Q&A: Laura Raborn’s Art Uses Trump’s Words to Support Planned Parenthood

Artist and art teacher Laura Raborn generally focuses on figurative oil paintings—but during the weeks before the 2016 Presidential election, she began filling her studio with mixed media pieces incorporating Donald Trump quotes that left her shocked and bereft. Although she never intended the works to be anything other than a personal coping mechanism, when someone called her about purchasing one, she hatched a plan to transform her “pre-election series” into dollars for Planned Parenthood through an Instagram auction.

During Trump’s first 100 days, her related “post-election series” has steered away from Trump’s election material—investigating broader themes of women’s health and reproductive rights, feminism, power dynamics, language and race. Raborn’s work provides encouragement for women to harvest our talents, expertise and curiosity to push back against the current administration, empower and heal ourselves and help others.

Ms. spoke with Raborn in her light-filled Little Rock studio, a space she rents from a neighborhood church along with a handful of other artists.

How did you begin working with Trump’s quotes in your pre-election series?

I began creating the pieces purely for myself as a way of coping with language I was hearing during the election that I found to be shocking. It was disturbing to watch as Trump’s disgusting and offensive words were actually increasing his popularity instead of diminishing it. Of course many shared my shock, but it amazed me that he also had so many cheerleaders.

Using news articles, interviews, and the candidate debates, I started working on small pieces during breaks throughout the day in my studio. As an oil painting or commissioned work dried, I headed to my mixed media table to play with Trump language and imagery. There was something very urgent about making them, something haphazard and immediate about the materials I was grabbing. I was literally grabbing pieces of cardboard or paper out of the trashcan. None of them are on canvas. Because I was gluing and collaging and painting and stamping, and since it was for personal use only, there was a willful destruction happening. There are a lot of layers in the pieces… I would just glue something on, like a quote that I found to be horrifying. It was a very cathartic process, so I wasn’t thinking they needed to be consistent in size or done on very specialized paper.

Like many, when Trump won the election I was really surprised. I looked back at all this stuff in my studio and thought, This is a group of work. Now I am working on another group, the post-election group. Around November 9 or 10 I thought, I can’t stop. I have to keep going. So I’ve continued. I have to take short breaks to recover, then I am compelled to start again. Trump’s first weeks in office provided more material than I can cover in a lifetime.

You’re using Trump’s own words to support Planned Parenthood—an organization he’d gut. When I try to describe in one word what you’re doing, I think “transmute,” which I take to mean changing the nature of something, especially into a higher form. There’s an undeniably powerful element at work there, in the process of transmutation—taking something that feels so negative and transforming it into something new, tearing it apart, recreating it into something new. What does that feel like?

Because the quotes are so rude or derogatory—and generally targeted toward a certain group—it was really enjoyable to destroy them. In some pieces you can still read the quotes, but in others the quotes have been fairly demolished. Sometimes I’ll add layers, and glue an image down, paint on top of it, stamp on top of that, and sand it off. That process destroys some of what’s there and leaves some of it to be revealed. Sometimes I cut them up and rearrange the pieces and use them as collages, further destroying the original content. In the end, I am less disgusted by the pieces that have gone through the destructive process. The few pieces that still have clearly legible quotes in them do tend to disgust me just as much as when I started them, as if I achieved nothing. Of course, I’ve had to consider what the purpose of the work is… and I realize the purpose is evolving. At first, I thought it was about presenting Trump quotes in all their horrid glory. I was in such disbelief when I started the pieces—and felt compelled to see his words in a very visual format. But now I think it might be more about destroying the quotes, which is emblematic of a deep desire to erase his words, and erase what he preaches: fear, misogyny, racism, corruption, greed, you name it.

I sometimes print the quotes on my computer at home because then I can manipulate the size and the font and the color of the ink. Other times I’ll clip them from the newspaper and that has a very different look. Printing at home renders the quotes further curated and manipulated by me, so I prefer the newspaper and magazine clippings because they are printed for public consumption. There’s just something about the look of the newspaper when you’re collaging it. It’s a little nostalgic because so much of our news is now received in other ways. The color of the newspaper is a unique element. Also, newspaper is really good for image transfers. I can put down acrylic gel medium, press the newspaper, pull it up, and the text remains but appears in reverse. Everything is backwards, which is perfect because so much of what I’m reading is completely, utterly insane and backwards. Being able to reverse Trump’s words in this manner really contributes to the composition, and replicates in a visual format what I am feeling.

