Lighting up the fight: The artist shaping the image of New York’s resistance
On a rainy December night, Athena Soules hastily sticks together two pieces of black corrugated plastic under the light of construction scaffolding a block away from the United Nations building. Blue battery-powered Christmas lights pierce through the rectangular canvasses spelling out, “Climate Clock,” in Arial Narrow font.
Soules, a Clinton Hill-based artist and activist, is about to participate in a global climate action to illustrate a metric of time to the conversation of global warming. As a projection of the Climate Clock shines onto the side of the UN building, her LED-lit sign lights up as well, and the protest action begins.
The night is reminiscent of one roughly six years ago in Manhattan’s Financial District that sparked NYC Light Brigade, a project in which Soules is co-founder and chief-igniter. Her signs have since ended up on the front page of the Washington Post, across online media and behind politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Exposure and portraying support for a movement is always a matter of figuring out where the biggest protest is and what the best message is,” Soules said.
“If I compose the shot and direct people and angle people and make it look the best it can right in front of the cameras, then that’s how I’ve learned to get my message out,” she said of her signs. “They [the media] will take those photos and if they’re the coolest photos of the night, they will use them.”
Soules has been living in Brooklyn for 21 years, but she’s originally from Atlanta, where at a young age she was exposed to the art world. Her mother’s small medical practice was frequented by many of the city’s artists, and it was there that she discovered her passion for creating art.
Working with fabric and different textiles was her first love, but looking back, she said words and messages were always present in her work.
“I was just learning to sew when I was little and I went into the other room and asked my mom, ‘Mom, do you have a motto?’ and she had to think about it and was like, ‘I guess it’s ‘whatever works,’’” Soules said, reminiscing on a project she made for her mother at age 9. “So I went back upstairs and I was playing with what cross stitching is and I made this sweet little pillow with the cross stitching: ‘Whatever works.’”
Once she graduated high school, Soules moved to Clinton Hill to attend Pratt Institute and major in painting.
It wasn’t until October 2011, when a friend of her brother’s came back full of adrenaline from a march on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that she got hooked on activism. Getting back to working with fabric and text, she volunteered to make a banner for members of Occupy to march in the city’s Halloween parade.
The 15-by-3-foot banner, made up of individual fabric letters spelling out the movement name, ended up being a symbol for Occupy Wall Street. Soules was in talks with the Smithsonian Institution to donate it to the museum.
“Ever since then I’ve just had my ear to the ground on grassroots movements … always paying attention to see how I could perhaps contribute my art and messaging to causes I believe in and it’s been constant ever since,” she said.
The inspiration for the project came from the Overpass Light Brigade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a group of activists who held LED-lit signs over highway overpasses to mimic official DOT messages.
Ahead of Tax Day in 2013, NYC Light Brigade co-founder Gan Golan got an 8-bit video game engineered called, Tax Evaders. With the help of The Illuminator project, people could play the game that portrayed tax evading corporations as bad guys, projected onto corporate office buildings in Lower Manhattan. Much like the Climate Clock action, Soules and other volunteers held up lit signs accompanying the projection and the brigade hasn’t stopped since.
Soules now creates the signs herself and with political engagement spreading after the 2016 presidential election, she’s had ample opportunities to get the brigade into the public light.
She has brought the light brigade to a laundry list of movements, including the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter protests and immigrant rights actions, and is sometimes contracted by non-profit organizations for bright messages.
A storage unit in the basement of her Clinton Avenue apartment holds more than 200 signs from past protests, many of which she’ll reuse, if appropriate.
For now, as people continue to stand up for the issues impacting their lives and the lives of others, Soules will continue to strap on knee pads, lay out stencils on pieces of corrugated plastic on the floor of her living room and give light to the movements of our day.
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