Sculptor Billie Grace Lynn creates provocative political pieces that spark dialogue (and outrage)

Billie Grace Lynn lost her mom when she was only 19 years old, and it was the experience of this loss that she credits with her calling as an artist.

“At that moment [of losing my mom] I realized that life can be incredibly short, shorter than you think it is,” she remembers. “I wanted to make sure that I lived my life in a way that I didn’t have any regrets of what I had or hadn’t done, or did or did not say I’m from a small town in Louisiana and the culture at that time was very closed for women. I wanted to honor my mother by living the life she would have led if she had had the chance to live longer and had an education. That was the early impetus: to take up the cause for her.”

Another significant life experience she credits with shaping her identity as an artist is her identity as a lesbian woman growing up in the 1960s and, this bears repeating, in a small town in Louisiana.

“I actually didn’t know other gay people for a very long time. Everyone was very closeted. There was no social media [to connect to other people]. I didn’t know what was up with me; I just knew I was different. That original feeling hasn’t left me – that feeling of difference. That’s the soul of my work.”

Lynn says she has been making political work for at least 20 years with “not a lot of success.” The kind of work she makes isn’t the kind of work that can really be sold. She has shown in alternative spaces and galleries, but says until very recently political art was not of interest to a vast number of people in the art world. It was considered too didactic; it didn’t interest them on an intellectual level. But that has recently changed.

“Suddenly people are calling about my work because there’s been a shift I can clearly feel,” Lynn says. “At this point there is so much crisis everywhere in the world” – she mentions 65 million worldwide refugees, rapidly accelerating climate change and the natural disasters and loss of land and life it is causing, and America’s gun violence problem to illustrate her point.

“Death Bed,” part of an ongoing installation and performance series by Lynn focusing on the meat industry and its impact on the environment and our health.

“I’ve always believed that art should be a mirror to what is going on in the world so people can have an excuse for conversation,” she explains. “If you’re confronted with an art work while standing next to a stranger, that gives you an opportunity to say, ‘What do you think of this piece? What do you think the artist meant?’ It’s an excuse for conversation.”

Lynn, who is an Associate Professor of Sculpture at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, made headlines last fall with a provocative piece called American Mask. The piece was part of a faculty art show and was exhibited at the University’s gallery inside the Wynwood Building. It consisted primarily of American flags cut and sewn to look like Ku Klux Klan hoods. The message was simple and clear: in today’s America, just as has been the case throughout all of American history, bigotry and racism hide behind our flag masquerading around as patriotism.

People did not respond to it well.

“It was kind of amazing, the level of ferocity over this flag and the fabric of the flag,” Lynn remarks. “A lot of people believe the flag is sacred, like a communion wafer – sanctified in way, untouchable. They are not aware that the Supreme Court ruled that the flag is a symbol and not a body. The flag code is not a legal document; it’s just an understanding of how to deal with it. Even explaining this to people, they didn’t care. They felt it was an attack on the military, but of course it didn’t have anything to do with the military. Still, I couldn’t get through to some, or maybe most, of these people.”

Because part of the piece included three hoods displayed prominently in the gallery window like mannequins, people were able to see it before the show even opened. Within 30 minutes of hanging them, someone had called Fox News and the onslaught of vitriolic backlash and somewhat more benign misunderstanding ensued.

“American Mask,” 2017.

“The people who didn’t understand it were almost all white men,” she says. “I’ll still get emails from military people saying, ‘Until you’ve been through the funeral of someone who was killed in Iraq and had to hand the flag to his widow, you don’t understand what the flag symbolizes.’ There’s nothing you can say to that because that’s their truth.

‘This caused a very visceral reaction. It’s about people concealing their racism behind patriotism; that’s what I was trying to get at. But almost everyone except Black women had to think about it after I explained it to them, and many of them still didn’t understand it.”

She says her favorite responses came from middle-aged Black women who took the time to hand-write postcards expressing their solidarity, saying things like, “I’m a single parent who has raised three children and I know exactly what you’re talking about. If you need to, call me for support,” then including their personal phone numbers and email addresses.

But for all the touching shows of support, there were also the death threats, and the personal attacks – the most vicious ones took the time to research her personal life, came at her with homophobic slurs, and threatened her by saying “we know where you live” and “we hope someone takes you out.” Someone left a dead white Ibis at her front door, the mascot of the school. The University of Miami had to have police present at the art school and at the gallery where the piece was displayed, but at the end of the day she still had to go home.

And yet Lynn, who believes in the power of art to encourage conversation, made a diligent effort to respond to each and every message she received and explain her intent to those who didn’t understand it. She says that during “the dark time,” the first few weeks when the show was first installed and the story was making the media rounds, she had someone else reading her emails and acting as a filter for her from the absolute worst ones (which she eventually read later on).

