Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis

Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis

I don’t know about you but I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the crises we are currently facing in the world – the COVID-19 pandemic and the more recent revelation (again!) of racism, in this instance against black people, as seen in the context of police brutality. We’ve all been appalled by the dispassionate killing of George Floyd almost three weeks ago by a police officer kneeling on his neck for close to nine minutes. Although my artwork doesn’t usually make statements about current issues, I felt the need to express my feelings in art about this situation. Using art to respond to social crisis is a way we artists can not only relieve and convey our own inner turmoil but also create work that acts as a mirror to reflect societial behaviour.

My response was to create a portrait of George Floyd that I then wiped, as the life of the man himself was so easily obliterated.

Then, in the moment, I decided to work over the wiped piece in a more bold and aggressive way, articulating my anger and frustration at the situation onto the paper. I then wiped it again. Swipe. Gone.

Let me take you through the progression of this piece.

Here’s the image I used as my reference – the George Floyd selfie making the rounds on social media.

Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: George Floyd selfie

First, a quick sketch to familiarize myself with his face.

Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: sketch of George Floyd
Small quick sketch in HB pencil

Then I moved right into the piece. The sketch could serve as a thumbnail although I hadn’t made up my mind about the choice of tone/value for the background. I decided to try UART’s black paper, 400 grade.

Cretacolour pastel on UART 400 grade black paper. (Sorry about the angle – I snapped this from the video I made.)
Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: Part way through the portrait. I was working very quickly!
Partway through the portrait. I was working very quickly!
Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: Finished!! This is how it looked bore the first wipe.
Finished!! This is how it looked before the first wipe.
And here it is in black and white...
And here it is in black and white…

I then took an almost empty paper towel roll and, moving it slowly across the piece from left to right, I wiped off the face of George Floyd.

The pastel after a first wipe.
The pastel after a first wipe.
The results of the first wipe.
The results after numerous swipes across the piece.

Ahhhh yes, George Floyd so easily erased. I wanted this idea of wiping the painting to act as a metaphor for the wiping of this man from life.

At this point, I thought I was done. But oh no.

Earlier, I had been concerned about getting some semblance of likeness so although I worked quickly, I also worked with care. Having created the portrait and wiped it as I’d planned, I was now free to express my anger in a more bold and intuitive way. I picked up the same pastel colours I’d used earlier and went in slashing!

Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: My bold, garish mark-making! I labeled the piece "George Floyd."
My bold, garish mark-making! I labelled the piece “George Floyd.”

But this was not the end. It was time to wipe again – this time from the top down.

Wiped once more.
Wiped once more.

Another wipe down and a few marks added and I was done!

Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis: Gail Sibley, "The Wiping of George Floyd," Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 black paper, 7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.
Gail Sibley, “The Wiping of George Floyd,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 400 black paper, 7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in.

So that was it! Doing the piece was cathartic for sure.

And because I didn’t care about the outcome I was free to experiment and push and take risks. I had an idea and what was most important was putting that idea into action.

Using art to respond to social crisis freed me to paint from the heart and allowed me to express feelings that aren’t often revealed in my work.

The Unison Colour pastels I used
The Unison Colour pastels I used

I would love to know if you’re using art to respond to the social crises facing us right now. I know quite a few artists who have conveyed their distress and worry around the pandemic through art. (I did a painting of a roll of toilet paper and wrote an accompanying blog post.) But what about a response to racism… Or to police brutality?

I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment 🙂

Until next time,

~ Gail

PS. As a person lucky enough to have been brought up in a community, a country (Jamaica), where colour was less a consideration (if at all) than say political affiliation, I have always struggled with the notion that others would judge a person by their skin colour and choose how they behave towards that person dependant solely on that criteria. Still, as open and non-judgemental as I hope I am, reading Jodi Picoult’s book, Small Great Things, really opened my eyes to the daily existence of black people in a racist society. And I also began to fully understand my own white privilege. It’s not enough to not be racist, we must be anti-racist, we must be vigilant against systemic racism of every kind. (Click here for some beginning resources.)

