Drawing the Donald: How Local Artists Are Coping With PEOTUS 

Many artists see President-elect Donald Trump as a threat to democratic values and civil rights.


Many artists see President-elect Donald Trump as a threat to democratic values and civil rights.

Larry Calkins said he knew President-elect Donald Trump was trouble right from the start.

"He's a racist, he's a bigot, he's an abuser of women. All those things galvanized my feelings. When I'm upset or when I'm pissed, I do a lot of drawing, and that's how I work it out," he said.

The Issaquah, Wash.-based artist typically gravitates toward "small politics"—subjects like family life, relationships, home and nature—but ahead of the Nov. 8 election, his work took a dark turn. Following the defeat of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, Calkins filled three sketchbooks with images representing an increasingly divided America. Within days of the election, he'd filled another three sketchbooks, which brimmed with Nazi and fascist imagery.

"It's just history repeating itself," Calkins said. "It may not be a rise of German fascism, but it's certainly an American brand of it."

Trump's campaign, which threatened historically marginalized groups like women, minorities and the LGBT community, has also been accused of giving a toehold in the national discourse to radical right-wing and white supremacist groups. In Boise, as in the Seattle area, where Calkins works and teaches, artists and creatives have begun responding to Trump, whom many see as an autocratic threat to democratic values, institutions and civil rights. He's simultaneously a subject ripe for artistic treatment—from caricature and graphic design—to appeals for unity after a traumatizing election.

"I wish I had more time because [Trump] is a political cartoonist's dream," said Boise-based artist Kelly Knopp. "The hair or the orange face; those are, like, home runs. He makes up words, and some of his policies and visions—there's no way that's possible. It feels like a constant SNL skit."

In the summer of 2014, Crooked Fence Brewing released Little Bitch Otter India Brown Ale. The label was designed by Knopp, who was then the brewery's co-owner and artistic director. The beer and label artwork were inspired by white-hot debate over the Gem State's same-sex marriage ban. At an unveiling party in May, the line to purchase the beer and LBO swag at PreFunk in downtown Boise wrapped around the block.

Later that year, the ban, supported by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the Idaho Legislature and a $1 million legal defense fund, was struck down in the courts, and Little Bitch Otter established Knopp as one of Boise's most visible political artists, with a caricaturist's style, an eye for detail and a sense of humor. His reputation as an artistic provocateur, however, has come with a price he said few local artists can afford to pay.

"Boise is fragile territory," Knopp said. "You want to express yourself through your art, but it can be dicey when you're trying to make a living doing it, and you're pissing off half the people in your community."

Lost business is one consequence of creating politically charged content in a place as reliably conservative as Idaho; hate mail is another. When a video that went viral of body-positive feminist activist Amy Pence-Brown in a bikini being written and drawn upon at the Capital City Public Market hit YouTube in 2015, Melanie Folwell, who helped make the video, started receiving angry and aggressive emails and Facebook messages, which she still sometimes gets more than a year after the video's release.

"It threw me for a loop," she said.

click to enlarge - Much of the protest art surrounding the president-elect centers on his complex relationships with members of the Republican party, his rhetoric on the campaign trail and his perceived flirtations with white nationalism and the extreme far right. -  - LARRU CALKINS, KELLY KNOPP
  • Larru Calkins, Kelly knopp
  • Much of the protest art surrounding the president-elect centers on his complex relationships with members of the Republican party, his rhetoric on the campaign trail and his perceived flirtations with white nationalism and the extreme far right.

Some have questioned Trump's qualifications to serve as president because of his celebrity background. Folwell described him as "our first, true celebrity president" leveraging his fame into a policymaking position. Her disgust with what she sees as his style-over-substance platform came to a head shortly after the election, when she had an epiphany.

"I was finishing some stuff for Wintry Market [Nov. 19-20 at El Korah Shrine]," she said. "It was scenic, it looked cute, and I was, like, 'Cute seems like total bullshit right now.'"

A commercial graphic designer, illustrator and photographer by trade, Folwell recognized what artists like Knopp see in Donald Trump: a collection of cartoonish features and mannerisms floating on a raft of outlandish statements and murky policy positions. Rather than lampoon the president-elect's look and message, her approach taken in "When Fascism Comes to America, It Will Be Called Americanism" draws from a rich tradition of text-heavy, political pop art to direct criticism not to Trump but to the cultures of business and celebrity of which he is a part. Folwell doesn't plan on signing her work, preferring to eschew fame culture altogether.

Folwell's reliance on art craft and theory to deliver "good, subversive, strong messaging" belies her feeling of being "unmoored" after an election propelled as much by memes, fake news and Facebook as it was by values-based discussion and debate over policy.

"I'm not sure what this country is about right now," she said. "I'm not sure what truth means, I'm not sure what facts mean, I don't know how to move forward."

A similar feeling has propelled Sarah Masterson. She and many of her friends belong to groups disparaged or targeted by Trump or his supporters during the campaign, and a feeling of antagonism coming from the future commander-in-chief gave her pause.

"I have a lot of friends who live all over the U.S., and the majority of them are gay or trans or artists or queer," Masterson said. "My response [to the election] was shock and surprise. I was scared for my friends and their safety."

In the past, Masterson has promoted Treefort Music Fest with enormous, temporary banners featuring simple messages placed in public areas like the Boise Greenbelt. It's a medium she'll dust off for an upcoming message of unity.

"It's like how song lyrics hit you," she said. "I approach it in the same way as writing a song."

Like Folwell, Masterson said Trump isn't the direct target of her work and, unlike Knopp, who said he wants his art to start a conversation, she prefers instilling a feeling of solace and warmth in her audience. She didn't tip when or what her message would be, but as winter descends on Boise, it may thaw people's will to act.

"When I think about shock, I think about being frozen," Masterson said. "When the shock wears off, I feel like stepping forward and taking action."

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