Two days following the election of President Barack Obama, Director of Multicultural Affairs James Britt sat down to interview the artist whose unofficial campaign posters for the Democratic candidate could be seen plastered in numerous public locations in dozens of cities over the last two years: SAIC alumnus Ray Noland. Noland, who studied graphic design, printing, and visual communications at SAIC, was first inspired to promote Obama’s candidacy while reading then Senator Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
Noland told Britt and the packed audience at the Columbus Auditorium that while reading the memoir, he remembered thinking that “this man is better than I am” and feeling astounded at the “remarkable toolbox, foundation, so to speak” that Barack Obama possessed. Noland read about how Obama became President of the Harvard Law Review and acknowledged that Obama “turned down what so many of us would gladly take,” referring to the fact that Obama didn’t necessarily take a job at a corporate Fortune 500 company, but instead, returned to Chicago to help his community.
“I aspire to make better decisions and conduct myself better and I think [Obama’s] a great symbol for that,” Noland said Thursday night. As Noland’s passion for Obama’s candidacy intensified, so did his passion for creating the Obama poster. Noland quickly constructed an email to supporters of his work to explain why he felt so passionate about Barack Obama and to collect preorders for the posters.
The first of the series was “The Dream,” conceptualized as a continuation of Martin Luther King’s dream and the events of 1968, including the Democratic National Convention. Noland noted that it was important to portray Obama “eye to eye” and to convey the genuine and honest qualities he felt Obama possessed as a political candidate. The most prominent iconography in the poster is the saintly rays of burlap (patterned to represent the middle class working man) emanating from Obama’s head. Noland knew that the election was going to call people to ask themselves some tough questions, and Noland decided to push the question further: “If he is [a saint or a messiah] is it okay if that saint or messiah has dark skin?”
Noland’s poster project began to manifest into something larger than himself, and he wasn’t the only one asking questions. Not long after he sent out the email to his supporters, he got a reply from Rebecca Berdel, who asked to animate the graphics into a short video. “The Dream” is now one of a series of animated videos available online through Noland’s website gotellmama.org.
This is just one example of the way the Internet catapulted Noland’s career, much like it did for Obama’s campaign. Noland said there are “certain tactics available to me as a young artist. There are five or six things that we have in our culture today that we never had access to four or eight years ago. These things are flickr, craigslist, youtube, google, paypal, and facebook.” He continued to talk about his art practice and promotion: “There were traditional systems that were steadfast and worked 20-30 years ago, [but] the Internet is creating new pathways [that] start to take out the middlemen.”
Cutting out the middleman through networking websites is an extension of the Do It Yourself concept Noland loves to employ. He’d rather go on craigslist, find and rent an empty storefront in North Carolina, and poster his work in the window for a few weeks, instead of paying a gallery to do the job half as well as he can. Noland is a contemporary artist in every respect of the communicating, networking, promoting, and consuming process. He makes his own flyers, reaches out to supporters via facebook, and travels the country popping up shows in the smallest storefronts to the largest street corners.
From an idea that began with an email and a mere nine preorders, it seems that Noland’s limited edition screen-printed posters will only become more and precious with the Presidency of Barack Obama, and might attract interest from buyers who wouldn’t typically support contemporary art. Noland admits that his work hasn’t always carried the same positive, uplifting tone that it has in recent light of the Obama campaign. Just because the campaign is over, however, doesn’t mean that Ray Noland’s production of artwork will slow down to a less than newsworthy rate. Noland continues to make work out of his Chicago-based graphic design firm, Creative Resource Organization.