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69 thoughts on “Using Art To Respond To Social Crisis”

  1. In your final version of George, I saw fear in his eyes. When I scrolled back to the original, his eyes were impassive. Well done. Although it’s nothing you could have controlled. And I liked your rage.

    1. Shirley thank you!! It’s funny that, what you describe about the difference in his eyes. I love that the difference emerged all on its own!

  2. Gail, I loved your painting of George Floyd. Made me learn something about art. Very expressionist. Gives me goosebumps, not the good kind. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thanks so much Bonnie! When you say you learnt something about art, do you mean the doing? The process? I’d love to hear more!! And oh I like the goosebumps!

    1. Gail,
      I was very moved both by your description of your process and your bold expressive portrait! Thanks so much for sharing. I have felt anger and frustration over this event but haven’t been able to respond artistically. Your post let me do that vicariously. Isn’t that what good art does?

      1. Thanks so much Jan! I’m so happy to know it helped you to respond vicariously through my process. I do encourage you to do something of your own. I find even scribbling with force can help speak my mind on paper. No one has to see it – it can just be for you…for your own release, for your own acknowledgement of what has happened. Focus on the process, the doing, the letting it all out, rather than the outcome. It is an amazingly cathartic thing to do!

    1. I am so glad you found it so Pamela! And thank you for the idea. I had thought of giving the proceeds of the sale to a BLM organization here in Canada – I just haven’t thought it through yet.

  3. Gail I think thru your pain you exhibited the dehumanization which Mr Floyd experienced from the “powers that be”. This is gut wrenching for your viewers but nevertheless I feel a cathartic experience for you. A job extremely well done.

    1. Thank you Brenda!
      It is interesting that you mention “gut-wrenching” for my viewers.. It is evidently too much for some and I have, in a very short time, lost a record number of subscribers for one post. At the same time, I have had a number of people share (both here and privately) how deeply moved and affected they are by the piece. It all works out 🙂

      1. Hi Gail, what a powerful statement and an amazing piece of art! I like the title as well. The painting looked great when it was finished for the first time and I’m in awe of your courage to just wipe it!
        Well done. On a side note, making this kind of contemporary art is also like writing down history – like those Impressionist paintings of the steam trains and smoking chimneys…
        Regards, Gabriela

        1. Gabriela, thank you for your positive response!

          As to wiping the piece, it helped that I had that intention at the beginning, before I started, otherwise I’m not sure I could have so easily done it as yes, I too was pleased at the portrait outcome and that I had created a semi-likeness in a short time. But my intention was clear. What was suprising to me is that after I wiped the piece (and actually, I did like the result), I decided to go in again and apply pastels in an almost attacking way. And the result was a more potent statement I think. Being unattached and more in tune with process rather than outcome had a LOT to do with this!

          And ohhhh, how wonderful to be compared to the work done by the Impressionists. I think as artists painting our surroundings, we are all recording some part of our history and culture, be it in a gentle way or making a protest.

      2. If those subscribers can’t run with the big dogs let them stay on the porch. This murder I hope will serve more justice around the world! A white tourist killed a black hotel worker by chokehold 9 minutes and walked free on the “storybook” Island Anguilla. Needs more publicity!

        1. Thanks Brenda!
          There is so much that goes on in the world that goes unreported. We always have to hope and trust that justice will be served in every case. And we know that doesn’t happen everytime…..

  4. Thank you Gail for so bravely sharing your pain and your process with us. I had not as yet seen a picture of George Floyd and I found your whole process such a powerful way to bring me (and anyone who would see your work) into immediate empathy. George Floyd was a real person, with real feelings, a real life and deserving of kindness and respect as every single human being is. You brought me up close and person to his face and in a way, touching his soul. Thank you again for your own tender heart in feeling this pain and your courage in sharing it. Art + humanity = our highest selves.

