Mayapple & Sarah Lawrence Summer Workshop—The Art of Protest: Art and Scholarship as Political Resistance




The Art of Protest: June 13-22, 2019

Artists and scholars have long been at the forefront of protest movements in the United States and around the world. Whether by direct action or through their work, they have been instrumental in calling out injustice, fighting for the rights of marginalized groups, and drawing attention to problems both local and global in scale. It has become increasingly urgent for artists to generate creative responses in these fraught political times. Sarah Lawrence College and the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities will host an intensive workshop for artists and scholars to develop their own practice of activist art.

This ten-day residential retreat for writers, musicians, activists, artists and scholars will take place on the Sarah Lawrence campus from June 13-22. Program faculty include musician Dar Williams, poet Mahogany L. Browne, theatre artist Dana Edell, artist David Birkin, writer Brian Morton, and scholar Michelle Slater. Participants will attend daily seminars and workshops and have time to create original work. In our seminars, we will draw on cultural and intellectual history to inspire contemporary thought with an interdisciplinary emphasis. There will be guest artists, evening coffee house events for sharing work, and individual meetings with faculty.

Mayapple promotes mindfulness for artists and scholars through daily practices of yoga and meditation that are restorative and affirmative in nature. Past participants have taken these practices home and incorporated them in their daily routine.

Our goal is for participants to be immersed in a retreat where their art and scholarship can be nurtured in a sanctuary-like setting as they collaborate and develop their creative and intellectual ideas into concrete pieces.

Course Descriptions

Engaging Civically through Collaborative Art: Developing a Working Aesthetics of Protest Art

Michelle SlaterCore Seminar with Michelle Slater (scholar)

Cultural and political discourse in the United States have been shaped by acts of protest from the Declaration of Independence to the proliferation of marches on Washington today. Historically, artists in America react powerfully against socio-political injustices and threats to democracy,  from Thoreau writing Civil Disobedience as a protest against the injustices of slavery to Childish Gambino’s provocative protest song “This is America.” The 60-minute morning seminar will focus on the history of art, scholarship, and activism including the major 19th and 20th century movements from Transcendentalism to the Civil Rights movement and the current political protests, etc. We will study literature of protest including Thoreau, Orwell, and Solnit, and analyze works of art from multiple disciplines including dance, theatre, visual arts, writing, performance arts, music, and the humanities. Here, today, in this critical moment in time when democracy is more under threat than ever, we will parse what it means to engage in effective protest by analyzing historical examples and developing a working aesthetic theory for protest art today. These discussions will help generate ideas for participants to develop their own individual and collaborative works of protest.

Writing and Exploring Songs that Matter to Us and the World

Dar WilliamDar Williams (Singer-Songwriter) — Music

This course will explore our own songwriting, looking at how we court the muse and write songs that feel important to us, together and apart from their role in the greater world.

Dar will deconstruct her own songs to show her creative process and share tips on structure and narrative, and will then focus increasingly on helping to shape participants’ songs.  

A parallel discussion will occur in the second half of each class about how music has played a role in social movements, specifically for the Woodstock Generation, the Civil Rights era and the lesbian movement.  The course will also draw from Dar’s book, What I Found in a Thousand Towns, concentrating on the importance of music in building social bridges that form what Dar has coined “positive proximity”.

Loosely defined, positive proximity is the experience of living side-by-side with others as a beneficial way of being both individuals and members of a society.  We walk out the door in the morning, feel connected to where we live, and think about ways to contribute. Towns that have high positive proximity thrive. They are unique, locally prosperous, and resilient.  Positive proximity is more of a sociological phenomenon than a political one, but positive proximity plays a crucial role in how towns and cities problem-solve, proceed with deliberative self-government, organize collectively, and find proactive solutions for gentrification, climate change, and social inequality.

In the juxtaposition of songwriting and studying historical protest movements, we will examine the dialectic of individual expression and the social relevance of music. The relationship between the creative self and the society that is informed by creative contributions is fertile ground for understanding how we progress and civilize ourselves.  Participants may write an impactful marching chant, create music behind a political spoken piece, take an old song and repurpose it for a political event, or pen a powerful "protest song" that defines a political moment and wakes up our sense of commitment to a larger cause.  Or they might write a song that doesn't seem to have a political purpose, recognizing that there are historical lenses through which even the exercise of searching for our poetic truth is considered a powerful political act. We will spend time fostering and nurturing our personal songwriting, make room for other kinds of socially aware musical statements, and then we will look at the historical context for every kind of musical political assertion and dissent. Ultimately, we will locate our own music within this larger world of socio-political expression. Final projects will be the performance of or participation in a song, with an introduction that explains which context you are conceptually reflecting (or rejecting!). We will decide how our work can fit into the larger ensemble for a final performance.

