Most Americans felt helpless after the Sept. 11 attacks. Suddenly there was a new vocabulary to learn, a new political geography and an all-too tangible threat. UNC-Chapel Hill art professor elin o’Hara slavick knew she had to do something. Along with a small group of teachers and community members, the 37-year-old professor swiftly planned a series of community teach-ins aimed at exploring the United States’ involvement with Afghanistan. Slavick helped gather experts on Middle East policy, law, history and religion, and set up forums on the war on terrorism. More than 800 people attended the first teach-in. “I remember people in the audience gasping when one speaker announced that we had trained the Taliban. I think that a lot of people didn’t know that, a lot of people still don’t know that,” she said. “The teach-ins were really about undoing and responding to that mainstream blackout of true information and historical accuracy.”
More than a thousand people attended the series, which offered differing viewpoints on issues like religion and civil liberties, but not everyone was thankful for slavick’s efforts. Hate calls started rolling in; some said that slavick should be tried for treason, fired, or even killed. One caller named slavick as the target of an assassination plot, which was more than enough to frighten her.
“Of course all of us condemned the attacks, but [the discussion] gets turned around, like we hate America, like only war is patriotic, as if peace weren’t the ultimate act of patriotism,” she said. “We were exercising our free speech, so the question becomes, is it free if you can’t disagree?”
Teaching, organizing and using her art to inform the community are common threads in slavick’s work, and follow her philosophy that no art or education is politically neutral. In her nine years teaching at UNC, she has worked to challenge her students’ ideas about art, and has pushed them to relate their own experiences to the outside world, stressing the importance of free expression.
Slavick began clearing space for free speech almost upon arrival in the Triangle in 1994 after getting her MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago. Soon after accepting a teaching position at UNC, she fell headfirst into a First Amendment battle over an exhibition at Raleigh’s Artspace. Some members of the gallery objected to one of slavick’s drawings, part of a 1995 exhibit, The Pleasures of Gender. The piece, “Man D,” contained references to a lesbian relationship, and the gallery asked slavick to replace it. As the city had recently purchased the building in which Artspace is housed, the debate widened into one of public funding and the First Amendment. In the end, slavick and the ACLU won an injunction against the city and the show was permitted to open.
Slavick says she fought the Artspace battle with only limited support from the local art community. “When I first came here, I felt like the community was really split,” she said. “I think that if something like that happened now, there would be more of a coming together in support of free speech and the arts.” Slavick credits groups like Raleigh’s LUMP gallery and Contemporary Art Museum, and events like LOOM (the annual Pittsboro exhibit curated by UNC undergraduates), for building a more closely knit arts community.
Others admire slavick for both her presence as an artist and her role as teacher. “She has really inspired a lot of people,” says Bill Thelen of LUMP gallery. “I always feel that she is there, not afraid to give her opinions. She is actually part of the dialogue that is going on both locally and nationally, and she is definitely making work–very rare in this area–where there is a larger social agenda.”
Slavick’s social agenda is apparent to anyone who walks into her classroom, where works from her collection Places the United States Has Bombed currently are hanging from floor to ceiling. The paintings are reinterpretations of aerial views used by the military to bomb such places as Panama, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Vietnam and Vieques Island, the controversial bombing range in Puerto Rico. She has worked on the series for more than three years, researching government information about a half century’s worth of United States military bombing both at home and abroad. Together the paintings make a formidable collection: Vietnam has a batiked quality, in rich browns, yellows and blues. Baghdad is depicted after the first 24 hours of the Gulf War, patterned and abstract with deep red splashes of paint. One painting, depicting the bombing of the MOVE coalition house in Philadelphia, is currently hanging in the José Martí National Library in Havana, Cuba, as part of an international traveling exhibit called Toxic Landscapes.
In addition to her success as an exhibiting artist, slavick retains a strong commitment to the local art scene. And like her work with the teach-ins, she is grounded in the Triangle community, even when exploring global concerns. “It is important for me and my sanity here to have this community. I really think it is so important to participate, to look at other people’s work and dialogue with people on a daily basis.” Slavick passes this philosophy on to her students, making it a point in each class to work collaboratively, toward art with a public component. She supported the creation of the LOOM exhibit two years ago, originally proposed to slavick as an independent study by artist Jeff Waites. This semester slavick and her conceptual photography class constructed a camera obscura outside Hanes Art Center. Resembling a small shed, the room acts as a giant pinhole camera. As light passes through small holes and into the darkened room, images of the outside world are projected upside-down, onto the paper-lined interior of the room. The science behind the camera obscura is simple, but like all of slavick’s work, it presents the world in a different light.
“So many people are coming to see it every day, people are bringing their parents and their families to look at it, and they love it,” slavick said. “They are having this amazing experience, and what they are blown away by is just that they are seeing the world upside-down.”