A powerful movement needs artistic media that gives structure to the messages we carry and an outlet for the emotions we wish to convey. Media that inspires and motivates and teaches and gives clarity. The movement is here, and it includes poets, singers, painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, videographers, photographers, and puppeteers.
Here in Virginia, ARTivism Virginia, an organization that has a joint plan of work with Virginia Organizing, has organized approximately 150 artists from across the region who work in every imaginable medium to use their art to stop fracked gas pipelines. Their motto is “first the heart, then the head, then the feet.” In other words, their creations aim to inspire, educate, and move people to action. You may have seen their visual stylings on posters for pipeline resistance events, or seen their giant puppets at a rally. Those little “This Is A Robbery” signs that sprouted at Department of Environmental Quality hearings were their idea, and perhaps you were in downtown Richmond once when the Sun Bus hosted a pop-up block party in front of the Pocahontas Building.
Some of those projects came to fruition before ARTivism Virginia was known by that name. The group has its origins in the artistic activism of Kay Ferguson, who began organizing artists in early 2017, a year that culminated in the Walking the Line: Into the Heart of Virginia walk along the 150-mile proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route, and the Water Is Life Rally and Concert in Richmond.
Ferguson saw a need to distill the complex and arcane regulatory, scientific, and political minutiae tied up in pipeline construction into simple, accessible messages that people can respond to. While most people will not become experts on eminent domain, safety regulations, or soil science, art can teach us how the construction of a pipeline will impact our lives even if we don’t live on the right-of-way. It can also inspire us and spur us to action.
Josh Vana has stepped into Ferguson’s role now. Josh was a touring musician based in Keezletown, VA when he felt drawn into more concerted political action during the Standing Rock fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“The people at Standing Rock were calling us to pay attention to things happening in our own area,” Josh recalls. “I took that to heart.”
When he learned about the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines, he helped form a solidarity group called RAPTORS to support pipeline resistors here in Virginia. He was already involved with organizing for a political campaign and organizing with poultry workers, and those experiences helped him see the connection between the fossil fuel industry, white supremacy, and capitalism. It wasn’t long before Josh left his band to pursue activism full-time. He put his musical talents to new use.
He joined Kay Ferguson to help with what became ARTivism Virginia in 2019. While music was Josh’s primary entry point, Ferguson worked across several mediums. Major projects have included the SUN SiNG iN PLACE online concerts, the Water Is Life song/video, the Violation Vigil in Richmond in 2021, and the No Sacrifice Zones rally in DC last September, which included musicians, tactile art, and visual art that was distributed around the region to promote the event. This was a high point for Josh, an opportunity to make connections around points of common struggle with diverse people from across the country. Their most recent event, Renewal of Resistance: An Evening with #StopMVP ARTivists, is a virtual gathering that calls participants and viewers to make public comments with the US Forest Service and US Army Corps of Engineers. Both are agencies that have a say on whether the pipeline moves forward in the coming weeks.
“There was incredible beauty in those experience of collective joy in the face of forces that would take your joy from you,” Josh says. Part of that joy came from the collective affirmation that the struggle in Appalachia is important, too, and that the people of Appalachia shouldn’t be thrown under the bus. The art of the pipeline resistance movement is what has given it its subversive spark, its defiant joyfulness, its attitude. To be able to sing and dance and splash color in front of a corporate juggernaut is to show the world that the emperor has no clothes, that resistance is not futile. Resistance is serious business, it is life and death, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful and fun.