Artist Interview: SHARON SISKIN, with Anna Vaughan

Crossing to Safety, March 3rd – 31st

Sharon Siskin is a Bay Area artist and educator, who believes that art can be a  powerful agent for social change. She is showcasing her work at Abrams Claghorn on March 3rd though 31st (The multi-disciplinary artist reception is on March 12th.)

Anna Vaughan, a resident artist at Abrams Claghorn, is also a friend and colleague of Siskin’s. Here, they discuss her work intended for the show called “Crossing to Safety,” in which Siskin and ten other Bay Area artists address people’s experiences of displacement, immigration, gentrification, and unification in the struggle to survive.

For all of us who work in the creative arts, we know how art-making and arts-engagement are crucial for instigating personal change… and inevitably, transforming our communities.

CaptureAnna: Hi Sharon, I’m so happy to have this opportunity to talk with you about your work. We know each other as colleagues at Laney College teaching in the Art Department. Most of our conversations have been around the needs of our students so I know first hand how important community is to you. I have a sense that fostering community engagement is a big part of what drives you as an artist, can you talk a little bit about how community activism informs your work?


Sharon: Community engagement is a really big topic for me. My work as an artist and an activist has always been informed by the social and environmental issues of the day. 

One defining issue was the AIDS pandemic; seeing the Names Project Quilt installed at the Moscone Center in 1987. It was one of the most powerful and community-engaged public art projects I had ever experienced.

The work influenced me to engage with the AIDS services community as an artist. In 1988 I started a project called “Positive Art,” which is still on-going. It also informs much of my personal studio artwork. From there, I formed subsequent community art projects… which then informed my academic teaching at various educational institutions: art schools, universities, community colleges and graduate programs.

Anna: I had the chance to see the Names Quilt Project in its entirety when I was in high school, and it made a lasting impression on me as well. The piece had over 48,000… quilt panels sewn together by people who lost loved ones to AIDS. It was so moving that even now I get a little teary just thinking about it. Does this relate to the work you are planning to put in the Crossing to Safety exhibition at Abrams Claghorn?

Sharon: There are two, distinct projects that make up the work I want to exhibit there. They will both address climate-change induced displacement. One project, Rising, is directly inspired by the Names Project Memorial Quilt. It is a personal imperative to know and to remember all of the names of the small island states experiencing the earliest effects of climate change.

Anna: You are, in effect, memorializing the islands. Could you describe what this memory-project looks like? 

Sharon: It began as a 98-page, re-purposed world atlas, in which I burned the names of low-lying island nations into the maps on each page; placing the names within the ocean regions where these nations now exist, but whose future existence is threatened.

In its completion, my intention is to create a larger grouping, or series of re-purposed atlases and wall maps, so that Rising can become a larger installation or “geographical memorial library.”

Anna: This sounds highly personal. Where does community engagement enter the process?

Sharon: It tells stories of the rising-up of 5% of the world’s population. I would not be able to do this project without learning from a coalition of island and low-lying coastal countries- that have been able to share their immediate concerns about the environment… and their vulnerability to the effects of global climate change- with the public. I conducted a great deal of my research through a group called A-O-S-I-S. The acronym stands for Alliance Of Small Island States. []

The people behind it are building global alliances. They are the ones taking direct action in the face of this unprecedented and global crisis.

Anna: So this is highly supportive, or active work, for the islands? 

Sharon: Yes. On one hand, I am interested in making work that makes me remember, and memorializes, very important work people do in their communities. And on the other hand, I want to make-visible the stories of people who are raising their voices within the United Nations. And to make their work even more visible.

I want to make-visible the stories of people who are raising their voices within the United Nations.”

Anna: And you mentioned a second project that similarly deals with climate-change induced displacement?

Sharon: The second project, Lifeguarding, reimagines early 20th century photographic images of life-saving and water-safety techniques as metaphors for personal action. 

Anna: It’s a mock-up of instructions on “what-to-do” in case of emergency?

Sharon: Yes, they’re showing us people taking-action in the face of unprecedented loss of life. Except in this case, the loss of life is due to Climate Change.

Anna: It sounds like it could be a great adjunct to Rising, where the viewer looks at the bigger picture through maps. In Lifeguarding, you’re zooming-in on people who are literally on the verge of drowning.

Sharon:  I agree with you- the two projects can go hand-in-hand. Lifeguarding is really about connection, taking care of each other, heart and action. And technically speaking, I used tactile reminders of our personal involvement in regard to rising waters. I’ve incorporated a mirror, and a wooden surface that is painted to resemble a blackboard, with hand-writ text about various life saving techniques. It is all held together with wooden frames that are painted to resemble life preservers, or buoys.

Anna: Speaking of exhibition design, what advice do you have for people who may be inspired “to- action” after seeing your work? What about for the person who, let’s say, works and lives in the Bay Area?

Sharon: Starting on a personal level, we can examine our own carbon footprints. We can look at the carbon footprint of our diets, for instance.

Anna: As in, is our food shipped from several states away, or does it come from the local produce stand?

Sharon: Right. And the list goes on. We can examine our consumption of manufactured products. We can look at energy use, and how we transport ourselves on a daily basis. This will help us, on a foundational level, to be engaged. There are also grassroots organizations, like, that have been diligently working for climate justice and climate action- and they could use our support. We can also can elect leaders who make policies affecting climate change.

Anna: So you hope that this work has far-reaching effects?

Sharon: I have hope that collective action will be able to slow down and mitigate the worsening effects of climate change. And most of us do want to effect change.

Anna: You have reminded me of the fact that even our everyday choices around stewardship for the environment have a great impact. It’s so important to have artwork like yours, which gives us a framework to examine our values. Sometimes it’s more profound to speak through images.

Sharon: It’s true- for all of us who work in the creative arts, we know how art-making and arts-engagement are crucial for instigating personal change… and inevitably, transforming our communities.

Anna: A big thanks for your time and efforts. I’m looking forward to seeing your art works in the show!

Sharon: Yes- Thank you for your thoughtful words. It has been so lovely to have this dialogue with you in this way.

All are welcome, March 12th, 5 -7 PM, for the opening of this multi-disciplinary show: Crossing to Safety.

Our Facebook event is linked here.