If Kelly Thomas had been African-American, his fatal beating would have undoubtedly caused a massive riot spurred by the NAACP. If he had been gay, the LGBT community would have demonstrated in the streets in a fiery pride rally. If he had been a fatty goose, PETA would have made sure that sanctions worldwide were put into place damning every single person involved. It just so happens that Kelly Thomas was a mere, simple human being and a schizophrenic one at that. When there were no special groups to defend his murder, local human rights advocates banded together in non-violent protest.
They called themselves Kelly’s Army: a grass roots movement — from varying income and age demographics — demanding swift justice and converging tirelessly every Saturday morning in front of City Hall and the Fullerton Police Department. Yes they were defiant, but more importantly this battalion had heart. Acts of kindness flowed with many volunteers distributing free sandwiches, water and snacks to those brave enough to defend their community brethren. Commandeering the sidewalks of Commonwealth and Highland Avenues were handmade signs exposing the egregious brutality of the police officers and denouncing the callous indifference of local government.
These same ones from the protests, as well as photographs taken of the peaceful revolution, were a cogent aspect of the massive group exhibit known as Art With An Agenda benefitting the Kelly Thomas Memorial Foundation. Employing a torn paper collage technique, Mike Myer’s echoed the battle cries of the woeful warriors, “Justice for Kelly!” Roxanna Mostatabi’s poignant illustration — awash in sanguine, had it not been rendered thoughtfully in sepia tones — is of an innocent girl bearing one of the signs posing the question, “Who are the good guys now” as a patrolman hangs his head in shame.
The back story is that organizer and curator Stephan Baxter was an art major back in the day with Art With An Agenda contributing artists John Sollom (co-curator) and Hagop Najarian (art professor at Cerritos College). Baxter recounts that the two went on to become exceptional in their field. He did not and shifted his major to Political Science instead.
Stephan Baxter: Our friends come from many different walks of life and backgrounds, and we do not always agree in method, but we all have the same goal of a world with less injustice. For the last 10 years, when local politics really started to matter to, I have tried to hold a consistent political and moral line regardless of parties, or with whom I fall in or out of favor with. My friends appreciate this, as they have done the same. So when we started to find out about what happened to Kelly, and how the leadership at the police department and city hall responded to it, we collectively called bullshit.
Approaching the one year anniversary of Thomas’ death, Baxter was moved to pay tribute to his personal friend — someone whom he felt comfortable enough to invite into his own home. For many months, he had the insurmountable task of approaching the most talented local artists and musicians to join in what would be the most viewed art exhibit in Fullerton’s history; reaching upwards of over 1,000 in attendance, with queues of patrons waiting patiently throughout the night.
Stephan Baxter: When my idea needed some artistic credibility I turned to my friend of 25 years, John M. Sollom. When we needed a venue for the exhibit I turned to one of the most caring and compassionate couples I know, our friends Kristy and Brian Prince. When I needed to create a low cost, as in free, website, I turned to our friend, Tony Wilson. When we were looking for some high dollar celebrity items to auction at the concert I turned to our fiends Dina and Tommy Flanagan. Like my family, Tommy is a Glasgow native and Celtic supporter, who now stars on a FX Drama called Sons of Anarchy. Tommy just had the entire cast of his show sign a helmet for our auction, which is now valued at up to $2,000. (this would not have been possible if I supported the rival team The Rangers). Another friend, Jerry Bultsma, on his own, brought in both Cherrie Curry, the lead singer of the Runaways, as well as Susan Olsen the former child actor on the Brady Bunch, who is now a wonderful and often edgy graphic artist.
Many of the participating artists reacted to the crimes against Kelly Thomas with a bitter throwback to the 60s when law enforcement represented an oppressive and dystopian society. Artists such as William Zdan, Hagop Najarian and several others depicted police officers as dastardly and self-serving swines. Rene Cardona went further to name three of his works Fascists, Fucking Fascists and Super Fucking Fascists. Co-curator John Sollom’s main series of paintings translated the frames of the deadly confrontation caught on surveillance tape as Stations of the Cross– so horrific that it was not necessary to embellish upon them. Susan Olsen exemplified the cops’ disregard for human life as just another day on the beat with a half-eaten doughnut and a Mag-lite carelessly left behind in a pool of blood.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, other artists chose to focus more on the visceral; personalizing and humanizing the memory of Kelly Thomas. Upon entering PÄS Gallery, everyone naturally gravitated towards the beautiful portrait of him by Valerie Lewis as a soulful young man, exuding radiance and Grace, as it is entitled. Cherie Currie (formerly of the 70s rock band The Runaways) painstakingly carved out an intricate bench, detailed with cut-outs of a guitar, flowers, song birds and a book of poetry. Rather than the cold and unyielding bus benches that he laid his head on, one might imagine Kelly Thomas finally finding peace and solace in the heavens resting upon such a welcoming retreat. The piece that left everyone teary-eyed and with a lump in their throats was by Brian Torres. Against an austere sky of billowy clouds, were the emblazoned words “Dad! Dad! Dad!“, the urgent and unforgettable pleas from Thomas as he realized that his life was soon to be taken away.
Below, the crowd is viewed through the eyes of Kelly via Brandon Munoz Monk’s interactive wood sculptor “Schizophrenia Simulator”. Julian Porte’s “Ballad of Kelly Thomas” (reminiscent of Charlie Daniel’s “Devil Went Down to Georgia”) plays post-humously foreboding in the background.
Political art has always been a thought-provoking and often controversial medium. Not only does it document a certain period of turmoil, but it also serves as a driving force in inciting action. Art With An Agenda, at the core of its mission, was somewhat of a baptism of fire. Through heart-wrenching and evocative images, citizens of our own community and beyond traveled through a cathartic passage of indifference, fear, revulsion, betrayal and empowerment.
Stephan Baxter: Regardless of what anyone else does, this will feel unfinished and I will be poking at the responsible parties, until they clear Kelly’s name, until the former Police Spokesmen Andrew Goodrich either corrects his statement from last August, is fired or resigns, and officer Joe Wolf is charged in the Murder of Kelly Thomas. I believe that all these things will happen in the very near future.
This year has been both emotional and draining, but I’m not aiming for closure. My pay off is in believing that we are, in a small way, having an impact. My wife will always come first, and when I’m busy as I have been this last year, the only sacrifice I feel I am making is that I would much rather be spending time with her. I have a career, one I value very much, for a company that has been very good me, so all the activist type things only come after those obligations are met. To top that all off, my father was receiving chemo therapy for the last several months, and my wife Noele is currently recuperating from having two disks in her neck operated on. What comes next in the short term is giving my father and wife the attention they deserve.
Read Stephan Baxter’s Art With An Agenda Manifesto here.
Video shot by Ryan Steele.
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