Writing and Social Action: The Power of the Personal Voice in a Political World

Brian MortonBrian Morton (Author, Scholar) — Humanities

Writers have always been at the forefront of struggles for social justice, speaking the truth, exposing injustice, and refuting lies. William Butler Yeats said that out of our quarrels with others, we make rhetoric, and out of our quarrels with ourselves, we make poetry. The best writers of opinion and analysis do both. There are times when a writer must strike with all one's might, delivering strongly worded and unequivocal advocacy or critique. And there are other times when a writer will wish to get to the bottom of a subject by exploring doubts, complexities, and ambiguities. In this class, we will seek to become fluent in both approaches; we will share our work in a generous, supportive atmosphere, and we'll read the work of writers who have sought to enlarge the sphere of human freedom. The instructor will offer prompts to help participants limber up as writers to become more confident in putting ideas on paper. We'll also talk about the writing process itself, with a special emphasis on the tips and tricks that experienced writers use to stay steadily productive. Our readings will include provocative essays by writers like James Baldwin, George Orwell, and Virginia Woolf, and contemporary essays by writers like Maria Bustillos, Zadie Smith, and Thomas Chatterton Williams. By the end of our time together, you will have written at least a short, Op-Ed length opinion piece of publishable quality, and a longer work of nonfiction.

Ekphrastic Politics

Mahogany Browne

Mahogany L. Brown (Poet) — Creative Writing

Given the current political climate, how can we shape the world and create alternatives? How does protest enable the community to speak up for themselves? What are the roles of activisms and arts in addressing seemingly impossible times? In this generative workshop, we will engage with primary text, visual aid, audio soundscapes and contemporary poetics. We will address real world issues, discuss local and global cases of the history of art activisms and social movements.

Throughout the course we encourage a literary engagement with the concepts of activism and protest, by looking at current affairs, emerging social and political issues, and social movements, both locally, and globally.

The course is divided into five components, which will be contextualized dynamically as the course progresses: analyzation, discussion, writing, editing & performance.

The course will require the artist to contextualize ones personal experiences in today’s political climate relative to media/news headlines, social movements, and the global/local dimensions of our lives today.

Art and Activism: Creative Collaborations in the Public Sphere​

David BirkinDavid Birkin (Photographer, Artist) — Visual Arts

"The visual arts are important because we are dealing with optics. What we see determines what is allowed. It is changing our gaze whether we like it or not." –Claudia Rankine

"An artist needs to be a thermostat, not a thermometer." –Paul Robeson

The idea of “political art” as something separate from the rest of art, like an appendage or sub-genre, is a relatively recent and Eurocentric concept; but for many, art and politics remain intricately interwoven. The relationship between ethics and aesthetics is never neutral. Yet attempts are often made to separate the two. What does that say about the motives of those who promote a depoliticised art for art’s sake? Where have we inherited this notion from, and why does it persist? What is its legacy? And how do we move forward in these fraught political times? When every aspect of our cultural and civic life has been commodified and privatized, what chance does art have to carve out a space for free thinking and resistance?

Looking at the work of artists such as Tania Bruguera, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Hans Haacke, Jeremy Deller, Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer, Coco Fusco, Alfredo Jaar, Mark Wallinger, Steve McQueen and Hank Willis Thomas — as well as the actions of activists employing various methods of creative protest, from raised fists and bowed knees to flamenco flashmobs and kissing protests — we will consider how artists can create meaningful interventions into public space, and how those operating at the intersection of visual culture and social justice can work together within existing social and political frameworks.

Aimed primarily at artists interested in working collaboratively, but also relevant to writers and curators, this visual arts workshop will be an opportunity to evaluate the moral and practical implications of your practice, and to examine new forms of interdisciplinary cooperation, addressing concepts such as legal and social justice, personal responsibility, collective action, agency, efficacy, positionality and political voice. Through group discussions, readings and screenings, as well as the development of participants’ individual projects, we will attempt to formulate a critical framework for thinking about the value of what we put out into the world in response to the urgent needs of the current moment.

Additional Information

Sample Schedule

7-8 a.m. Mayapple yoga and meditation
8-9:15 a.m. Breakfast
9:15-10:15 a.m. Core Seminar: Michelle Slater
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Workshops (individual disciplines)
12:30-1:30 p.m. Lunch
2-3:30 p.m. Creating Collaborative Public Art and Scholarship
3:30-6 p.m. Free time for individual work and conferences with faculty
6-7 p.m. Dinner
Evening Guest performances/lectures

Who Should Attend

Adults over the age of 18 with varying skill levels are encouraged to register to join us. We invite anyone who seeks to express their intellectual and artistic creativity in a setting that promotes cultural vitality.

Apply today!

Program Cost

Application fee $30
Deposit $250
Remaining tuition $1,250

$550 (non-A/C)

$700 (A/C)

Meal Plan

$500 (full)

$184 (lunch only)

Limited financial assistance is available

Application Requirements

  • Please explain why you are interested in participating in "The Art of Protest" retreat for artists and scholars in 500 words or less. Relate how your experience and interest in the arts and humanities corresponds to the theme of protest art and scholarship, and describe your previous experience in your field(s.) What do you hope to gain from the seminars and workshops?
  • Please include a sample of your work whether it is a sound clip, short video, images or writing sample in your primary and secondary (if applicable) field. Sound clips should be no longer than 1 minute and written submissions should not be more that 7 pages. Please condense your media into one file for uploading.
  • Please briefly describe/outline your educational and work history if applicable.​

Apply online today!