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An Artist Leads A 'Violet Protest' Against Polarization

In a divisive year in American history, Arizona artist Ann Morton has led a decidedly nonradical "Violet Protest."

"That combination of red and blue on the color wheel is violet," Morton said. "And what I like about that word, it's one letter away from violent."

Ann Morton put out a call on social media in January 2020, asking people to create 8 inch by 8 inch textile squares that use equal parts red and blue. They could be woven, sewn, knitted, crocheted, embroidered — but they aren't supposed to represent any explicit political positions. Instead, the squares and the project as a whole stand for a set of values: respect for the other, citizenship, compromise, country over party and corporate influence, courage, candor, compassion and creativity.

More than 2,000 people from all over the country responded, including at least one person from every state. They created and sent in nearly 10,000 squares that are now on exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibition is an aesthetically pleasing work of community art, but it is also a metaphor for our system of government itself.

"As you can see, there's just a multitude of creativity here," Morton said, standing before the work of her contributors. "But within that framework, it all fits into the larger picture. ... That's how democracy works."

Morton is still accepting textile squares until the end of July, when they will be divided up and sent to every member of Congress. The project hearkens back to the AIDS Quilt, which Morton remembers seeing herself at the National Mall. She said her own textile-themed statement has already had an impact on some local politicians who've seen it at the museum, including Phoenix's mayor.

"They're blown away," Morton said of some people who have been in to see the thousands of squares in person, "because each person took their time to make this because they believed in what the project was about."

Artist Ann Morton says some local politicians in Phoenix are blown away by the project.
/ Bill Tillerman
Bill Tillerman
Artist Ann Morton says some local politicians in Phoenix are blown away by the project.

She hopes it has a similar effect on the senators and representatives when they receive the squares.

"I hope that we can move some people to just maybe reconsider or consider more carefully how they're approaching their decision-making," Morton said.

The Violet Protest exhibition room is in the back of the Phoenix Art Museum — past the bustling lobby, event space, and staircase up to the high-profile European masterpieces. It's down in a basement area — a refuge from the stress and conflict of the real world, almost a sanctuary.

Down there, museum patrons are greeted by a stack of thousands of submitted textile squares as tall as a child. They're arranged in the shape of the letters US, both for the word "us" and for the United States. Two walls are covered floor to ceiling with squares displaying images such as state birds or civic buildings, and messages including "COMPROMISE" or "VOTE."

Savannah Gordon, a tailor and costume designer from Beaverton, Ore., has contributed over 20 squares to "The Violet Protest."

"I kind of focused more on the Earth, and nature and a little bit of history. I did a square with a Native American," Gordon said. "I love people. And I love our planet. ... I don't want to be divided. It's terrible, it affects all of us."

Kitty Spangler, from Pittsburgh, has made 90 squares and counting.

"This one says the word unity," she said, describing a recently finished contribution. "This woven ribbon across the bottom I think of as people being mixed together and intertwined."

Left: Kitty Spangler from Pittsburgh has completed over 90 squares for "The Violet Protest" project, including this one. Right: Oregon resident Savannah Gordon created this square and many others.
/ The Violet Protest
The Violet Protest
Left: Kitty Spangler from Pittsburgh has completed over 90 squares for "The Violet Protest" project, including this one. Right: Oregon resident Savannah Gordon created this square and many others.

Many museum visitors find the installation powerful. Like 20-year-old Shanna Bragg, who said she's had family members ignore her and cut her off completely because they had differing political views.

Standing in the exhibition room, she said, "I just kind of think it's amazing that so many people have a different idea of what unity is, but as you can see, they're still together."

New Arizona resident Nivea Green visited the same day as Bragg. "I'm from Mississippi, so quilts is like a really big part of our history that dates back to slavery," she said. "So it definitely kind of reminds me of telling the story."

Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, said political polarization means people's positions on logically unrelated things like COVID-19 restrictions and voter I.D. rules are often aligned — so there's friction and widespread disagreement.

"It's not so much that people are more extremely liberal or conservative than they used to be," Federico said. "It's really that partisan identification — whether you identify as a Democrat or Republican — that's aligned with a lot more things to a much greater extent than it used to be."

The problem, as Federico describes it, is many Americans' deep devotion to and identification with their political party become teams that split us into two. Each "Violet Protest" square is its own individual expression. There are thousands of ideas on the wall, many unique interpretations of common problems — not just two — and they come together to form a powerful singular statement: unity.

This story was adapted from a full length podcast episode on "The Violet Protest" from the original series State of the Arts Arizona.

Copyright 2021 KJZZ

Anthony Wallace