Arts and Humanities People and Community

The Power of Art

University of Miami’s Wynwood Art Gallery holds its annual faculty exhibition featuring thought-provoking art pieces in a variety of mediums.
Billie Lynn's American Mask artwork at Wynwood Art Gallery
UM Associate Professor of Sculpture in the Department of Art and Art History Billie G. Lynn stands alongside her artwork, American Mask, being featured at the 2017 Faculty Exhbition at the Wynwood Art Gallery, opening October 23.

Art is an excuse for a conversation, said artist Billie Lynn.

She is one of the exhibiting artists at this year’s annual University of Miami faculty exhibition at the Wynwood Gallery. Lynn’s provocative art piece entitled American Mask, has attracted glances and murmurs from passersby as the artwork looms in a gallery window.

The piece consists of three American flags fashioned as Ku Klux Klan hoods that are on a cart with wheels in the shape of a Nazi swastika.

“I’ve always felt that art could and should act as a mirror to the culture, so that we can have these kinds of conversations within the context of talking about art,” said Lynn, an associate professor of sculpture and associate chair and graduate director in the Department of Art and Art History at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences. 

Lynn had just visited the gallery, in its final preparations for its opening on October 23, and described a conversation she had with one curious, and very angry, construction worker who was observing the artwork: “I asked him what he thought it meant and he said, ‘It’s racist.’ And I said, ‘Well, it is racist, it’s about racism. It’s about people hiding their racism behind the flag, behind their patriotism.’ Instantly all of his angry energy just dissipated as he had this realization. This is what democracy is. It’s messy business and it requires us to talk with each other.”

The kinetic and interactive sculpture artist felt compelled to make this stimulating piece, part of her larger collection entitled American Empire, she said, after watching the 2017 Charlottesville riots where protesters were carrying the American flag next to a Nazi flag and a Confederate battle flag.

“I just thought, that’s what needs to be protested—that the American flag is positioned in between those two symbols of hatred and racism,” she said. “If there was ever a time to show this work, it’s now.”

The piece, Lynn explains, is “addressing what’s going on in this country with how racists, the alt-right, white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other bigots at large are using the American flag as a mask for their own beliefs.”

A former girl scout who was taught to never let the flag touch the ground, Lynn explained the difficulty of creating this art.

“I consider myself a patriot and I love this country. It was very painful for me to cut the flag to make it into that shape. But I think that’s what’s happening, the country is in pain,” she said. “We’re being torn apart by believing that somehow having nationalistic pride is connected to being of a certain race, the white race, and the real truth of this country is that we’re a melting pot, people from all over the world with different beliefs, different orientations, different ideas. That’s what makes America great. And I don’t want the American flag to be taken as a symbol for white supremacy, and I think that is what’s happening and that’s a dark path to go down.”

American Mask is one thought-provoking piece alongside many others at this year’s faculty exhibition, including work by Tom Lopez, Kyle Trowbridge, Jeff Larson, Lauren Shapiro and Brian Curtis. Located in Wynwood since 2007 and housed in a stark black and white façade—nicknamed the ‘zebra’ building—the UM Wynwood Art Gallery is often in the midst of art steeped in social, cultural and political commentary. The featured art is in a variety of different mediums—including painting, ceramics, 3-D printed sculptures, photography, a video installation and printmaking—and reflect different topics around human existence and the general state of affairs of the country and the world.

The exhibition is open to all full-time, part-time and adjunct faculty from the Department of Art and Art History in the College of Arts and Sciences, and is not curated or following any particular theme.

“Everyone has an opportunity to participate, and each faculty member selects their strongest piece to exhibit,” explains Milly Cardoso, gallery director at the UM Wynwood Art Gallery. “My job is to place everything in the gallery so that the art pieces complement each other. The pieces speak for themselves.”

The student-centered UM Wynwood Art Gallery is home to juried and curated student artwork by UM art students throughout most of the year, save for the annual faculty exhibition in November and during the summer when the gallery occasionally hosts external artists and exhibitors. Because of complications with Hurricane Irma in September, explained Cardoso, this year’s faculty exhibition was pushed up to start in October.

The faculty art exhibition will run from October 23 to November 12, with a reception to be held on Saturday, November 11 from 6 to 9 p.m.