Then there were those who immediately wanted to monetize it by printing T-shirts with images of the hoods. Lynn refused, in part out of concern for people who might wear the shirt out somewhere and be seen by others who don’t understand the imagery and end up getting attacked or killed, but also because, as she sighs, “That’s America: let’s make money on it.”

Others still asked why she didn’t just use a Confederate flag, but that, she explains, is missing the point entirely. The American flag is such a powerful symbol and her reason for using it was precisely because of that symbolic power. She admits to actually struggling while have to cut the flags she used: as a Girl Scout she was raised with the values of respecting the flag, and those values are so deeply internalized that she found it difficult to do the work.

Billie Grace Lynn standing next to “American Mask.”

Now Lynn is currently working on two more provocative projects for the Lowe Art Museum that will be displayed this summer through the fall, and will be issuing a call for artists to connect and collaborate with on the project.

The first piece is a 22-foot-tall black hoodie that will hang from the ceiling. People will be invited to walk underneath, or “inside,” the hoodie through an opening in the garment. Inside they will hear recordings of young people of color talking about their experiences as people of color.

Lynn says she only just started conducting interviews so she doesn’t yet know what the content of these recordings will be yet, but she hopes people will also be able to call the museum and make recordings that can be edited into the sound piece.

“Because I was invited to do the show as a member of the University I have entry into a place that’s very exclusive, that’s primarily for wealthy white people,” she says. “I’m going to bring the Black body, as coded through the hoodie, into that space of whiteness and have people be able to speak within that space knowing that for the most part it will be a privileged white audience who will hear their voices, and it will be a place for people to listen to and hear their voices.”

The other piece she is working on for Lowe is a scale model of the Washington Monument. This will end up being about 16 feet tall and is also going to be kinetic and mirrored, enabling it to “fall” to the floor and back again.

“I’m trying to get at the idea of democracy failing and collapsing, then people will be reflected in this obelisk as it falls to the floor them seems to rise up again. People will be ‘twisted’ [in the reflections], or have the feeling of flying upwards or being forced down into the ground. It will be very disorienting to look at. I want people to send me images of people who have been lost through gun violence, the opioid crisis, and hate crimes, then I’ll have a large space of about 22′ by 40′ filled with pictures and people’s names reflected in this obelisk.”

Gun violence and the opioid epidemic are two more social issues that are on her mind as something she wants to address visually, but the muse has yet to come to her on these subjects.

“What kind of visual thing can I create that symbolizes people killing people with a gun?” she asks. “It’s difficult to come up with an image that is more powerful than the act itself. How do you counter violence like that? Just to remake it isn’t enough. It has to be transformed into something to confront it with peace and with love. There’s a digestion process to confronting hate and turning it into something else.”

Lynn says she feels very hopeful about all the political activism and art being made around social justice issues that she sees now. Particularly in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, when students – some too young to even vote yet – are taking action into their own hands in the face of what they see as gross inaction on the part of elected officials and the adults that should be protecting them. (Parkland, incidentally, is about 25 miles from Lynn’s home.)

“I really believe we’re really going to push through change now,” she says. “Trump really woke people up, and students have really tuned on their age group to this. We may be on the cusp of some goodness, of real change.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I invite people to work with me on the completion of a piece. At this point through I’m trying to make all pieces community outreach.

(2) How do you a start a project?
It’s like an image just hits me. I have to figure out how to make the things I think of, but the image comes to me almost fully formed.

(3) How do you talk about your value?
Not every artist is called to do overtly political work and not every artist should do it. There’s enough room for all sorts of different kinds of work, but I think that if you feel inspired or called to say something in your artwork then you absolutely should do that and not push it away. It’s a moral obligation to act if you feel that calling you.

(4) How do you define success?
The success is that it hit a nerve. With American Mask, I immediately got feedback within 30 minutes of putting up the work. Someone called Fox News within 30 minutes, before the show even opened, so I knew I hit a nerve. I heard from a military person who said he was very upset by the piece but that once he thought about it and read what I was trying to do he fully supported it people. He said that people died so that I could make such a piece, and on that level he really agreed with it – “This is why we die, for you to be able to do this even if we don’t agree with it.”

(5) How do you fund your work?
The show coming up at Lowe is going to be very expensive and that’s in large part why I teach. I don’t have to sell my work because I can self-fund it. Grants are very hard to get now; there are fewer of them and they are harder to come by.

The obelisk will cost a minimum of $10,000 and I will have to come up with that myself. I don’t make a lot of money so I will have to put it on a credit card. My family thinks I’m insane but I feel driven to do it. I hate to say it’s an addiction but I feel like I have to do this thing and put it into the world.