While Little Rock artist and art teacher Laura Raborn generally focuses on figurative oil paintings, the weeks before the November 8th Presidential election impelled her to create collages incorporating Donald Trump quotes that left her shocked and bereft. Following Trump’s inauguration, Raborn continues her work. She fears that the flow of terrible fodder won’t slow anytime soon. However, Raborn is transforming Trump’s most heinous words and actions into support for women: she’s donating half of every sale $1 to $599, and 100% of every dollar over $600 to Planned Parenthood. Trump may never eat his words, but now at least some of them are being repurposed to serve women and groups that he has slighted.
Erin Wood: What was your motivation for these works?
Laura Raborn: 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 seemed like Trump’s disgusting and offensive words were increasing his popularity instead of diminishing it. Of course, many shared my shock, but it amazed me that he also had so many cheerleaders.
EW: How did you begin to transform Trump’s words into these pieces?
LR: 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 found myself headed to my mixed media table to play with Trump language and imagery.
There was something very urgent about making them. None of them are on canvas. I would literally grab a piece of cardboard or paper out of the trashcan. I Gessoed the cardboard before applying the next layer of materials, so they’re not going to disintegrate. There was something haphazard and immediate about the materials I was grabbing. It was a very cathartic process, so I wasn’t thinking they needed to be consistent in size or done on very specialized paper.
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. Because the quotes were so rude or derogatory—and generally targeted toward a certain group—it was enjoyable to destroy them, to cut them up and sand them down and glue things on top of them. In some pieces, you can still read the quotes, but in others the quotes have been demolished.
EW: What was the first quote that really got you heated?
LR: There have been so many outrageous statements, it’s hard to remember. Not only by Trump, of course—there are outrageous statements made all too often in American politics. We tend to become hyper-focused on our time, but it is not as if the trash talk started in 2016. However, Donald Trump has taken it to a newly low level, directly insulting so many individuals and different groups of people. Not all the quotes are current, some just bubbled to the surface again during the election from his past statements and interviews.
Some will recall that he was quoted by the former President of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino as having said something about hating black guys counting his money along with declaring laziness a trait specific to black people. I found that to be absolutely disgusting and, of course, racist.
Another awful one that comes to mind is: “It doesn’t matter what the media writes about you as long as you have a young and beautiful piece of ass.” I used it for a piece and did not destroy or obliterate it—it’s very easy to read and clear. I haven’t layered it yet and might not. Some people think you are just being a sensitive woman by objecting to this quote or feeling offended by it. I’m just utterly disgusted by that response! No, I’m just a human who doesn’t want to be insulted by the President of the United States! Why don’t you feel the same? It’s just so marginalizing and demoralizing.
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 based on those beliefs. And what else is there in life? Isn’t it all about how we treat each other? 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?
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 that “beautiful piece of ass” quote.
I think about earlier in the Campaign, when Trump viciously attacked an 18-year-old college student who said, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you can prove me wrong, but I don’t think you’re a friend to women.” He didn’t like that one bit, and spoke hatefully about her on Twitter, calling her an “arrogant young woman.” A man running for President of the United States singled out an 18-year-old college student because she didn’t agree with him in a public forum that was intended as Q&A? The fear that creates in people is so scary. It’s cruel and mean to her. And why is he not thinking on a higher level? Why is he not thinking about solving national or global problems? Why is it so important to him to publicly rip to shreds a college student? To protect his fragile ego? After that, she got death threats! Rape threats! People said she’d better hide and that they were going to attack her in her home. Someone apparently emailed her and described bloodying her face on a curb and urinating in her bloody mouth. If Trump had not Tweeted about it, it wouldn’t have given the permission to bring the focus of hatred onto this girl. Also on Twitter, he accused her of being a plant by Jeb Bush, but even if that were true what does it matter? He singled her out for attack.
When we have experienced any kind of hatefulness, it impacts our future decisions. Even when we are tough and we don’t want it to, the hate act makes us rethink. It makes us operate in fear. That’s when people become too afraid to speak out and stand up for the dignity of others because they are afraid of those angry, hateful people attacking them. I hate to admit it, but fear was on my mind when I first considered posting the paintings on Instagram. I just realized I had to set it aside.
EW: So, what made you decide to start an Instagram auction?
