The April 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Murder of Mary Katherine King

Eyes Wide Open

California Lifts Food Stamp Ban

The Ordeal of Ramona Choyce

Republicans Shred Disabled Housing

Art and Activism of Jos Sances

The Paintings of Jos Sances

Gambling with Social Security

Billionaires Grow Richer, Poverty Worsens

Existence Itself Is Banned for the Homeless Poor

Bush Policy Errs on Chronic Homelessness

Sankofa House: A Rainbow for Homeless Women

Student Summit Against Hunger

A Lifetime at the Bus Stop

Working for Transit Justice

Poor Leonard's Almanack

BOSS Community Organizing

The Anguish of Classism





May 2005

February 2005






Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Art and Activism of Jos Sances

by Howard Levine

CHRISTIAN SOLDIER. Art by Jos Sances. Mixed media, digital print, paint and found objects, 48" x 48"

At a time when many artists use their "community" roots to get "street cred" for their move into big-time galleries, Jos has never stopped being a community artist and activist. You're as likely to find him carrying a picket sign as printing one.

If ever there was a person who proved that the personal is political and the political is artistic, then Jos Sances is that person. One would be hard pressed, in fact, to say where his life ends and his art begins. Yet everything he does is infused with a fierce sense of compassion, a raging sense of justice and an outrageous sense of humor.

Jos Sances' commitment to progressive political ideals is matched only by his commitment to producing extraordinary artwork in the service of those ideals.

His work can be found everywhere, and you know his art even if you don't know his name. From telephone poles to fancy galleries, and from BART station walls to Harlem's Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was murdered, the work of Jos Sances is on display.

There is scarcely a progressive organization in the Bay Area over the past 20 years that Jos has not made a poster for; and he has designed and printed posters advertising or commemorating countless events, demonstrations, rallies and concerts. He has designed and printed posters for independent filmmakers and musicians; and his screen print portraits of people like Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Rachel Corrie and Waldo Salt are sought after by collectors and activists alike. He is a regular illustrator and designer for many union publications.

Jos is the co-founder and art director of Alliance Graphics, a Berkeley-based screenprint and embroidery shop. One of the few union shops in the entire western United States, Alliance Graphics is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary.

Sances said he is equally proud of the facts that all the profits of Alliance Graphics support the important work of parent organization, the Middle East Children's Alliance, that he is helping to provide union jobs in an increasingly sweatshop industry, and that most of the work done by Alliance Graphics is for other unions, nonprofits, schools and progressive organizations.

"Without Alliance Graphics, it would be nearly impossible for the Middle East Children's Alliance to do the work we do on behalf of justice for Palestinians and peace in the Middle East," said MECA Executive Director Barbara Lubin.

"Alliance Graphics pays for all our office expenses and salaries, which frees us up to focus on our work, without worrying about how we're going to pay the rent. You can't imagine how vital that is to us. Not to mention the fact that since Jos designs everything we do, all our materials look great and carry a strong message."

Sances said he is very proud of the fact that whenever he goes to a rally or a demonstration, he can hardly turn his head without seeing something that Alliance Graphics produced, from T-shirts to buttons to picket signs to caps to balloons and more. You'd be surprised how many designs Jos has either fully made or quietly improved for progressive causes.

"Providing great-looking, high-quality union products to the movement so people can see how strong and organized we are, is as important to me as the art I create on my own," Sances said. "It keeps me connected to all kinds of movements and reminds me that the work I do every day does make a difference."

Jos also likes the freedom his "day job" gives him to create any kind of his own artwork he likes without having to worry about whether it is commercially viable. "That's very liberating," he said, and gives him the ability to take on taboo issues without fear.

During the struggle to save KPFA from its "corporate takeover," Jos was one of the first people arrested for blocking the doors. He also produced what seemed like daily posters and T-shirts for people to hold or wear during the demonstrations to save the station.

One of the most remarkable things about Sances is his versatility as an artist. Well-known as a master screen printer who has printed works for some of the country's most celebrated living artists, he has become an expert at computer design, wood sculpture and ceramic tile.

Working with muralist partner Daniel Galvez, Jos has produced, among other works, 11 murals for the Oakland (now McAfee) Coliseum, a tile mural for the 16th Street Bart Station, and a painted mural for the Audubon Ballroom. They are currently working on a multi-media mural commission for the new train station in Richmond.