How did you hatch a plan to turn this into an Instagram auction?

It was a culmination of things that were in the back of my mind for years. I was inspired by Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes when I heard him speak at The Clinton School of Public Service in 2010, and Hank Willis Thomas whom I heard speak at The Arkansas Arts Center in 2015. Hearing them discuss their work and philanthropy had me asking for some time, What can I do? What will I do? I posted one of the pre-election pieces on social media, and someone reached out to me about purchasing it. I was reading about the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood under the newly-elected administration, and that’s when I hatched the Instagram art auction idea for Planned Parenthood. It all came together and just made sense. I’ve never used social media to promote my work in a very sales-driven way. I have a Facebook art page but I never say, This is for sale. So I’m pretty bad at selling my own work! But I thought, If this is a fundraiser, then I can push myself outside of my comfort zone and sell the work. So I decided I’d post them and donate half of every sale $1 to $599, and 100% of every dollar over $600, to Planned Parenthood. I think if you’re benefitting others, your drive, your confidence, your motivation, everything elevates. I don’t have a huge Instagram following. If I could get a larger audience with more discretionary income, then I could make a larger donation. I should say we could make a larger donation. I keep thinking that if I can grow this following, and it’s successful, I could do this the rest of my life with different organizations. How cool would it be to grow my following as an artist and donate to organizations I believe in when I have felt voiceless, when I’ve felt that I don’t have the pedestal, the microphone, the money.

What has the reaction been like?

I really don’t have a ton of support for the pieces. Many people I know locally either voted for Trump, are too afraid to speak out, don’t want to disrupt the status quo, or are just trying their best to block out this nightmare and pretend everything is fine. I’ve had a few friends and family members who have made comments of concern, like “Isn’t this artwork of yours a bit extreme?” Someone said, “You’ll lose so-and-so as a client because she’s a big pro-lifer.” And I think, really? Wouldn’t that be kind of self-absorbed of me to want to keep that one client over the possibility of helping hundreds of women?

I was taken off guard when I posted a few of the pieces on Facebook. I shouldn’t have been surprised because we know about how people have the audacity to say things on social media they’d never say to people’s faces. I posted on an Arkansas artist Facebook page and was slapped with a handful of sharply written, negative comments. The administrator of the group page was supportive and posted something like, This is a forum to promote art. We don’t sensor. If you don’t like her fundraiser or her art, scroll past it. But this is not a place to attack someone whose work you don’t support. So that was a lesson. A little taste of what’s out there, even among some fellow artists.

Do you think the fact that these are Trump pieces makes some people unwilling to purchase them because they don’t want his likeness or ugly words in their living spaces?

Some of the quotes and images have been so obliterated that if someone likes them visually, I think people could have them in their homes and not always be reminded of Trump. I think with some, the buyers would be able to focus on the good thing that we’ve kind of done in collaboration—my making the piece, and them purchasing the piece, and both of us giving together.

Then again, a customer came in the other day to pick up her piece that she purchased through the auction and she said, “Now see, like that piece I couldn’t have bought because it has his face in it and I will not have his face in my home.”

A piece that hasn’t sold is a Trump eyeball with the body of a lamb draped around the eye, and above it is a red dress I cut out from a sheet of Trump quotes, and then there are red drips that come from under the dress and land on his eyebrow. It references several things. One is when he talked about Megyn Kelley, saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes. . . . blood coming out of wherever.” I was like, Wait a minute. He’s talking about menstrual blood!? So that hasn’t sold. I guess you aren’t supposed to destroy your own work quite this quickly, but I might cut this piece in half and re-do both halves so it becomes a little obliterated. It might make it a little more palatable. Or maybe I won’t, because the goal isn’t for it to be easier for people to accept! But I do want the pieces to sell, because I want to make the money so I can donate it. I’ll keep thinking about it. The great thing is, this is all a big experiment.