LR: Before the election, I posted some of these mixed media pieces on my Instagram account. I don’t have a huge following like some of the artists I follow who have thousands and thousands. But I thought, Well I’ll post a few of these and just see what the discussion is. They got a lot of likes and supportive comments, and then somebody called me about buying one of them. I hadn’t really thought about selling one since they were more personal and cathartic. So that inquiry made me think, Why don’t I sell these and have half of the proceeds go to something in need at this time?
I was reading about the possible defunding of Planned Parenthood under the then newly-elected administration, and that’s when I hatched the Instagram art auction idea for Planned Parenthood.
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.
EW: What’s the Instagram auctioning process?
LR: For each piece, I have a three-day auction on Instagram, listing the painting information and starting price. The goal is to get bids and close the bidding on the third day. When they sell, I post a copy of the check to Planned Parenthood. It is important for those who don’t know me personally to see I’m being transparent about the donation.
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. And that’s what’s so exciting. I keep thinking that if I can grow this following, and it’s successful, I could do this the rest of my life and just pick different organizations. How cool would it be to grow my following as an artist and donate and donate and donate to organizations I have needed when I have felt voiceless, when I’ve felt that I don’t have the pedestal, the microphone, the money.
I think if you’re benefitting others, your drive, your confidence, your motivation, everything elevates.
EW: Have people started to give or send you clippings?
LR: I would love for the project to take off and for people to interact with the project by sending clippings. I really don’t have a ton of support for the pieces. Many people I know either voted for Trump, or are too afraid to speak out in any way, or don’t want to disrupt the status quo, or are just trying their best to block out this nightmare and pretend everything is just fine. So, I’m not exactly getting clippings in the mail, but perhaps I will!
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?”
EW: Which is so ironic, considering the extreme nature of the comments you’re working with!
LR: Someone said, “You’ll lose so-and-so as a client because she’s a big pro-lifer.” And I thought, 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? And it’s not that I don’t care about that one client, but we can’t be driven through life like a ping pong ball. As soon as you please one client, you’d be making another one angry. You cannot be an artist and let these things drive you. To be an artist you have to develop a certain stubbornness, and also a thick skin, because usually you’re not going to satisfy very many people.
I was taken off guard when I posted a few of the pieces on Facebook. I shouldn’t have been surprised because we know 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.
EW: How do you procure the quotes?
LR: I sometimes print them 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 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 backwards. Being able to reverse Trump’s words in this manner really contributes to the composition.
EW: Have the urgency and tension you described dissipated when you find yourself at a stopping point with each work?
LR: Sometimes I’ll make one of these mixed media pieces and add layers, and glue an image down, and paint on top of it, and stamp on top of that, and sand it off. And that really 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.
EW: Have you named your Trump quote series? How big is the body of work?
LR: It doesn’t really have a name (perhaps “Contraband” which means “against the decree”) and it’s turned into more than one series. I thought that I was done on Monday, November 7. I teach mixed media at the Arkansas Arts Center and I am always thinking about methods and materials and ways to make marks and how that impacts the message of the piece. So making these pieces was a really great way to apply what I teach at the Arts Center to my own time in the studio and I don’t always have time to do that.
Then 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. There are 15 or so. At least 10 of them I thought of as nice little pieces of art.
Now I am working on another group, the post-election group. The post-election pieces are sometimes still based on quotes, but the work has shifted toward women’s health. I’m not sure how many there will be. Right now, there are about 10 of these.
EW: What caused the shift from quotes to women’s health?
LR: Well, we could focus on Trump language endlessly, but once the election was over, I had to accept that many people were not bothered by his words. Now my concern is less about exact words out of his mouth and more about the consequences. In donating to Planned Parenthood, I started wondering exactly how defunding the organization will impact women’s health, which has caused me to consider those issues in the newest pieces.
Basically, I’ll make a piece and explore the issue of reproductive rights, with Planned Parenthood in mind, say, thinking about pro-life versus pro-choice, maybe considering how people who are pro-life think that people who are pro-choice are also pro-abortion (which is not true in my experience). Just thinking about those struggles, those issues, those debates, and how they can become violent.
EW: What does that “thinking about” translate into regarding your process?
