An Interview with Nicolas Lampert

“When artists join social movements, they become agitators in the best sense of the word, and their art becomes less about the individual and more about the common vision and aspirations of many. Their art challenges power and becomes part of a culture of resistance.”

–from A People’s Art History of the United States by Nicolas Lampert (BFA '92)

Dwelling along the world’s culturally complex interstices where communities collide and languages and power relations jostle, Nicolas Lampert is a Milwaukee-based interdisciplinary artist, teacher and author whose work focuses on themes of social justice and ecology. Through activist graphics and collaborative structures such as a mobile aquaponics / screenprinting lab, Nicolas investigates the political and social forces shaping workers’ rights, labor history, fair housing and social justice. Collectively, he works with the Justseeds Artist’s Cooperative and ReciproCity - a mobile cultural center that focuses on community activism, social justice, and urban agricultural issues in Milwaukee and beyond.

Nicolas can trace these commitments to his studies at Stamps and his experiences in Ann Arbor and Detroit. As a high school student, a couple of summers of art camp convinced Nicolas that he wanted to study art at a university. At U-M he was met with a studio practice focused on traditional skill building, and a midwestern work ethic that resonated with him. He remembers working around the clock. During his last two years, Nicolas got into the underground music and anarchist scene in Ann Arbor and Detroit, seeing shows at Trumbellplex, the anarchist cooperative near Wayne State, and bands like Nirvana, the Butthole Surfers, and the Laughing Hyenas at Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig. These experiences, plus living in Co-op housing and witnessing the burgeoning worlds of DIY makers and art collectives, impacted Nicholas’ education as an artist and activist.

When he went on to grad school on the West Coast, at the California College of the Arts in Oakland, he immersed himself in action-based art projects, including a pirate radio station, Free Radio Berkeley.

Nicolas remained in the Bay Area for close to 10 years before coming back to the Midwest, where he is now a full time faculty member (academic staff appointment) at the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. At UWM he teaches in two areas: Printmaking and the Division of Writing and Critical Thinking, where he teaches courses in art and ecology political art, and community art.

With a combined student population of about 800 students, UWM’s art program has a strong social justice emphasis, with initiatives that include a new BA program in Community Arts where students actively engage with the city and the surrounding neighborhoods.

These interactions – of the social worlds and the art worlds – is part of the unusual creative ecosystem in Milwaukee that Nicolas Lampert’s work thrives within. Without a traditional commercial art market or proximity to a gallery system, artists and activists create their own worlds based on assets and needs.

One of these projects, about to hit the Milwaukee streets, was built by Nicolas and his collaborators in ReciproCity. It is a laboratory on wheels (a trailer, to be exact) that fuses questions of agriculture, art and education. Part farm stand, part aquaponics demonstration and part mobile screenprinting studio, it also functions as an “agitational” community center.

Nicolas’ most recent project is a comprehensive and provocative book that took eight years to complete, and builds on his experiences living and working cooperatively. Titled A People’s Art History of the United States: 250 Year of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, the book positions art history within the rough-and-tumble worlds of politics, social struggles, and the fight for justice. Part of the People’s History series initiated by social historian Howard Zinn through The New Press, a non-profit press in New York City that has a long-standing reputation of publishing books on contemporary social issues, A People's Art History... weaves a politically charged narrative that combines historical sweep with individual artist stories to chronicle the critical role that art plays and has played in our society, from the conquest of the Americas to anti-globalization movements.

Lampert is currently out on the road with the People’s Art History of the United States book tour. Look for him in NYC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago... and Ann Arbor.

 



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