On Art, Activism, and Rainbow Mohawks

by Holly Fetter, ’13 + Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, ’06

I had always imagined Stanford to be a particularly radical place. Back in the days when the closest I came to activism was wearing an Obama pin through the halls of my conservative high school, the escapades of my cousin Jonathan inspired the dream of an oasis called Palo Alto. Stories of his collegiate adventures were passed through the familial grapevine, reaching me in such a dramatized state that I couldn’t help but be enraptured by his coolness. He studied studio art, lived in a magical house called Theta Chi, skipped school to attend anti-war protests in San Francisco with his professors, left school for a few quarters to translate obscure texts in Florence, won a prize for illustrating Beowulf, and, perhaps most impressively, sported a rainbow mohawk as a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity.

Now he’s a bonafide artist residing in Brooklyn, NY, where the disheveled hipsters and rooftop parties let him know he’s far from his humble Montana roots. Jonathan has taken to writing and illustrating historical graphic novels. His latest book, called Trinity, tells the story of the atomic bomb. Meant to please high school students, physics geeks, history buffs, and general aesthetes alike, it’s a wonderful volume on the creation of destruction. Jonathan probes the mystery of the U.S.’ atomic power, only to leave any simple answers totally unattainable. The book has garnered incredible press, from a starred Kirkus review to articles in the Huffington Post, Boing Boing, Brain Pickings, Science News, the Boston Globe, and others.

Aside from being an impressive artist, he’s also an impressive activist. I thought I’d ask him a few questions about his experiences with art and activism in preparation for his upcoming reading in San Francisco.

1. What was it like to buck the trend of going from Stanford to a lucrative career in tech or consulting?

To be honest, I didn’t really notice that I was bucking any sort of trend. I figured that folks who studied econ would go work in banks and computer science students would go work in tech. Most of my time at Stanford was given over to translating stories of sex and murder in 17th-century Florence; which is to say that I didn’t expect to find anyone at the career fair looking to capitalize on my skills. And to be fair, most of my friends who went into tech or consulting did so because they were following their passion. The challenge of going against the grain is probably more pronounced for incoming students than for graduates, especially given this growing perception that Stanford is an incubator for a very specific type of creative capital.

2. When you were at Stanford, did you feel like there were adequate spaces to express your radical self? If so, which spaces did you treasure most?

I did find plenty of literal “spaces” for expression and exploration: places around campus  to be discovered or demarcated, usually in defiance of Stanford as an institution. In my Sophomore year I remember being pricked by that slogan of the Situationists — “under the cobblestones, the beach” – and realizing that beneath all of Stanford’s expensive landscaping and sandstone lies a dark and fecund soil. There’s a lot of potential in what few overgrown nooks remain. As much as I can point to any one thing, that’s what incited me the most.

3. You don’t see a lot of guys with rainbow mohawks joining frats these days… Is the current lack of weirdness on campus a product of the times, or were you uncommonly iconoclastic?

No comment on the mohawk. But it is important to remember that there is a vast gulf between organic, disarming “weirdness” and the institution of Stanford “wackiness.” Only the latter makes it into admissions brochures. Maybe it’s a product of the times – just go to any tech company campus to see how well the brand of “wackiness” has inculcated itself – but I also suspect it’s just harder to commodify the weirder stuff on campus. You have to seek it out – or stage it yourself – and it rarely looks very good on Instagram.

4. Tell us about your experience with Occupy Wall Street. Did that have an effect on your art?

I was in New York during the occupation of Zuccotti Park. I went to a lot of marches, attended a few general assemblies, and was arrested with seventy-five others at Times Square after refusing to comply with an NYPD order to disperse. It’s hard to figure how those experiences influence my work. Actually, I’d say that ideally my work is an expression of my values to the same degree that participating in radical, engaged resistance is an expression of values. Both actions are tools in a toolbox. Both require practice and commitment. And ideally, both the artwork and the civil disobedience will result in a constructive confrontation. Though, let’s be honest, no one’s going to get pepper-sprayed for making a graphic novel.

5. I recently took a class called “#OccupyArt: Immigration, Nation, and the Art of Occupation.” Each lecture focused on the centrality and efficacy of artists (“artivists”) in contemporary movements for social justice. Do you see yourself as part of such a movement? How does your politics inform your art, or vice versa?

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the prospect of making “political” art. Maybe it’s an idealistic stance, but I’d like to hope that the provocation of good art is something that burrows into our spirit to a level deeper than the civic and the social. That said, what comes out of that provocation – what we do in the aftermath of good art – is definitely the stuff of politics. Art is volatile and ambivalent and compels the creation of movements or communities to channel that energy. But there’s a danger too in the collusion of art and politics: Fascism produced some beautiful images that were also staggeringly effective tools of oppression. Political power resides in the use and abuse of art, not in its creation. That’s too much pressure. I want to keep my convictions as an activist distinct from my compulsions as an artist.

6. Do you have any words of wisdom for Stanford activists and artists interested in continuing their work after graduation?

I’m not a very good activist, but if I were a good one, I imagine that would mean that I had spent some really concerted time after graduation working for a large-scale movement or campaign, something that would give me the tools for the smaller causes that I think matter most in the long-run: how to better my own community, my own neighborhood, and those whose lives my actions affect.

And for artists: whatever your art is, do it all the time. Do it when it’s really hard and you hate it and do it when it comes easy and you feel like you’re a genius. From what I can tell so far, the important thing is to do the work; the rest somehow falls into place. Also, if you’re doing work for a corporation, don’t do it for free. And this last one is cheesy but actually pretty important for someone trying to make his or her own way: write a thank you letter to your favorite professors when you graduate and then, a year or so later, buy them lunch. They’re good people to have on your side, and plus, they worked hard for us.

You can buy Trinity here, and hear him read excerpts (aided by the very advanced technology of an old school overhead projector) on Thursday, September 20th at 7 PM at Mission: Comics and Art. Check out the Facebook event here.


Holly Fetter is a Senior majoring in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and is the co-founder of this blog. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in History and Studio Art in 2006. He writes and illustrates graphic novels in New York, and you can explore his work here.

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