If they’re sufficiently harsh, words can leave an impression. Lately, some of the harshest and most wounding have come from state legislatures. Certain lawmakers have framed non-straight Americans as a threat to children, and they’ve sought to excise their stories from school curriculum. Book banning — once thought of as a relic of a more barbarous age — has come roaring back into the national conversation.
Evidence of this trauma is all over “Don’t Say Other,” a forthright and fiercely motivated show that closes at the Art House Gallery (345 Marin Blvd.) this weekend. Jersey artist Diana Schmertz laser-cuts the words to recent legislation into watercolor images of books and artworks that have been targeted by censors. Residue from the cuttings gathers at the bottoms of the frames. The effect is simultaneously emotional and inspiring. Schmertz’s show is at once a portrait of a nation where literacy is under siege, and a testimony to the enduring expressive power of art. No matter how many characters are punched out of these covers, they’re still instantly recognizable.
Tris McCall/Jersey City Times: What are your feelings when you read legislation like the ones you’ve cut into your book covers and images? Can you describe your emotions when you encounter something like the Florida Parental Rights in Education Bill?
Diana Schmertz: Honestly, I feel enraged and paralyzed at the same time. These laws are dystopian, and they make me fear for society and any person who does not fit into a heteronormative white mold. I also fear for straight white people because eventually they will also be “othered” for one reason or another. I pull myself out of these states and make artwork to promote empathy, which can help counteract these prejudices and fanatical laws.
The Parental Rights in Education law (The Don’t Say Gay Act) was initially passed to outlaw discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity until 4th grade. Just this past month the Florida government extended the law until the end of high school. When I heard this on the news my heart became heavy. There is absolutely no representation of LGBTQ+ people allowed in Florida schools. Children and teens are not able to talk openly about their friends, parents, relatives, or their own personal feelings. So many profound books by authors like James Baldwin, Alice Walker or Anne Carson will be hidden from students. I do not understand how this is legal in America.
TM/JCT: As a non-straight person, do you feel personally insulted?
DS: When people blurt out prejudiced comments, I tend to state how I feel about it in a “calling in” manner and then I move on and I don’t allow it to fester much. These laws are different. I feel more pained and frightened than insulted by them.
I believe people can think whatever they want and do whatever they want as long as they are not hurting anyone, including themselves and animals. I believe this is a very American philosophy. But these laws are imposing extreme restrictions on people and making it a crime for us to talk about who and what we are. So I am horrified by that.
TM/JCT: Why do you think these laws are written in such charmless language?
DS: The laws are strategically written to sound vague so that people fear saying anything at all. For example, in the court case that challenged the Stop W.O.K.E. Act at the university level in Florida, (Leroy Pernell V. Florida Board Of Governors Of The State University System & Adriana Novoa v. Manny Diaz Jr), the judge asked the defense attorneys to clarify a concept in the law due to its confusing language. While never using the words “Affirmative Action” in the law, the attorneys acknowledged that the text means it is illegal to teach affirmative action in Florida schools due to its “repugnant” nature. It can be noted as a law in past history, but no other viewpoint outside of its “repugnant nature” can be taught or debated.
The case also acknowledged that our supreme court justice Sonia Sotomayor’s biography, My Beloved World, cannot be taught in schools because she expresses her gratitude for affirmative action. Affirmative Action allowed her to be educated at Princeton and Yale, which would otherwise not have been possible due to her disadvantaged childhood. This book is not on any “banned book list”, but it is illegal to teach. I included My Beloved World in my art installation of this court case, which was, thankfully, won by the professors and universities. The Stop W.O.K.E. Act remains in place in Florida schools through the end of high school.
TM/JCT: What do you say to people who argue that we’re safe from legislation like this in New Jersey?
DS: I would say it is time to wake up. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, is running for president. Remember that people thought Trump would never get elected. DeSantis might win. Or Trump might win again. Those “other states” legislation can become the law of America.
A year ago, no one thought we would lose abortion rights. Now, rape victims, (50% of whom are between 0-18 years old), are being forced to have their attackers’ children. People need to be alert, vote and do what they can to fight these unjust and unconstitutional laws.
TM/JCT: You leave the sawdust and shards of cuttings at the bottom of your images. I think I understand why you do that, but I want to give you a chance to explain it in your words.
DS: Before this body of work, I was very focused on using positive social agreements with egalitarian ideas held within them. The text and the images were meant to show balance between emotional understanding and intellectual logic. The body of work in “Don’t Say Other” has a lot of negative laws laser cut throughout the images. The figures and books are honored through the painting process, but the laser cut text has shifted to express harm and injury to people, society and ideas. It is also a means of recording contemporary history. The burnt out paper at the bottom of each work represents physical evidence of the damage caused by these laws.
TM/JCT: I’m extremely interested in your process. Do you paint the covers first and then do the cutting? You must, right? How long does it take? Is it Jedi-level difficult to wield a laser?