    1. Julia, thank you so much for your sympathetic and beautiful words. I love the way you express your experience with this post – so clearly and so poignantly. I feel as if my courage (filled with fear!) to post this image speaking to the issues of racism and police brutality has been rewarded by your caring and supportive response. Thank you!

  5. When I started reading your blog I immediately thought of another artist response to an atrocity – “Guernica” by Picasso. Your painting is as powerful and also a piece of performance art! Very well done Gail. Currently my art is keeping me motivated and happy, for which I am truly grateful.

    1. Ohhh Dee, thank you so much for such high praise and comparison. Truly, I am deeply appreciative that you would compare my small piece to the great “Guernica”!! Thank you!

      And I’m happy to hear your art is keeping you busy and happy, especially at this time when we need it the most. Art has a magical way of taking us away into another world 😀

  6. Sorry Gail, but I do not allow political issues to influence my art, it is unprofessional. You are of course free to do as you wish. The BLM movement that has been spawned is now destroying my country, the UK and we are heading towards civil war. I do not support anyone, black or white, in the destruction of my country, history or culture. There are too many artists, actors and writers emoting over ethnic issues and creating misguided hatred of the white person….and you need to remember that whites are actually the minority throughout all the planet. At this point, regrettably, I am unsubscribing. There is more I would say, but it is pointless because Truth will eventually show itself, and it is not what you think it is.

    1. Dear Chris,
      Thank you so much for expressing your feelings here. I do very much appreciate hearing them. Communication is the only way we can begin to hear and understand each other.

      I will respond to you, point by point.

      Your first statement about not letting current issues influence your work is certainly a choice. But I would argue that doing so is professional in that I think one of the roles of artists is to reflect what is going on in society. Certainly Picasso wanted to make a statement with Guernica, Goya wanted to make a statement with his etchings called The Disasters of War, and there are current artists like Máret Ánne Sara of Norway who uses art to bring awareness to local social issues. Others may paint a beautiful park and, in an unconscious way perhaps, make a statement about the beauty and importance of nature and how we need to protect the natural world. We are all saying something with our artwork.

      The Black Lives Matter movement has been simmering below the surface for decades and just the way women started the suffragette movement in a furor of violence to get their voices heard and the respect they deserved, perhaps this is finally the time when non-white people have the impetus and anger and motivation to truly become seen as humans and deserving of an equal footing. I think most people have good souls and the potential to be productive and kind human beings. There are a number of rotten apples in ALL skin colours that spoil the whole batch, that tarnish with a stroke of a brush, one group of people.

      From what I have seen, recent actions speak less about hatred of white people and more about hatred and anguish about how white people see others not of the same skin colour.

      It’s hard to see the destruction of what we know and much of what we love. I am distressed too about the increased violence but there is a need for change. I encourage you to be part of the change.

      It’s incredible isn’t it that even if white people are a minority in the world how much power they have taken, how much damage they have done to the environment, how much privilege and rights they assume based on their colour. As I said at the bottom of my post, I grew up as part of the 2% minority and yes, I did hear some slurs as to the colour of my skin but my growing up was in a world where colours were mixed up (white and black, black and Indian, Indian and Asian, Asian and brown – you name it, you can find a combination! – our motto is “out of many, one people”) and it wasn’t something most people considered. It was only when I travelled abroad that I discovered people were labelled by their colour (and other things, for instance, religion) rather than by who they were in the world, by what they did, and by what they gave.

      Truth ….ahhhh what is truth? Something that is true rather than false? So much of what was thought to be the truth in science has been proved false. The world really isn’t flat (although I understand there is a flat earth society..), the earth really isn’t the centre of the universe, there is no absolute answer to the nature versus nurture debate.

