An Artist Leads A 'Violet Protest' Against Polarization

Jun 5, 2021

In a divisive year in American history, Arizona artist Ann Morton has led a decidedly nonradical "Violet Protest."

"That combination of red and blue on the color wheel is violet," Morton said. "And what I like about that word, it's one letter away from violent."

Ann Morton put out a call on social media in January 2020, asking people to create 8 inch by 8 inch textile squares that use equal parts red and blue. They could be woven, sewn, knitted, crocheted, embroidered — but they aren't supposed to represent any explicit political positions. Instead, the squares and the project as a whole stand for a set of values: respect for the other, citizenship, compromise, country over party and corporate influence, courage, candor, compassion and creativity.

More than 2,000 people from all over the country responded, including at least one person from every state. They created and sent in nearly 10,000 squares that are now on exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum. The exhibition is an aesthetically pleasing work of community art, but it is also a metaphor for our system of government itself.

"As you can see, there's just a multitude of creativity here," Morton said, standing before the work of her contributors. "But within that framework, it all fits into the larger picture. ... That's how democracy works."

Morton is still accepting textile squares until the end of July, when they will be divided up and sent to every member of Congress. The project hearkens back to the AIDS Quilt, which Morton remembers seeing herself at the National Mall. She said her own textile-themed statement has already had an impact on some local politicians who've seen it at the museum, including Phoenix's mayor.

"They're blown away," Morton said of some people who have been in to see the thousands of squares in person, "because each person took their time to make this because they believed in what the project was about."

Artist Ann Morton says some local politicians in Phoenix are blown away by the project.
Bill Tillerman

She hopes it has a similar effect on the senators and representatives when they receive the squares.

"I hope that we can move some people to just maybe reconsider or consider more carefully how they're approaching their decision-making," Morton said.

The Violet Protest exhibition room is in the back of the Phoenix Art Museum — past the bustling lobby, event space, and staircase up to the high-profile European masterpieces. It's down in a basement area — a refuge from the stress and conflict of the real world, almost a sanctuary.

Down there, museum patrons are greeted by a stack of thousands of submitted textile squares as tall as a child. They're arranged in the shape of the letters US, both for the word "us" and for the United States. Two walls are covered floor to ceiling with squares displaying images such as state birds or civic buildings, and messages including "COMPROMISE" or "VOTE."

Savannah Gordon, a tailor and costume designer from Beaverton, Ore., has contributed over 20 squares to "The Violet Protest."

"I kind of focused more on the Earth, and nature and a little bit of history. I did a square with a Native American," Gordon said. "I love people. And I love our planet. ... I don't want to be divided. It's terrible, it affects all of us."

Kitty Spangler, from Pittsburgh, has made 90 squares and counting.

"This one says the word unity," she said, describing a recently finished contribution. "This woven ribbon across the bottom I think of as people being mixed together and intertwined."

Left: Kitty Spangler from Pittsburgh has completed over 90 squares for "The Violet Protest" project, including this one. Right: Oregon resident Savannah Gordon created this square and many others.
The Violet Protest

Many museum visitors find the installation powerful. Like 20-year-old Shanna Bragg, who said she's had family members ignore her and cut her off completely because they had differing political views.

Standing in the exhibition room, she said, "I just kind of think it's amazing that so many people have a different idea of what unity is, but as you can see, they're still together."

New Arizona resident Nivea Green visited the same day as Bragg. "I'm from Mississippi, so quilts is like a really big part of our history that dates back to slavery," she said. "So it definitely kind of reminds me of telling the story."

Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, said political polarization means people's positions on logically unrelated things like COVID-19 restrictions and voter I.D. rules are often aligned — so there's friction and widespread disagreement.

"It's not so much that people are more extremely liberal or conservative than they used to be," Federico said. "It's really that partisan identification — whether you identify as a Democrat or Republican — that's aligned with a lot more things to a much greater extent than it used to be."

The problem, as Federico describes it, is many Americans' deep devotion to and identification with their political party become teams that split us into two. Each "Violet Protest" square is its own individual expression. There are thousands of ideas on the wall, many unique interpretations of common problems — not just two — and they come together to form a powerful singular statement: unity.

This story was adapted from a full length podcast episode on "The Violet Protest" from the original series State of the Arts Arizona.

Copyright 2021 KJZZ. To see more, visit KJZZ.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a cliche - but no less true because it's a cliche - that the U.S. is politically divided, you know? Red states and blue states, Republican and Democrat. But artist Ann Morton is trying to counter that division with something she calls "The Violet Protest." Reporter Anthony Wallace of member station KJZZ in Phoenix visited the installation and sent us this report.

ANTHONY WALLACE, BYLINE: In 2020, Ann Morton put out a call on social media, asking people to create 8-inch-by-8-inch textile squares that use equal parts red and blue.

ANN MORTON: That combination of red and blue on the color wheel is violet. What I like about that word is it's one letter away from violent.

WALLACE: More than 2,000 people from all over the country responded. They sent nearly 10,000 squares that are on exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum.

MORTON: As you can see, there's just a multitude of creativity here. But within that framework, it all fits into the larger picture. That's how democracy works.

WALLACE: Morton is still receiving textile squares, some knitted, woven or sewn. And all of those submitted by the end of July will be divided and sent to every member of Congress. She says the exhibitions already had an impact on some local politicians who've seen it, including Phoenix's mayor.

MORTON: I hope that we can move some people to maybe reconsider or consider more carefully how they're approaching their decision-making.

WALLACE: "The Violet Protest" is being exhibited in a room in the back of the Phoenix Art Museum down in a basement area, a refuge from the stress and conflict of the real world, almost a sanctuary. Museum patrons are greeted by a stack of thousands of submitted textile squares as tall as a child. They're arranged in the shape of the letters U-S, for us and the United States. Two walls are covered floor to ceiling with squares, displaying images like state birds or civic buildings and messages like compromise or vote. Thirty-five-year-old Savannah Gordon from Oregon contributed more than 20 squares.

SAVANNAH GORDON: I kind of focused more on the Earth and nature, a little bit of history. I did a square that had a Native American on there and a ship. And I love people, and I love our planet. I don't want to be divided. It's terrible. It affects all of us.

WALLACE: Kitty Spangler, from Pittsburgh, has made 90 squares and counting.

KITTY SPANGLER: This one says the word unity. And this woven ribbon across the bottom I think of as people being mixed together and intertwined.

WALLACE: Many museum visitors find the installation powerful, like 20-year-old Shanna Bragg.

SPANGLER: I just kind of think it's amazing that so many people have a different idea of what unity is, but, like, as you can see, they're still together.

WALLACE: And New Phoenix resident Nivea Green.

NIVEA GREEN: I'm from Mississippi. So the quilt's just like a really big part of our history that dates back to slavery. So it definitely kind of reminds me of, like, telling a story.

WALLACE: Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, says political polarization means people's positions on logically unrelated things, like COVID-19 restrictions and voter ID rules are often aligned. So there's friction and widespread disagreement.

CHRISTOPHER FEDERICO: So it's not so much that people are more extremely liberal and conservative than they used to be; it's really that partisan identification. Whether you identify as a Democrat or a Republican, that's aligned with a lot more things to a much greater extent than it used to be.

WALLACE: Each "Violet Protest" square is its own individual expression. The thousands of ideas on the wall represent many unique interpretations of common problems, not just two. And they come together to form a powerful, singular statement - unity.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Wallace in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYLE'S "PINKTREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.