Doug Minkler: An Artist on the Side of the People

Berkeley artist Doug Minkler approaches his work with a passionate commitment to social change. He wields the artist’s brush like a hammer with which to reshape an unjust society. His poster art battle corporate polluters, predatory banks, nuclear weapons laboratories, brutal police, union-busting businesses and “the masters of war.”

In his Berkeley studio, artist Doug Minkler displays an artwork he created about the prison-industrial complex. The poster was commissioned by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles. Photo by Lydia Gans

 

by Lydia Gans

 

One of the many striking posters created by prolific Berkeley artist Doug Minkler depicts the dark silhouette of a man — an artist-agitator — wielding a hammer, with this caption: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

That statement, variously attributed both to Bertolt Brecht or to Vladimir Mayakovsky, defines the life work of Doug Minkler, one of the best-known political artists in the Bay Area. In his constant efforts to “shape reality” by hammering away at war and injustice, Minkler has designed imaginative and highly charged poster artworks for scores of activist groups and labor unions.

Doug Minkler’s poster of abolitionist John Brown was created for a musical that depicts Brown’s fiery battle against slavery as he carried out a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry. The poster included these lyrics: “John Brown was right, he saw the light, he was driven by freedom’s song; for Africans free, a martyr was he, his truth goes marching on.”

 

Minkler approaches his work with a passionate commitment to social change. He wields the artist’s brush like a hammer with which to reshape an unjust society and battle corporate polluters, predatory banks, nuclear weapons laboratories, brutal police and “the masters of war.”

His colorful poster art creatively depicts trade union solidarity, peacemaking, ecological preservation, equal pay for women, and just treatment for homeless people and other marginalized groups.

“Bankers Trust Co.” Minkler’s poster exposes the role of the big banks in causing a nationwide crisis of foreclosures. Minkler stated: “Citibank, Chase Manhattan, and Bank of America are all guilty of home-wrecking, redlining and theft.”

Minkler’s posters were on display once again during the recent hard-fought battle by homeless advocates to defeat Measure S, the Berkeley anti-sitting initiative. He had created a poster entitled “Stand Against Sit/Lie” in protest of the efforts by city officials in both San Francisco and Berkeley to criminalize homeless people for being on public sidewalks.

Doug Minkler’s art is not for museums and doesn’t require professional curators to explain it. Nor is it touted by art dealers as a safe investment for rich people. He is even known to give it away for free, in order to help support the political causes and movements he cares about.

Minkler has created hundreds of brilliant posters illustrating messages that people need to take to heart. His work casts new light on the evils plaguing society — war, corruption, illness and hunger, greed and violence, misdeeds of the banks and the drug industry. His art also celebrates positive movements for peace and justice and environmental protection.

“We don’t want a bigger piece, we want the whole thing.” Minkler’s years as a union member led him to create this poster about the rights of workers. He was inspired by a Bertolt Brecht poem about dissatisfied seamstresses.

 

The posters created by Minkler in his Berkeley studio are carried at demonstrations and displayed at progressive events. His artworks hang in offices and venues where social justice work is carried out. He has sold his posters from a table on Telegraph Avenue and we have published his pictures in Street Spirit. An exhibit of his work will be on display in the Albany Community Center for the next three months.

Minkler has always been an artist. He says his kindergarten teacher told his mother that he had an “especially good sense of color.” His political consciousness took a bit longer to develop. One crucial step in his formation as an activist occurred during the Vietnam War when he refused to serve in the military.

Minkler tells about going to Alaska one summer to work on the North Slope pipeline and finding that the work had been stopped due to the demand for an environmental impact report. At 17, he was already being introduced to the power of activist movements to bring about social change. Now 40 years later,” Minkler reflects ironically, “I’m working on the campaign to stop the drilling on the North Coast.”

“Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” — Mayakovski. Artwork by Doug Minkler

 

Back in the Bay Area, he went to school from time to time to study art. He raised a family and for ten years worked in various industrial jobs. He observed the discrimination against women in the workplace and saw how the struggle for equality brought about improved working conditions for all the workers.

Minkler met union organizers and political radicals, and got involved with activists in the shops where he worked. He writes, “I soon found myself in the role of shop steward and participated in unionization drives, contract negotiations and strikes. This practical class education still guides my work today.”

Doug Minkler created this poster for the People’s Park Peace Concert on its 34th anniversary. The anti-war image condemns the nuclear-weapons plants operated by the University of California at Livermore Laboratory and Los Alamos.

For the last 30 years, he has been able to devote himself full time to creating and teaching art. He holds a children’s art class on Sunday mornings in his Berkeley studio. He calls the class, “Drawing the Unusual.” And he has encouraged his six daughters to express themselves artistically. The youngest, 13-year-old Desiree, helps him teach the class and is becoming an artist in her own right.

Minkler’s studio is crowded with equipment for printing sets of posters. Half the space is occupied by the printing table for silk-screening and by the stack of drying racks that reach to the ceiling.

Here he creates brilliant graphics on scores of subjects. These creative, imaginative and politically outspoken artworks can be seen on his website — and looking at his posters online is a pleasure in itself! [See Minkler’s poster art at www.dminkler.com]

Not only that, Minkler makes any of these graphics available, free, from his website. However, he has to eat, which means selling his work. He has sold his posters from a vendor stand on Telegraph for years, but the Avenue is not a very lively place these days. And like most creative artists, marketing his work is not something he enjoys doing.

This poster about equal pay for women was inspired when Minkler saw at first hand how women’s struggle for equality also brought about better working conditions for all the workers.

Basically, what supports his work are commissions from progressive organizations. Minkler has created posters for organizations as diverse as the United Auto Workers and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, the Mime Troupe, Ecumenical Peace Institute, and the Rainforest Action Network, to name just a few among dozens.

He designs and produces silk-screen prints in his studio or, if a large number of copies are required, he provides a scan to Inkworks Press for printing. Inkworks is a collectively owned and operated print shop with a long history in the East Bay.

“In the past,” Minkler explains, “I picked my subject matter based on what is the cutting-edge issue of the time, what was affecting me, what was affecting other people, what was unconscionable.

“As time has gone by, I have become the largest collector of my own work, meaning that the things that I thought important turned out not to be the things people want to have. So now, mostly I do work that I know someone else will get out into the world. Work that has a place so that I don’t have to be the distributor of it.”

Ideally, his work should be displayed in galleries and other public spaces. One of the issues there, he says, is that in order to properly hang pictures, galleries expect them to be framed, and that is expensive, especially when they are as large as his posters are. Now Minkler will have his show at the Albany Community Center thanks to a supporter of his work who is helping pay for framing. The Center is a venue for many events and activities, so many people will be able to see his art.

He explains that his posters “are a form of self-defense against the inequality, poverty and violence we’re forced to live under. The lies, the waste, the hate — these are my enemies.”

Minkler’s artistic work is indeed a hammer for shaping a more just and peaceful world. And his art is clever and funny and thought-provoking, promoting values we care about and supporting the activists in the cause.

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