If all that wasn't enough for the obvious workaholic, Sances also makes time to serve as the new chair of Berkeley's Civic Arts Commission. In this role, he said, he tries to make sure that the arts in Berkeley get their fair share of the budget because so much of Berkeley's economy is tied to its arts and culture.

Born in south Boston in 1952, Jos can only be a disappointment to the nuns who were his teachers. They might be pleased to know, though, that the Bible themes they beat into him do inform a great deal of his work, though probably not in the way they would have hoped. More proud of him, probably, are his mentors at the Montserrat School of Visual Arts (now Montserrat College of Art), where he studied when he could scrape together the money to pay for classes.

Jos came to California in 1976 after what he calls "a failed career as a military strategist during the Vietnam conflict resulting in an undesirable discharge under honorable conditions." In other words, after being drafted, going through basic training and being assigned to a military base, Jos deserted the Navy and was later arrested, serving six months in the brig.

Once in California, Jos began doing both art and politics in earnest. In 1980, he was one of the co-founders of Mission Graf’ca, located within San Francisco's Mission Cultural Center. The MCC and Mission Graf’ca were at the heart of the then-vibrant solidarity movements in Central America. Jos helped design and print hundreds of posters for the solidarity movement as well as album covers for people like Carlos Santana.

"Driven by our shared political commitments," Sances said, "as well as our desire to improve the quality of activist art, getting rich was not one of our goals. Mostly, we hoped to produce high-quality, in-demand political art prints and posters and to teach classes that would make screen printing an accessible medium for many more people. At this we were overwhelmingly successful.

"But always our primary allegiance was to the community and political organizations we served. Graf’ca had deep connections to liberation struggles throughout the world. We visited many countries holding workshops, working with local artists and doing all manner of politically charged art. And we hosted a like number of artists and activists from all over the globe at our Mission home. When people talk about 'community art,' this is what they do -- or should -- mean."

At a time when many artists use their "community" roots to get "street cred" for their move into big-time galleries, Jos has never stopped being a community artist and activist. You're as likely to find him carrying a picket sign as printing one.

But even though he has never been willing to do the "ass-kissing" required to make it big in the rarefied world of the "fine artists," his work is almost always on display in some gallery or in some show somewhere. You can see a sampling at

Sances has had work in too many group shows and galleries to mention individually, but he has exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Palo Alto Cultural Center. Most recently he has had work in the University of San Francisco's "Vandals" show and a show of political art at the SoMaArts Gallery.

It would be difficult to find a Bay Area show of political art that doesn't include a piece of his work. He has had solo shows at New York's Alternative Museum, the Richmond Art Center, Berkeley's D. King Gallery, and Vallejo's Fetterly Gallery.

It was the Fetterly Gallery show that brought the always-controversial Sances his most recent public controversy. Several of the works in this show were parodies of the works of the sappy "painter of light" Thomas Kinkade, whose work is filled with Christian overtones. Sances' work turned Kinkade on his head, taking a Kincade painting of a beautiful home in winter and adding a few Sances touches -- like a homeless person with a shopping cart out front and the name Bush added to the mailbox. Sances also added "doors" to the paintings, which, when opened, had even more graphic statements relating to god, capitalism, war and sex.

Now it happened that the Fetterly shared space on Sundays with a church whose pastor, Mike Trimble, took some offense at the artwork and began a campaign to have it removed. Though unsuccessful, Trimble's efforts got Sances' work covered by newspapers from the Vallejo Times to the Guardian of London and made it Sances' most popular show ever. Sances said later that he wished he could hire Trimble to attack all his shows.

The Fetterly flap was reminiscent of another run-in Sances had with would-be censors. In the late 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was president and right-wing nutball Senator Jesse Helms had set himself up as the guardian of public morals, Sances was invited to show work and lecture in Charlotte, North Carolina, the heart of Helms country.

Helms had entered the cultural fray when he denounced the homoerotic photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and a photograph by Andres Serrano called "Piss Christ" which shows a crucifix soaking in Serrano's own urine. Jos responded typically by creating a piece called "Piss Helms" which showed a Mapplethorpe figure urinating on Helms' head.

Naturally, this was one of the pieces Jos wanted to show in Charlotte. Just as naturally, he was "asked" not to. Yet somehow, the morning after his lecture, copies of "Piss Helms" were found wheat-pasted all over Charlotte, including right on the windows of the Helms re-election campaign office.

Artist, activist, provocateur. Jos Sances.

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