      Change is hard. We protect what we hold dear, what we hold true, what we can not imagine being without. For some though, what they want to change is not what they hold to be dear or true and what they desperately want to imagine to be different.

      All humans have the right to dignity, to respect, to be given a fair chance at life. Let us hold each other and rise together to build a more compassionate and understanding world.

  7. Very occasionally a piece of work seems to have been pulled out of me in a response to something and it is usually just for myself. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and as ever your techniques.

    1. Aidan, thank you for your comment. I think you and I are on the same page. Sometimes, something calls out to be addressed in a very personal way and in a way that is not consistent with the way I usually reveal the world I see. And sometimes I share it to show a part of me that’s there but may not be often exposed or seen.

  8. This was a very moving portrait, Gail. I really liked your first version, that shows George looking direct and alive – the final, scrubbed out version was almost frightening in comparison, and brought home the transience of a person’s life., and of course the brutality of the system that led to his death.

    I had a slightly similar idea about a year ago, for a different reason, when I read about an Afghan girl, who died after she was set alight by her family in Melbourne. It appeared that she was brought to Australia under a false passport to marry someone, and was actually about 14. They were not sure of her real identity. I wanted to paint her with part of her face washed our, as I felt it was important somehow that someone remembered her, and the plight of some refugees, although I still haven’t attempted the painting. Unlike George Floyd she was completely forgotten. My art friends didn’t seem think it was a good idea. But I think maybe now I should attempt it.

    1. Thank you Judi for so clearly describing your response to the evolution of this piece.

      And thank you for sharing your feelings about that poor Afghan girl. I URGE you to do the painting now both to remember this young girl and to feel the resonance in your soul in voicing your response to the horrific event. I know you have the courage to set that mirror up to the world!!

  9. A strong, powerful statement in so many ways, Gail~ in this piece, I can feel your anger, his fear, and even the dispassionate role so many inadvertently play by simply looking away or “wiping” out the things they do not want to see or understand. So well done.

    1. Thanks so much Lyn!!
      I love that you have added more to the interpretation of the piece, about the way we wipe from our vision and mind that which we don’t want to see or accept or change. Thank you!!

  10. I am sorry you lost subscribers because they were either annoyed that you dared tackle racism or that you dared confront all of us with the actual horror of what it means to erase somebody. The painting is of course stunning; the eyes at the end make us see. And maybe what he was seeing at the end of his life. I am profoundly affected; have been reading to learn more. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has shown me the horrible legacy of slavery. Your piece is powerful; a new river for you maybe.

    1. Thank you so much Marsha! I love what you said – “the eyes at the end make us see.”
      And yes, a river for sure – one that’s always there but runs underground until it surfaces every now and again!
      I’m also working on some pieces in acrylic around the sadness engendered by police brutality and the heartless treatment of others. (I was shocked by the police occurrence in Buffalo and the callous dismissal of a shoved older man.) There are so many caring police in the world, so many caring human beings, yet the belligerent few damage the overall goodness and decency of others. And we can’t ignore them. We need to speak out.

      I will read The Underground Railroad by Whitehead – it’s been on my list for some time. Another good one is the Jodi Picoult one I mention at the bottom of my blog.

  11. Thanks so much for your haunting painting which is a true memorial for the tragic death of George Floyd. Thanks for your artistic witness to injustice and pain.

  12. As always wonderful to see your art and process. And a helpful encouragement to other artists to use art to help deal with strong feelings. Thanks Gail.

    1. Thanks Dottie!
      And YES! art can be incredibly helpful to work through all sorts of strong feelings – of rage, of grief, of frustration. Art can heal. The process of expressing your feelings on paper or canvas is truly cathartic. (I’m not sure if you’ve seen my blog on Grief and Art…)

  13. Your technique in this one is so perfect to represent the unnecessary and horrendous callousness of the murder of George Floyd. Love how you put your emotion about this into this very powerful expressive painting. You expressed my emotion about it as well…. Thank you!!

