Professor of art encourages students to become artist-activists and get involved

Joanna Carrasco and Laura Waldhier
October 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As an award-winning visual artist, cultural activist, and professor of art in the School of Visual Arts at Penn State, Lonnie Graham focuses on a message geared toward social activism, inclusivity and selflessness.

Portrait of Lonnie Graham

Lonnie Graham

IMAGE: Provided

Since Graham’s arrival at Penn State in 2003, the course of his teaching has directed his students to utilize social, political and cultural resources at their disposal to address the needs of their community, “in the same way that a painter would use all of the colors in a palette to create a visual image,” he said. “As modern artists we must assume a position of responsibility in our society, creating depth around essential issues in solving problems beyond the scope of our own personal experience.

“I want my students to look beyond their own self-obsession and to attempt to look at and understand other people in the world, while using their creativity to address the needs of others.”

Artists as problem-solvers

Graham explained that artists are problem-solvers, able to examine issues from multiple angles in order to cultivate new methodologies, innovate alternative solutions, or provide uncommon pathways to common problems; this is why the role of the arts in our society remains important. It provides a means by which we might employ alternative means of assessment, he said.

Artists also function as the conscience of a society, providing introspection and insight into our collective commonality, said Graham. An artist can function in the capacity of a community activist and leverage the resources that exist in a community, and use those resources to address the basic needs of our society.

“Functioning in the role as a creative problem-solver, the artist can achieve a greater sense of efficacy by addressing issues that supersede the realm of one’s own level of personal communication,” he said.

Graham said he aims to help his students be more inclusive in what they do, to consider all viewpoints in their lives, to understand that the world is bigger than themselves, and to learn to contribute to society in a substantive manner.

Graham’s projects range from addressing issues of cultural inclusion, to formulating creative ways of addressing homelessness, food and communication.

For example, one of these projects, “A Conversation with the World,” aims to activate basic human understanding among people using photographs and a template of recorded interviews with individuals encountered at random. Recently he published a related book, titled “A Conversation with the World,” available through Datz Press (Seoul, South Korea).

Graham said the project, which he began in 1986 and which has been conducted in more than 30 countries around the globe, is an example of art in action and has become a model for his own community activism.

Cultivating community involvement

Among the lessons Graham said he hopes to impart to his students are an ability to understand the limits of one’s own resources and to, “seek out and collaborate with others whose talents, time and resources can benefit a community.”

“When I get something, I just give it back. I’m smart enough to know that I don’t know everything,” he said. “I understand what my limitations are and how resources can be best used to serve other people.”

This philosophy has allowed Graham the chance to maximize his activism. In his recent projects he continues his work on migration, immigration, and the marginalization of indigenous civilizations. Research conducted on these projects has taken place in far-reaching places, such as Finland, above the Arctic Circle, and Kenya, near the equator.

In 1996, after Congress cut food subsidies for the nation’s low-income population, Graham created the “African/American Garden Project,” which involved a cultural exchange among urban single mothers in Pittsburgh, and farmers from Muguga, Kenya. The farmers were brought from Kenya to the U.S. to teach the urban mothers basic farming techniques in order to feed their families. The urban mothers also traveled to Kenya, where they were introduced to alternative subsistence methods they could never have experienced in their communities in the United States.

His work is not limited to marginalization issues around the world, but also includes work conducted in State College, Pennsylvania, schools relating to issues of diversity and inclusion.

“I hope to cultivate a level of visual activism in my students, which is only achievable if they’re open to the idea of being involved in issues bigger than themselves."

—Lonnie Graham, Penn State professor of art

For example, earlier this year Graham conducted an interview project with Renee Kredell, assistant professor of art education at Penn State, focusing on elementary and secondary education. This ongoing project, meant to help identify the vehicle and the point at which the vocabulary of racism and exclusion is cultivated and introduced into society, uses the arts to facilitate dialogue around relevant issues of interaction.

Graham said he aims to help his students be more inclusive in what they do, to consider all viewpoints in their lives, to understand that the world is bigger than themselves, and to learn to contribute to society in a substantive manner.

A teacher and mentor

“I hope to cultivate a level of visual activism in my students, which is only achievable if they’re open to the idea of being involved in issues bigger than themselves,“ he said.

One former student, Jeremy Dennis, is a Native American artist who currently engages with issues of diversity and inclusion. He works on his native land in New York, where he explores ideas of myth and mythology. Dennis uses his art as a platform to raise awareness among members of the public about the social disruptiveness of their actions, and to urge people to interact with other cultures in respectful ways.

Another former graduate student, Brian Gaither, has embraced some of Graham’s teachings by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he continues to use art to connect constituents within his community, and focuses on issues surrounding race.

And, after working with Graham in his “Art and Social Activism” class, another student, Corrina Mehiel, went on to become the director of a Harrisburg nonprofit; to teach in Cincinnati; to work as a community organizer in India; and, before her untimely death in March 2017, to work with artist Mel Chin to address issues of lead-free drinking water in elementary schools.

Art in action

Graham described his introduction to the arts and life as an artist as “preordained.” In 1959, he began drawing and painting; with the emergence of the Polaroid Land process, he became interested in photography, which remains his area of specialization.

“I was born with abilities,” he said. “As a child, it was pretty clear that I didn’t have any other option but the arts.”

Graham attended the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and earned an associate degree in design; earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute; and attended Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for fine art photography.

From 1990 to 1997, Graham served as director of photography at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, an organization whose mission is to educate and inspire urban youth through the arts. During his time there, he developed an after-school photography program focused on merging the arts and academics. His work led to the creation of an interactive program between public schools and community organizations, which was recognized by then-first lady Hillary Clinton as a national model for arts education.

In 2013, Graham gave a TEDxPSU talk titled “Art as Tradition in Modern Culture,” which is available to watch on YouTube.

About the Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion

In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State produces the Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion, an ongoing series. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual’s background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.

Last Updated October 23, 2018