July 16, 2014

Sharing labor's message through art

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
local action project session
Caption: Cartoonist Mike Konopacki (at computer) offers advice and assistance on logo design to Plattsburgh Teachers Association members Margaret Felty (left) and Cindy O'Neil . Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The Plattsburgh Teachers Association had a logo that their leaders thought needed a serious makeover. It was cluttered with mixed images (a sun, mountains, a child and books) and it tried to say too many things - who they are, their affiliates, and the local union's mission.

Inspired by the "Labor Art for Issues, Campaigns and Logos" session presented at NYSUT's Local Action Project, members of the Plattsburgh TA got to work. Helping them in their task were presenters Gary Huck, the only cartoonist in the country employed full time by a union, and Mike Konopacki, part of the Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons team, which syndicates cartoons to the labor press in U.S. and Canada.

LAP is NYSUT's three-year community outreach, coalition-building initiative. Members from 20 locals are participating in the weeklong conference.

The TA members ended their productive day with a green and red logo showing an apple tree, the name of their local in strong typeface, and their clear message: "Strengthening Minds, Building Community."

Plattsburgh Teachers' Association logo 

Huck and Konopacki, authors of numerous political cartoon books that are used to advance causes in the labor movement, shared with the LAP teams how to tap into the power of images to make a statement and to brand their locals and ideas.

Huck showed educators a cartoon he designed showing how the rich look at public education - and the children it serves - as a means of making money. He's had to use this cartoon again and again and again.

huck cartoon 

"The right wing in this country have decided public schools are ripe for profit," Huck said. "I've been hammering away at this subject my entire professional career. It just keeps getting worse and worse... Now it's the actual attempt to destroy public education."

Konopacki shared a cartoon that features a judge leaning over his bench, shouting at two teachers: "If teachers and public schools don't meet expectations, you'll be held accountable!" In the next frame, the judge is leaning over listening to two people from charter schools and voucher programs. They are objecting that being held accountable would be burdensome. For them, the judge overturned his ruling.

The First Amendment protects satire and parody, the labor art duo explained, as a form of free speech and expression.

Using art is important because art supersedes language skills, Huck said. "We communicated with illustration before we did with language. It's something primal."

Art also helps locals - and their members - show the world who they are and what they do. Margaret Felty, a Plattsburgh TA speech pathologist, said the importance of creating a recognizable brand is one of the tools LAP team members learn through participating in NYSUT's program. Plattsburgh has been in the program for two years.

Many LAP locals are already branding. Union logos are placed on everything from T-shirts, backpacks and pens, to banners and flash drives as a recognizable symbol of the union for the community and the union's members.

Huck and Konopacki shared tips with the LAP teams on using images of power, and images that engage people with symbolism and color. Konopacki outlined the difference between art that is positive, such as teachers as defenders of community, and art that is taking on a specific cause, situation or problem.

Many shapes are embedded in the cultural memory, Huck explained. The apple, for example, is associated with teachers.

"It's your apple to bear," he said.

Lianne Thompson, a second grade teacher with the Averill Park TA shared her union's logo, an apple with an arrow through it, reflecting a community symbol. The designers urged the APTA team to tone it down - the arrow looks too militant and threatening, they said. The cartoonists instead suggested the team use the apple as an outline, and not separate the words in the local's message: Committed to Kids, Caring for Community.

Other tips from the design duo:

  • Creating art by committee is not effective, Huck said. The best plan is to brainstorm ideas, and then turn a project over to a designer and let the artist take the lead. Several locals shared how they involved students and/or members by having logo design contests. Rockland BOCES Staff Association, for example, had a student competition, narrowed it to three finalists, and then had union members vote on a winner. The winner was given a $100 gift card.
  • Tap into members' creativity at union events. Many people construct creative posters at rallies.

"A lot of really interesting art is created in the midst of emotion," Huck said.

To see their work, visit www.huckkonopackicartoons.com.