UB students employed visual art to create safe spaces, speak out and show support for the university’s transgender community in response to right-wing commentator Michael Knowles’ speaking engagement at UB Thursday night.
Knowles’ comments calling for the “eradication of transgenderism from public life” sparked outrage on campus ahead of his appearance, organized by the UB chapter Young Americans for Freedom. In the hours before Knowles’ speech, students used zines, screen-printing and sidewalk chalk to protest the controversial conservative pundit’s appearance.
When senior graphic design major Cassandra Critsimilios first heard about Knowles’ appearance, she decided to take action with her own unique form of protest: making T-shirts. She took to her Instagram story, promising a free screen-printed shirt to anyone who wanted to show support for the transgender community.
With help from classmate Vic Janis (also a senior graphic design major) and print media professor Jeff Sherven, Critsimilios spent hours in a small basement studio at the Center for the Arts. The group ended up printing upwards of 80 shirts, emblazoned with “protect trans kids,” for anyone who came to the studio, which quickly turned into a valuable space for students seeking community.
“It’s been really humbling, honestly, and enlightening,” Critimilios said. “There’s people coming from all different parts of the school… people that I never would have met or spoken to otherwise.”
Critsimilios sees art as a valuable tool for inclusivity and community in the face of Michael Knowles’ inflammatory comments, which have sparked safety concerns among UB’s transgender students. She calls graphic design “a device for revolution throughout history,” citing female graphic designers in Iran as inspirations for her work.
“When it comes to something like this, when people feel silenced, and people feel scared, and people feel alone… art is the perfect medium to show people that they are safe,” Critsimilios said.
Meanwhile, outside of Slee Hall, students gathered with chalk from the CFA art rooms to paint the trans pride flag and other supportive messages on the sidewalk where Knowles would deliver his speech hours later.
Senior graphic design and media studies major Emmie O’Rourke made her way to Slee to touch up the trans flag that had started to fade since it was painted yesterday. Fueled by a distaste for Knowles’ views, her queer identity, and a passion for art and advocacy, O’Rourke picked up a piece of chalk and got to work.
“I thought chalking and just doing what I do best, art, is like the easiest way I can express my opinions,” O’Rourke said. “Chalk isn’t gonna hurt anybody. This is more of a solidarity stance than anything.”
Another participant, MFA grad student Soda, arrived to replenish chalk supplies. Soda, representing the Graduate Student Association (GSA), sought to ensure the safe creation of the chalk murals. Soda spoke to why sidewalk chalk is an effective tool for social justice.
“First, you can easily have access to this means of expression,” Soda said. “Second, I think it’s very readable. We’re kind of bred as children to utilize this form of self expression. So it’s very recognizable. It also allows us to print messages big and get messages out there at faster, quicker paces.”
Later in the night, as crowds of students and protesters began to gather outside Slee Hall, fine arts MFA student Bello opened their multimedia exhibition, called “Prototypes of Care.” It was initially intended to be a typical gallery opening, but Bello recognized that, in the light of Knowles’ controversial appearance, the campus community could use a positive, meditative area to enjoy art, warm up and escape the chaos outside.
Visitors mingled in the gallery and experienced Bello’s therapeutic, inventive sculpture work, which included a 10,000 lux therapy light meant to emulate sunshine and metabolize vitamin D within the viewer. Literally and figuratively, the space radiated warmth for all who entered.
“I changed the flyer, I changed the entire mood of what I wanted tonight, and turned it into a safe space,” Bello said. “People can come in when it’s too cold outside and kind of be with family.”
Meret Kelsey is the senior arts editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Alex Novak is an arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.
Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.