American Truth: art and imagery
Art has the power to inspire us, encourage us and even make us cry. Paintings and still photography capture moments in our lives and reflect our experiences. There are pieces of American art that reflect moments and story lines in our nation’s history.
“Washington Crossing the Delaware” depicts the Revolutionary War. The horrors of the Civil War are captured in photographs of soldiers who died on the battlefield.
Imagery also puts on display our nation’s accomplishments and successes. Critics consider the image of Rosie the Riveter in the “We Can Do It!” poster as perhaps the most iconic image of working women. American ingenuity and the birth of aviation were captured in the Wright brothers’ first flight photo. Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic” has become an American masterpiece.
“Migrant Mother” is a photograph that’s an icon of the Great Depression. Soon after that photo was taken, President Franklin D. Roosevelt detailed his vision of America during a Jan. 6, 1941, address. He spoke to an America and a world that faced unprecedented danger, instability, and uncertainty.
“The first is freedom of speech and expression everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which translated into world terms means economic understandings, which will secure to every nation a healthy, peacetime life for its inhabitants everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation would be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor, anywhere in the world,” Roosevelt said.
That speech inspired American artist Norman Rockwell to put paint to canvass to reflect those four freedoms in a series of pieces: “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,” “Freedom From Want” and “Freedom From Fear.”
Randy Simmons is a professor at the Paducah School of Art and Design. “Norman Rockwell is a great example of an artist who reflected a upon the current issues, or beliefs, or the philosophies of the time. You see his work expand, what, 40, 50 years reflecting back on Americana,” Simmons said.
“I think we’re surrounded by art and just don’t realize it. In terms of images — and we could look at images on the news, and those images are very powerful. The things we see on the internet — I think those images are incredibly powerful,” Simmons said.
A handful of photos taken in New York City after 9/11 are now iconic, such as one titled “Firefighters Raising Flag” and another by Richard Drew titled “The Falling Man.”
“The buildings were on fire. People were jumping off, off — leaping out of the windows. And there’s a picture of one guy who’s unidentified. He’s upside down. And his legs are bent in such a way he looks like an arrow shooting down. What a powerful image that is of that person falling to his death. You know he didn’t live seconds past that instant. To me, that is an incredibly powerful image,” Simmons said.
The pieces that move us, spark conversations or lead to controversy are often ones that reflect uncomfortable truths happening in America. One example is racial profiling by police, and it’s the topic of “The Profile” by Paducah artist Shanden Simmons. We caught up with him in his studio on the second floor of the Coke Plant in Paducah.
Simmons is working on his next piece, which will reflect the ongoing debate over immigration, deportation and border security. If it sparks awareness and uncomfortable conversations — that’s the point.
“Our social and political problems are going to persist and persist if we don’t have enough people honestly documenting and talking about it, but also putting it right in your face and making you humanize these things,” Simmons said.
“The Profile, “Simmons’ most recent piece, did that as it depicted three white police officers arresting a black man.
“This is a piece of art that’s graphically and honestly depicting racial profiling — most controversial means of profiling people is by race, and there is sufficient evidence why that’s such a controversial, inhumane reason to profile anyone. It’s racist,” Simmons said.
“What you’re seeing is a frame of a narrative that you don’t know what happened before or after. So, the point is to really scrutinize your own emotions on the one frame,” Simmons said.
Whether in paintings, photographs, or other media, art captures and reflects the great truths of our nation.