The pieces are helping me resist complacency and I hope they do the same for the buyer. Perhaps it is our natural tendency to accept the status quo. But if the status quo is horrid, like it is now, and I’m accepting it, I am not living a purposeful, God-given life. If these pieces are just there to remind me to have constant, daily acts of kindness that oppose Trump’s quotes; if they remind me to reach out to or really listen to people who look different than me or whose lives look different than mine; then the work serves a purpose.

I was thinking, what if I bought one of the pieces that you don’t feel are sellable, and what if we burned it?

That’s a great idea! None of these are precious to me. I’m not afraid to cover them up, burn one or two of them, or whatever. I’m not attached except in the sense that I want them to raise funding. For people who are supportive of the idea but don’t want to own a piece of art that reminds them of Trump, I love your idea of burning the piece, or someone could stick it in a drawer, or the trashcan, or use it a rally.

It seems to me that your post-election series is really questioning the polarizing modes of interpersonal communication that are being impressed by the current regime. I see you looking at how we talk to each other and what that does to us, individually and as a nation.

When hate is such a big part of a leader’s language, we form a reflection… the leader mirrors America and America mirrors the leader. And basically, these quotes become our reality. They shape what we believe about each other. Our treatment of others is rooted in those beliefs. And what else is there in life? Isn’t it all about how we treat each other? Everything we do is defined by how people treat us and how we treat others. When has treating someone poorly or insulting them ever made them a better person or improved the world? When has it done anything other than make others afraid or defensive or hurt? Words matter. The hateful speech Trump uses has an immediate and long-lasting impact, especially when people are attacked for responding or are too afraid to speak up. I’m not being a sensitive woman by not liking his “beautiful piece of ass” quote. I’m being a human who wants us to treat each other well.

Agreeing to use his ways of communicating—especially when we are disagreeing, and even in speaking about Trump himself—is in a way agreeing with him and condoning his behavior. I hope to suggest that we have a choice whether or not to do that, and that there’s a price for doing it.

You have girls nearly the age of the teen Trump famously called out on Twitter, which resulted in her receiving all kinds of hate mail and messages, even rape and death threats. What are you thinking about your daughters’ futures?

When I was a teen, I remember hearing degrading comments, assumptions about my worth as a female, and expectations of girls. I remember thinking, That’s not fair and We should fight for women’s rights. “Not fair” almost seems naïve now! I believe my daughters have it worse than I did. When I was growing up, most of the boys I knew at least understood that sexual assault was wrong. I don’t think that’s true now. I think there’s a new level of abuse that’s accepted and promoted right now, largely through social media (don’t get me started on the sexually degrading social media material that starts around the seventh grade). And now, we have inappropriate and degrading language used by our new president, which supports degrading and abusive treatment of women.

Maybe many women have been operating under the assumption that things are getting better, that maybe comments or situations are somehow just little backslides or pockets of ignorant people. And now it is so blatantly obvious in some new way every day that we can’t operate under that assumption anymore. There’s a terror in being constantly confronted with the fact that as it turns out, maybe we hadn’t made as much progress as we’d assumed . . . as it turns out, those voices were quieter about how their true feelings and now they are no longer.

Yes, it is terrifying how hate has found a powerful ally and loud voice. But my friends of color are not so surprised …this hate is not new to many people and never was exactly hidden. Of course, people tend to not take action if the surrounding environment does not negatively impact them. I don’t want to be one of those people anymore. I hope even those not being negatively impacted can come to realize these are issues that affect us all. Until we step out of our selfishness, we are on a destructive path.

But every single day I see signs of hope. I see people stand up for others. We’ve got to find ways to be supportive and affirming. I have figured out—and it has taken a long time—that I am willing to lose some stuff and some relationships by speaking out. I am not willing to have my children hurt or place my body in grave danger. These aside, it is important to me to be more willing to take risks by speaking up. These pieces have helped me with that willingness, and I hope it encourages others too.

A different version of this post originally appeared at Entropy. Republished with permission.

Erin Wood writes and edits in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is editor of and a contributor to Scars: An Anthology, which assembles the work of nearly 40 contributors on scars of the body. “We Scar, We Heal, We Rise,” was chosen as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, The Woven Tale Press, Anderbo, Tales from the South, The Healing Muse and elsewhere. Visit her at woodwritingandediting.com

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