  14. Very expressive piece…..I could not only see your angst but feel it by viewing your art. I really preferred the ‘wiped’ version compared to the more realistic interpretation. It was much more evocative, thought-provoking, and haunting. Thank you for sharing your piece and thoughts!

    1. Thanks Ann Marie! I am delighted you can “feel” as well as see my angst.

      I’m fascinated when I review all four versions of the piece and see how the look of each changed the feeling evoked.

  15. I am amazed that anyone would leave your blog in protest. We need sympathetic open minds to grapple with the current situation of inequality and subjugation, not attitudes that are comfortable with the appalling status quo.
    I found your art and your narrative very moving, expressing well the helplessness of being wiped out, casually and without compunction. Kudos.

    1. It’s fascinating Wendy, really it is! I’m up to 33 unsubscribes and three spam alerts. I am sad that they have gone rather than let their side of the story be heard..as Chris did below. Discussion, hearing each person’s side, that’s how we can move forward.
      I’m happy to know my piece AND the idea affected you. Thank you!

  16. Gail!! Your post brought tears to my eyes in creating this piece you’ve created much more than just a painting. You’ve created a legacy capturing a moment in time that will never be forgotten. Your powerful portrayal at the start of your process is of a strong black man, his eyes vibrant and curious, then with the bravery you’ve taken to wipe his portrait it’s as if you’ve used all your tears to alter the portrait to show the pain and suffering of this poor man.
    Well done Gail I’m so proud of you for producing this painting, I stand along side you to educate myself to learn to be a better human being in the struggle against white supremacy and everything it stands for. The black lives matter movement must surely gain momentum with the younger generation not willing to stand for the injustices of their forefathers.
    As for those unsubscribers… haters gonna hate!

    1. Ohhhhhh Michele, your warm, understanding, and powerful response gave me goosebumps – still shaking them off! Thank you so much for expressing what you see here – it’s as I hoped it would be seen. It’s strange that the final portrait doesn’t reveal what went before – all that remains are photos and a video…pretty much as it is with the man George Floyd.
      As for those unsubscribers? The count is currently at 38…Shocking really….

  17. Hallo Gail
    I really got very impressed by your work and I have to say I felt touched by your words and I could feel your anger/frustration when painting it. It’s an extremely touching piece. I think we all got touched by what happened to George.
    Personally I do not paint portraits because I am just not good enough at this stage, however after what happened I made my very first pastel portrait and it’s the face of a black person with closed eyes and colored lights coming from all sides. I named it “Black lives matter” and the colors coming from all sides are the colors of the world, the COLOR which is such a problem for racist people, but it is also the color of everyone’s unicity and that’s what makes our human race a beautiful one. We all are colored in one way or another and there shouldn’t be any difference to which color I belong to….

    1. Hello Giancarlo! I am happy to know you were touched by the work and words and that it reflected a common feeling among compassionate souls. And thank you too for describing your own portrait – love that it combines all colours – as you say, we are ONE beautiful human race!! Thank you.

  18. Wow, Gail. Scrolling through the replies, I wondered if there would be any negative ones. ChrisD’s was the only one – and he was not only furious, he also unsubscribed! This really gets at the heart of what is wrong with our country now – the divisiveness, to the point of fury, that hardens hearts against seeing the real truth of Black Lives Matter. Just a few days ago I had a very dear cousin unfriend me on FB because of a similar post.

    We are so lucky to have art, at all levels, to work through this I’m just a beginner but I’m going to try something like you’ve done. Thank you so much.

    1. Wow indeed Pam. I’m surprised that I had only one person give a negative comment. It takes a kind of bravery to do that and I’m happy Chris allowed me the opportunity to respond and open a discussion. Sadly everyone else just slunk away and noted their displeasure by unsubscribing. It certainly says something that there’s such resistance to this once-in-a-blue-moon social comment in my art to an event most people found abhorrent. It’s sad really.

