“Youth have always played a very, very important role in social change,” said artist and activist Beth Krensky.
This recognition of the power of youth is part of what inspired Krensky, who is a professor of art education and chair of the art teaching area at the University of Utah. Under those roles, she worked with students to form the online Youth Activist Art Archive.
What is Activist Art?
“[Activist art is] art that is socially and civically engaged is in a place that is accessible to the public,” explained Sydney Porter Williams, a graduate student in the U in the Community-Based Art Education MFA program. Porter Williams was one of the first students to work with Krensky at YAAA.
Krensky further explained that this definition was first described by artist Nina Felshin in her 1994 book “But Is It Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism.”
“It encourages engagement so you’re not just passively absorbing things,” Krensky said. “It is an engaged process. And I prefer to call people participants rather than viewers of art for that reason.”
Why is activist art important? Krensky and Porter Williams noted the ability of artists to create visions of the future and evoke emotions in people.
“They go beyond what we see now and provide a vision of the future and what could be,” explained Porter Williams. She talked about art that depicts atrocities happening around the world, which can inspire emotions like anger and even lead to one’s action.
“Before we act, we have to anticipate—and to me, that’s the most important aspect of art,” Krensky said.
Activist Youth Art Archive
“[It’s] a place for people to go—not only to see the incredible art that young people are capable of, but also to get resources so that they can facilitate projects like this in their own communities,” Krensky described.
If you visit YAAA’s website, art.utah.edu/yaaa/, you will be met with several tabs.
One of these tabs takes you to a submission page, where any artist 26 or younger (the age range the archive defines as “young”) can submit their art for consideration by the YAAA team and potentially filed in the archive. Krensky and Porter Williams both strongly encourage anyone interested to submit their work to the site.
Other tabs will take you to a list of resources, one for facilitators and one for artists.
“The goal was for anyone who wanted to do this type of work, either themselves or to facilitate it, to have this resource available to them,” Krensky said.
Those resources also help facilitate the engagement and action the archive hopes to inspire, Porter Williams said. Resources can help anyone interested in this work get started.
Resources include links to books, important works by activist artists, and organizations that artists can check out. Links to books, organizations, and the work of activist artists are included in resources for facilitators, in addition to educational tools and lesson plans.
Of course, there is also a tab that leads to the archive itself.
All kinds of art forms exist in the archive, from sculptures and paintings to performances.
“I’m very interested in the teapot piece,” said Porter Williams. The “teapot” consists of a ceramic teapot with holes in the body, a firearm that serves as a pot handle, and three ceramic cups with holes in the middle. The piece was made by Maggie Adams in 2022 and serves as a commentary on gun violence.
“It’s very internal to me, like, ‘Oh, like I can’t put anything in it without it spilling out,’ and it’s this waste and spill of life,” Porter Williams said.
Krensky pointed to another piece called “No Place to Call Home” created by Natalie Lim Cheatham in 2020.
“No Place to Call Home represents the collision of the artist’s Korean and American identities. It depicts a Korean hanbok, a traditional cultural garment, made of American flags. As a Korean-American, or someone of mixed race, you can often feel out of place in both cultures,” the piece’s description reads.
The best art asks questions, Krensky said, and the piece serves as a kind of entry point for larger conversations or ideas about immigration and identity.
The archive currently contains 13 pieces of activist art, but Krensky and Porter Williams both hope to see it grow.
“I’d like to see it as a living website,” explained Porter Williams, “where people can take inspiration from the work in the archive and use the resources provided by the archive to create their own, and maybe even present YAAA .”