DS: I use watercolor or ink to paint the images on 300 lb. paper. Sometimes I use lighter paper, but the thicker paper helps make the laser cutting more precise. There is a lot of math involved before and after I paint because I have to make sure the text will fit across the images in a way that keeps the image readable after the negative space of the letters is cut away. After the painting is made, I put it in my laser cutting machine. Although I am a Star Wars fan, there is definitely no wielding of lasers. I program the machine to cut the paper according to files I create in adobe illustrator. I think it would take my lifetime to cut these works by hand.
TM/JCT: When the cutting is happening, you’re literally inscribing the words of censorious legislation into a famous book cover image. Do you find yourself thinking about the cases, or national politics, when that’s going on? Does it make assembling the artworks emotionally difficult for you?
DS: When I paint the book covers, I am usually in a peaceful, meditative state and I do think about the content of the book. Designing the layout of the words is often driven by the content of the text I am laser cutting throughout the paintings. I do try to place certain words or sentences in specific locations on the painting to draw attention to the content. The actual laser cutting is not very artistic. I put the work in the machine and then focus on something else while it cuts the painting for me.
TM/JCT: It feels like work that demands extreme precision — like it’ll fall apart if you slip even a bit or program something wrong. How many of these do you throw away before you get one right?
DS: Oh, I have thrown away a lot of work! I am much better at what I do now than when I started laser cutting paper about 7 years ago. At first it took me a month to make a file to program the machine. Now it takes me a day at most and I only lose a work of art once in a while. At this point my biggest loss is usually when an image just looks bad when half of it is cut away.
TM/JCT: How much thought did you put into the choice of font that you use? What font is it, anyway? Are you the sort of person who is into fonts and the way words look on a page? Sometimes I do think there’s no better work of visual art than a page of text – but then again, I’m a writer!
DS: I definitely love the way words look on a page!
I am a composition freak. Everything has to be placed just so and everything has to have meaning. I tend to use Myriad Pro. It is clean and simple. I want the physicality of the paintings to have evidence of the human hand and emotion. The text design is meant to be mechanical, balancing the emotion in the painting with systemization and structure.
TM/JCT: How many of these books have you read?
DS: I have read every book! I would never promote a book I didn’t read. Yet I would also never censor others from reading a book. There are a couple of books depicted that I don’t love, but they are relevant. Outside of those two, I truly love every book in the exhibit. They have molded who I am, opened my mind, and made me a better, more empathetic person. I mean to honor the books through my work.
TM/JCT: Did you ever have an experience with book banning (or just book discouragement) when you were younger? Were you prohibited from reading certain texts?
DS: I didn’t know about banned books as a child. I grew up in New York City and both of my parents were very liberal. On the other hand, my Christian mother very much believed in hell. When my older brother came out as gay, she was not OK with it. I think it was the only thing she tried to “censor”. By the time I came out as bisexual I was hardened to her ideas that we might go to hell. My rebuttal was that she taught us God is love, so why would anyone be sent to hell for loving someone?
TM/JCT: Did you find yourself drawn to controversial or banned books when you were young? Can you imagine this legislation backfiring and making reading seem cool?
DS: That is a funny and relevant question. I do believe censorship creates a more fractured culture in which the taboo becomes fetishized.
I didn’t know the books I loved when I was young were controversial. I was riveted by Brave New World, The World According to Garp, and anything by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker. So, yes, I was apparently drawn to banned books. I started to discover ideas outside of my personal life as an older teen and this is what awakened my love of books. I think the books that get banned are ones that make people think beyond their local worldview and belief system. Books evoke empathy and help us understand cultural relativism. Unfortunately, these ideas are very dangerous to certain groups of people. Funnily enough, if they read diverse books maybe they would change their way of thinking.
TM/JCT: Finally, you mentioned to me that you were dyslexic. How has that affected your relationship to books? Do you think it’s unusual that a dyslexic artist would be so fascinated by words? Or does that make perfect sense?
DS: I think it makes perfect sense that I, as a person with dyslexia, am so fascinated by words. I could not read books like other kids until I was around 10 years old. I remember reading a Judy Blume book for the first time in 4th or 5th grade. I believe it was the first chapter book I ever read. I definitely had a mom that supported me and she got me a lot of help in school, but I couldn’t do things the way the other students did them. I had to learn how to learn in my own way. I believe that childhood struggle has in many ways been a blessing because I have a never give up mentality and I always know to look for a divergent route if things are not working. (Sadly, I am still a terrible speller!)
I became an avid reader around 20 years old. Decoding language was still an issue for me. So, I read for ideas, not language. Finally, when I was about 30 years old, I somehow grew to hear sound and language while absorbing content. This opened a whole new world for me and I am eternally grateful to the people who helped me learn to read because words are one of my truest joys in life.
There are links to all of the court decisions and laws used in the work in “Don’t Say Other” on the artist’s website at the bottom of the Education and Book Bans page https://www.dianaschmertz.com/education-and-book-bans and the Don’t Say Gay page https://www.dianaschmertz.com/dont-say-gay