Arts & Culture

Local Visual Artists Speak on Art and Activism

Xera Britt, Contributor 

Minneapolis-based artists Peyton Scott Russell, a prominent graffiti artist, and Olivia House, a graphic designer and Augsburg graduate, spoke last Wednesday at a webinar for first-year students. Moderated by Augsburg Undergrad Ani Casselius, the speakers were invited to talk about themselves and their relation to art and activism. Each artist was given 15 minutes to introduce themselves and talk about their work and experience in the realm of artistic expression.

House came to Augsburg in 2016, she says, where she was first exposed to Colin Kaepernick’s iconic kneel protest and prompted to research the gesture in-depth, eventually kneeling herself during the anthem and kickstarting her interest in activism. From there, Olivia gained connections to young activist groups through Augsburg and, via these connections, found the intersection of her two passions as she was tasked with designing posters, signs and logos for the activist group Take a Knee Nation. House’s work extended further as she began to design for a number of protest events and non-profit organizations such as All Square, a grilled cheese shop located in South Minneapolis. Olivia then went on to talk about her bigger projects, from uplifting and displaying the work and history of Black designers to her senior thesis, where she incorporated her complex, lifelong relationship with her hair and stories from across the Black community into an incredibly personal, and incredibly stunning, piece of art. 

“My hair affected how I saw myself, and how I saw myself was reflected through my hair,” House explained. “My goal within design was to tell stories…especially stories that weren’t told…and (to bring) together my community.” When the Minneapolis protests broke out, she made numerous designs for the protests and protest organizations, one famous example being the Abolish the Police posters now seen across the nation, cropping up as far as St. Louis and New Jersey.

Russell states that his artistic journey started officially during the ’80’s where he found himself enamored with “finding dilapidated areas and beautifying them.” He went on to pursue art by attending the Chicago Art Institute, graduating in printing and fine art. But graffiti called his name, and he soon went back to Minnesota to create Juxtaposition Arts, a nonprofit art organization that is well-known for its unique murals, exhibitions, and collaborations sourced from both his education and his passion for street art. Alongside this, he created the program Sprayfinger, which sought to teach both youth and adults alike in the ways of art that Russell was pioneering. He was combining his work in graffiti with his education in fine arts to create vibrant, eye-catching murals, collages and sculptures, teaching his students “artistic principles meshed with the language of street art.” Russell firmly believes that graffiti should be considered fine art in the community, to be thought of as another avenue for creativity and spontaneity instead of  “mindless act(s) of vandalism.” Both his work and curriculum center this idea. One of his most ambitious works was his sculpture piece in Kentucky, where he built his own walls so that any artist could come and paint on them. 

Then, in early 2020, Russell says, “like everyone else, I was incredibly affected” by the death of George Floyd. Not only did the heartbreaking event occur on the corner Russell grew up on, but it came as a result of police brutality, something that he has experienced first hand. Russell poured his outrage and grief into his art. He painted on the boarded windows of Minneapolis stores, next to the work of many others voicing their anger and frustration. He created several murals, one of which being the famous George Floyd selfie mural. 

House and Russell’s words are incredibly valuable to any upcoming artists and activists. The full webinar can be found under the AugSem Learning Community tab on Moodle.