas with them. They're my characters in my little theater of political cartooning. So the character of Uncle Sam, I often portray as a right-wing conservative type of character, versus Lady Liberty is a left-leaning type liberal. And I often pose them as a domestic couple who are feuding with the polarities of the United States. Usually Uncle Sam is usually harming or doing something dastardly, and Lady Liberty is usually saddened or hurt by what Uncle Sam is doing. But actually, these little characters change, and have been changing. Lady Liberty used to be this great symbol of hope and a great symbol of welcome to the United States for immigrants. And now, with our current climate, that symbol is no longer thought of with her arms opened out to these immigrants. And I think that character is now changing in my cartoons as well. I think Lady Liberty, her caricature has now become dastardly. In the Mexican culture, we have this crying woman called La Llorona, and she's a mythical being that haunts the ditches looking for children. And I think nowadays, unfortunately, Lady Liberty has become this Llorona there crying. And actually, if you think about it, she's looking for kids to imprison and to capture, if we parallel that with what's happening on the border with all the different undocumented kids who are being abducted by ICE and put in cages. So even in my own little theater of political cartoons, these characters are morphing in their personalities
Farber: In the morphing of the Statue of Liberty in particular, I'm thinking about two of your cartoons that really stand out. One in which the figure of Uncle Sam is kind of being exposed for his racism and personified by a tattoo across his chest -- that the Statue of Liberty and it looks like President Trump are revealing -- with a look of astonishment from the Statue of Liberty, if I read that correctly. And then I'm thinking of another one where the Statue of Liberty is kind of halting that figure of La Llorona as a refugee. We're in a moment where it's so strange, because the Statue of Liberty, many people have thought of that as a monument to a welcoming country. And of course when you look at the history deeply, you understand the exclusions built into the very space of that island. And we also are in a moment where recently a right-wing politician suggested changing the poem on the bottom inscribed to the statue. In your work, it seems like the morphing of these symbols of Americana is something that you are pushing readers to think about, but not just the changing in the present, but also the structures of white supremacy, of exclusion, that were built into them from the beginning.
García: Yeah. A lot of my work deals with really harsh critical critiques on the United States and what it represents. And when we think of these icons of the United States, for example, Lady of Liberty, these icons are losing the weight that they once had. These monuments are no longer representing ideals of what the United States claimed to always be. And maybe it never was. Maybe it was always just that, the American Dream, right? Because we always thought of this idealistic understanding of what the United States is. Well, maybe it never was. We have such a fraught history, and when you really, really look at this history, it's so fraught with destruction, with manipulation, with tragedy. These monuments, or the ideas of the monument just kind of break down.
Farber: In your bio, you call attention to the fact that you identify as a teaching artist, and that it's a core component of your practice. And you mention the colleges and universities that you've given lectures, but also workshops with youth in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. What kind of exchanges do you find when you're working with youth, especially when you're talking and discussing public space, or in the case of the juvenile detention center, public systems?
García: It depends, because I give of a variety of workshops. It could be from printmaking, to creating murals, to just learning the about Chicano art. So it varies. It depends on what I'm presenting. When I'm, for instance, this summer when I was doing a mural back in Chicago, we had five apprenticing youth, they were helping us paint this mural. And I always give them a kind of art history lesson of Mexican muralism. And I want them to understand that this was a very long, celebrated tradition that came from Mexico, and that they are now a part of this legacy, that they have now the skills to go on and create their own murals. And that they are now not only taking physical space with their own projects on the streets or in their neighborhoods, but that that space is a responsibility. You have a responsibility of what you're going to visualize for the world to see. If you are going to take up that amount of space in your neighborhood, what are you going to say with it? And hopefully, they have the insight to use that responsibility, to use their skills and their talents as future muralists to put something that's going to uplift the neighborhood, not to bring it down. Right? So I guess that's what I try to teach whenever I'm giving any kind of lecture or presentation, whether it be in the classroom or even in the detention center working with youth there, that they have power in creating and for putting images out into the world, that it's a responsibility.
Farber: What have you learned from some of the youth participants about public space, or public history, or the convergence of those two?
García: Well, right now there's a big debate whether murals are helping or hindering. I know we had a big discussion with the last mural group we were working with, because some of the youth were saying maybe these murals are enabling gentrification in their neighborhoods. This is always a critique on some of the works that are going up in some of these neighborhoods, such as the Pilsen neighborhood where I did this project, which is in the Chicago Mexican-American neighborhood and that has already been gentrified. It's changed dramatically even in the short time that I've lived there. And the debate was, what's happening with the neighborhood, with its changes? And are we helping those changes by beautifying it and making it more welcoming for development and for outsiders to come in and to push poor people out? And these are great questions that need to be dialogued amongst the youth. These are important questions to be talked about. In my perspective, gentrification is much more than just art, that these are well-planned endeavors made by the city and private projects that are three years in the making, even prior to putting a mural up. And these are the bigger things that we need to be aware of that enables gentrification and enables the loss of communities. But these are great discussions that the youth bring up that need to be talked about. And by these dialogues, they help me understand things. So my ultimate goal with any of my art projects is that these dialogues bubble up. So it's one thing that your art is on a wall, but is the art artwork talking to people? Are people talking about the artwork? Are people having serious discussions of what that artwork is, or what the symbolism is, or what the critique is, or what the history is? That's the main goal of any of my projects, whether it be a political cartoon, or a print, or mural, what have you, that these important dialogues are being discussed.
Farber: We heard from a previous Monument Lab guest, Michelle Duster, who is a descendant of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, about her efforts to honor the memory. And whether it's with the dedication of Ida B. Wells Drive or a new campaign to build a monument for her in Chicago, there seems to be stories that have gone national related to the ways that Chicago is reckoning with public art. I'm also thinking about the Chicago Torture Justice Memorial as well in this regard. From your standpoint, and in valuing that idea of the conversations have to take place, what are conversations that are happening in Chicago that may help us understand the complexity of public space and all these legacies of exclusion that are now being called to task?
García: Well, in Chicago, I know there's a huge boom of murals going up. For one, the neighborhood of Pilsen, where I was living, it was always known for being an art community, and specifically with murals, because we have the legacy of the Mexican mural movement, and have Mexican-Americans starting their own mural movement there in Pilsen. We had the Chicano murals go up. We had newer generations of murals going up. So it was always a mural mecca to go visit. And now it's, I wouldn't say trendy, but there's a big push that the city is involved in, in getting more and more murals being created throughout the city. I know, even downtown, there's lots of skyscrapers that are now asking for muralists to come in and do work. If you go downtown to Chicago, you turn down some of these streets, and you'll see new murals pop up everywhere. Even a couple of years ago, there was a specific grant called the 20 In 20, and they asked 20 different neighborhoods in the city of Chicago to develop 20 different public art projects. And it was an explosion of murals as well. I would ask that ... I guess what I would hope, I guess is the better question, these murals are not only beautifying the city, because I'm sure that's what they're doing, they're making things look nice, but are they also asking questions? Are these murals also giving some history back to the community that may have been lost? I guess what I'm saying is I would love for these art projects, these public art projects, not just to be aesthetics. I would love these projects to go deeper and talk about some of these heavy things that we need to be talking about in this day and age. I guess that's one of my ultimate goals. And I hope the conversation would be ... and along those lines, to not only have art for art's sake, but have some meaning behind it.
Farber: Eric García, thank you so much for your work, for your questions, and for our conversation today.
García: Thank you for having me. It's been an honor.