In January of this year, the Women’s March marked a landmark day for handmade posterboard signs. But for feminist statements that won’t get soggy in the rain, there’s the work of Michele Pred, a Bay Area artist who has garnered buzz and accolades from some very famous fans in the months surrounding the election of Donald Trump.
Pred, who was born in San Francisco and grew up in both Berkeley and Sweden, makes accessories (like handbags bearing straightforward political messages like “Pro Choice”) as well as large-scale installations (like Homeland Security, comprised of objects confiscated at airports by the TSA). Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said that Pred’s work “is an important offering for its relevance to the times.” Comedian Amy Schumer let an image speak a thousand words in February when she posted an Instagram video of a Michele Pred handbag reading “Pro Choice” on one side and “Nasty Woman” on the other.
Locally, Pred’s work is included in the Minnesota Street Project’s group exhibition RISE UP! Art as Action in San Francisco, on view through May 6. We asked her a few questions over email.
I know you grew up partially in Sweden; how do you think your experience with living abroad and experiencing a political system that’s very different from ours has affected your perspective on our current situation?
Growing up in Sweden had a huge effect on me and the way I think politically. The political choices they have made in Sweden helped create an extremely high standard of living without the extremes of poverty or wealth we have here. Neither has this balance come at the expense of personal freedom. Sweden is able to think in the longer term and, partially due to an excellent education system, consider issues in all of their complexity without resorting to the easiest, most comfortable answer. For example, women in Sweden have 18 months of paid parental leave, and men have a mandatory three months’ paid parental leave, contributing to the overall sense of well-being. I would never say that their system is perfect, but the U.S. could learn a great deal if only we could set aside our political labels.
My political views have also been greatly influenced by my parents. My mother, who ventured away from Sweden as a young woman in the 1950s, was determined, independent and fierce. She also built a strong bridge for our family back to Sweden. My father was a Professor in Cultural Geography at UC Berkeley for over 40 years and was extremely political with a passion for social justice. It was the norm to sit around the dinner table and critically discuss current political affairs across the globe.
How did you spent election night? Was your initial reaction to make art about it?
I spent election night at a Hillary party at our neighbors’ house. I had gone so far as to buy a cake that said “Hillary” on it, bought balloons and red, white and blue decorations and a really good bottle of champagne. We thought we were going to be celebrating a historic event. As the evening progressed, I was initially in denial about the direction the election was going. I thought Hillary would pick up more states later in the evening. One by one people started to leave the party when we realized what direction the election was going. I was in shock. Needless to say, we never drank that bottle of champagne.
The day after, and the following week, I was simply in shock. I wanted to start making artwork about the election right away, but I just couldn’t. Up until the election I was responding immediately to Trump’s actions and words. I made a “Nasty Woman” purse the morning after that debate and a “Pussy Grabs Back” the day after the audio came out in the media. To be honest, I was exhausted after campaigning all year with my various art projects (Patriot Act Performance and HerBodyHerVote) and I was hoping to take a little break. But we lost, and it was devastating, so I just had to pull up my bootstraps and march on with my work!
How do you see the role of the artist within a protest movement? What is your responsibility?
As an artist, I feel it’s my role to spark conversation and reflection about the world around us with or without a protest movement. However, the current environment certainly adds a sense of urgency to my work and makes those conversations all the more important. The movement also helps amplify all of our voices and can draw new attention to issues that may have been hard to hear only a year ago.
Still, for the next four years, my focus will remain on the issues that I have always cared about. In that way, I hope to help us all avoid being distracted by the more frivolous sideshows and intentional misdirections we are being fed.
Your handbags and other pieces bearing pro-choice messages have garnered a lot of attention in these volatile times for women’s rights. How does one make pro-choice art without feeling like one is preaching to the choir? Do you set out to change people’s minds, or is serving as a source of strength and inspiration for folks who already share your viewpoints enough?
One important aspect of my current artwork is to support pro-choice organizations like NARAL and Planned Parenthood. I have been donating a percentage of my sales to these organizations since 2013, particularly through events sponsored by those organizations. They do work for abortion and reproductive rights that I am unable to do, so I see that as an extension of my work. I also see my purses, T-shirts, tote bags and pins as small-scale mobile political billboards that carry pro-choice messages into the public beyond the art gallery. Those, along with the actual billboards I have run, are meant to encourage dialogue. Sometimes that dialogue is charged and not necessarily fruitful, but I often see it working to clarify viewpoints and work out issues.
There was a pro-life blog that created a visually beautiful article about the pro-choice pieces with many images of my work. I have hopes that it might have led some people to stop and think about the ideas I was presenting.
When I sent out the “Her Body Her Business” T-shirts to all U.S. Senators before the election, I received several responses. One was a thoughtful and respectful letter from John McCain. Naturally we have completely opposing ideas about reproductive rights but he opened up a dialogue with me and I plan on writing him back to continue the discussion. If we can understand each other more, maybe we can actually create some lasting change.
But, my work is absolutely about serving as a source of strength and inspiration too. We desperately need this right now.
How did your “VOTE” bag wind up in the hands of Hillary Clinton?
I started making “VOTE” bags in April last year to emphasize the importance of the female vote. Then, last June, I received a Pro Choice Leadership Award from Personal PAC, a pro-choice Super PAC in Illinois. They held a fundraiser in a Gallery in Chicago where I had my work on display and I was donating a portion of the sale of my pieces to Personal PAC. I had the “VOTE” purse on display, but that particular piece was not yet for sale. A very prominent collector asked if she could buy it, and I told her no, as I had already promised it to my gallery in New York. She then asked me if I would sell it to her if she gifted it to Hillary, and naturally, I said yes! The collector gave the purse to Hillary in person.
What do you have coming up in your work that you’re most excited about? Are there any topics you feel you absolutely must comment on?
I am also working on a series of riot shields with feminist slogans emblazoned on them with pink nail polish. I purchase the shields online from a police supply business.
I carried the first one I made to Inauguration Day in D.C. [see photo, above, of Pred with police in riot gear]. It is currently on view at Southern Exposure in the 100 Days Action exhibit. Right now, I’m also working on a round riot shield with the text “Nevertheless She Persisted.” It is still in process so I do not have an image of it yet. I plan on making approximately 7–10 more shields (both round and rectangular) and creating a large-scale wall installation. I hope to show it in the next few months at an art fair or other venue.
Who do you look to for inspiration in times like the present?
I have been very inspired by female artists like Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. Locally, I love the project Ana Teresa Fernandez is doing with painting the Mexican border wall, and Taraneh Hemami creates great work as well.
Michele Pred’s work is on view at the Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco through May 6 and Southern Exposure through March 19. For more, check out her website at michelepred.com.