      We ARE lucky as artists to have a way to express our emotions over something we feel strongly about. I encourage to let loose! Remember not to worry about the outcome ….just use your art-making voice to speak your truth.

  19. I love the portrait.
    I find it interesting that you said that growing up in Jamaica , colour was not an issue . I’m very aware of it , being a indian in the Cayman Islands. I feel racism is ‘alive and well’ here. In more subtle ways sometimes . In spite of being somewhere where there are people from 160 different countries. I was never as aware living in the UK for several years .

    1. Hi Shyla,
      Thank you!
      I am sad to hear that about Cayman. I wonder how it is expressed for you? Please feel free to inform us. And it’s interesting that you didn’t feel it in the UK where apparently racism is alive and well.

      In my situation, perhaps it was the time (years ago) and also that I grew up IN it. My friends had (have!) varying colours of skin in all sorts of mixes. Most ranged on the brown to black scale. And we were friends because we had a common experience, common interests, common desires, common struggles. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up not knowing what the colour of our skin meant beyond it merely being a colour variety! Certainly, when I go back to Jamaica, and I’m in tourist areas, I can see I’m viewed as an outsider/a tourist merely by the colour of my skin (and naturally this frustrates and annoys me!!!). Once I move outside the tourist locations and show familiarity with culture and speech etc etc, all is fine, as fine as it can be.


    Gail, your very moving interpretation of George is beautifully done. I am going to experiment with your drawing technique during the day to express how I am feeling. Thanks for your ever inspiring blog.

  21. Art is meant to provoke and reflect our anxieties, our fears, and our angers. You did very well with George Floyd’s portrait. It speaks to one of the greatest fears of a human – to be obliterated. I’m sorry there are so many people who either don’t see art as it really is, or think that, in some way, his killing and the existing police brutality are justified. Keep up reflecting your views through your art. It’s your prerogative as an artist and as a human being.

    1. Thanks so much Maria for your support of this piece and for your encouragement to do work like this – that reflects my views on the world. It is what we can do as artists!!

  22. Hi Gail,
    Found you today by clicking through various pastel related searches. I think I was exploring Liz Haywood-Sullivan when your blog popped up. I’m enjoying what I’ve found so far very much. Your exploration of your emotions over George Floyd’s murder touched me deeply. Your courage at sharing your process of anger and remorse came across as very sincere and humble. Your actions of wiping, erasing, blurring, creating mud and chaotic color blends -all things as a pastel landscape artist I experience as emotions in your process. It was like a 4 dimensional painting? Line is the first dimension, paper is the second, pastels provide volume and layering creating the third dimension, then the emotion of erasing and replacing the painting becomes the fourth. Very fascinating and expressive, thank you.

    I also created a painting from this moment. I tried, although it was unthinkably horrible, to put myself in his mind for an instant as he was dying. My image was like what you see from your eyes with your eyelids closed on a bright sunny day. Instantaneous regret of a lifetime of memories now lost, flashing across the screen of the mind while breath fades. I will never forget the experience of trying to feel that moment with him. Its almost too much to bear. I understand the rage, although I am as white as white can be. I’m just trying to understand, and accessing my emotions through pastels, I think, is my pathway there.

    1. Heidi, I’m so glad you found me and this blog!! Thank you so much for your extensive and interesting comment. I love your descriptions of the four dimensions and seeing how my painting fit into that thought. I do appreciate your response to my piece.
      And you did a brave thing, surrendering yourself into that moment that George Floyd may have felt at his moment of dying. It’s extraordinary that we have a script of his last words that create a poem of sorts. And that you took all of this upon your own psyche to create a painting reflecting this moment in time. Truly a brave endeavour.
      Thank you too for your understanding and trying to understand more deeply.

  23. Pingback: Silja Salmistu - Tackling The Darkness In The Nursery - How to Pastel

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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