LR: I’ll do a piece and think, Well, that was interesting to explore the text within an image of a woman’s body. But in the next one, I’ll try the reverse. I’ll lay the text as if it is blocking her out and see how that impacts the message. I might take the same concept and make several pieces based on it because I’m exploring different materials and methods to see which is the most effective. I’m just beginning these sorts of studies and explorations and, unfortunately, every day I am provided with so much more possible subject matter.
EW: You’re using Trump’s words to support an organization he opposes–that’s an intriguing turn!
LR: Exactly. The whole arrangement is very exciting to me. Years ago, I heard Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes speak at The Clinton School of Public Service about sales and business. He spoke of the power of contributing half of all sales to something philanthropic. That always stuck with me and I long wondered what I could do with that advice. When I started thinking about selling these paintings, it was as if Mycoskie’s words had been waiting in the back of my mind for years, just for this occasion.
I also drew upon Hank Willis Thomas, the art activist, whom I heard speak in 2015 at the Arkansas Arts Center. His work appropriates pop culture imagery and puts a twist on it. The twist invites viewers to consider how warped the image is even though we accept it as “normal.” Thomas shows us how visual images such as advertisements marginalize certain groups of people and impact our beliefs. He uses art to address race issues and women’s issues. Reflecting on others’ work, I kept thinking, What can I do? What will I do? And like so many of us, this election is the first time I realized how complacent I’ve been. There are so many things that are hurting people and I haven’t been doing anything to help.
EW: Do you have a favorite? Or least favorite? The most trying?
LR: It is hard to pick a favorite because some are more compositionally successful than others, making them my favorite in terms of viewing artwork. But others are more successful in terms of concept and message.
For example, the piece, “When You’re a Star, You Can Do Anything,” is an attractive piece with great colors and interesting marks. I am pleased with the use of materials and the design. On the other hand, the message/idea is quite diluted; and therefore, could be considered less effective.
The piece, “Who’s Afraid,” is like a puzzle and the viewer can piece together clues and have that “Ah ha” moment. I like this one because it is not targeting one specific issue, just the deep fear many of us are experiencing.
“Small Hands” is a favorite because it is not angry or overtly scary. It combines language and visual imagery to remind us of what was discussed during the Presidential debates. Trump talked about his hand size and alluded to the size of his penis. During a debate while running for the President of the United States. Unbelievable.
As far as one that was most difficult, I’d have to point to the pile of failures that are still stacked up in my studio. There are several that I thought were good ideas and they are not working. They sit, waiting to be revised or thrown away.
EW: Do you think the fact that these are Trump pieces make some people unwilling to purchase them because they don’t want his likeness or ugly words in their living spaces?
LR: Some of these 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. 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’s a little gross. And 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.
EW: I was thinking, what if I bought one of the pieces that you don’t feel are sellable, and what if we burned it?
LR: 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.
EW: You have girls nearly the age of the teen Trump called out on Twitter. What are you thinking about their futures?
LR: 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 7th grade). And now, we have inappropriate and degrading language used by our new president, which supports degrading and abusive treatment of women.
EW: Maybe the thing that has made women’s suffering more endurable is that we’re operating under the assumption that it’s getting better, that maybe comments or situations are somehow just little backslides or pockets of ignorant people. And now we can’t operate under that assumption anymore. We see it’s just that people were quieter about how they truly feel and they are no longer. It’s terrifying.
LR: 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. (Related to that, I think every white person should read Nicolas Kristoff’s When White People Just Don’t Get It.) Of course, people tend to not act 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. This painting series has helped me with that willingness, and I hope it encourages others too.
So, I continue to work on the pieces. I have to take short breaks to recover, then I am compelled to start again. Trump’s first weeks in office have provided more material than I can cover in a lifetime.
Laura Raborn’s paintings have been exhibited throughout Arkansas and are in numerous collections including recent acquisitions by the CARTI Collection, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and the Bill and Hillary Clinton private collection. Her work has earned numerous awards and she has a thriving portrait commission business, one of which was presented to the former Governor of Arkansas, Mike Beebe. She teaches mixed media at the Arkansas Arts Center. Her Little Rock, AR, studio is open for appointments and her paintings can be viewed at www.lauraraborn.wordpress.com or by visiting Justus Fine Art in Hot Springs, AR. Follow her on Instagram @lauraraborn.