Art of Change: How Chattanooga-based artists inspire conversation through creative expression

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Artist Josiah Golson poses for a portrait inside his studio space at Stove Works.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Artist Josiah Golson poses for a portrait inside his studio space at Stove Works.

In 2017, musician Solange Knowles won a Grammy for "Cranes in the Sky," a soulful song which chronicles the artist's attempts to distract herself from pain.

But, despite her efforts, Knowles sings, the feelings linger like "cranes in the sky."

The lyric was inspired by the constant construction Knowles saw against the Miami cityscape.

"She used that image to convey these feelings that are always overhead, casting a shadow," says Chattanooga artist Josiah Golson, who has used Knowles' album to help others creatively process their own experiences.

In 2015, Golson founded 800 Collective, a group that uses art as a means of civic engagement. Through workshops and online activities, his goal is to connect people to artmaking in a way that is relevant to their everyday lives, tackling topics such as affordable housing, educational equity and stereotypes.

For example, using Knowles' album "A Seat at the Table," Golson invites participants to process their emotions by making simple sketches corresponding to such tracks as "Rise," "Weary" and "Cranes in the Sky." Then, the artists are encouraged to share their work.

The end result, he says, is not about the art itself, but the space it creates for conversation - a concept to which Golson, and many others, have committed their artistic careers.

Here, Golson and two other local artists share their philosophies on art as a means to social change, and how they've used it to inspire important conversations in the community.

Josiah Golson and Black Lives Matter

photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Artist Josiah Golson poses for a portrait inside his studio space at Stove Works.

Josiah Golson found his voice in law school. His early paintings were often inspired by the classes he took, and served as commentary on the American justice system.

After graduating, he spent three years as a real estate lawyer before his passion for the profession waned.

Art, he had learned, also had the ability to inspire civic action.

Unlike other forms of discourse, Golson says, "Art taps into people's hearts and minds. It engages their imagination. And if you can't meet a person where they are, you can't get the conversation going."

Last summer, Golson saw an opportunity through "Blackout Tuesday," a movement which encouraged social media users to replace their profile photo with a black square in solidarity with BLM.

The unified front was remarkable, he says, but he wondered, "How does it mobilize action?"

In response, Golson launched "Beyond the Black Square," an interactive online art project meant to engage non-Black individuals. During a 15-minute Instagram video, he led viewers through a series of prompts.

Participants were instructed to make three sketches representing people and activities near to their hearts. Then, they were challenged to brainstorm ways to translate those images into actions that support Black lives. For instance, a person who loves books might research Black authors; one who loves dining out might find a Black-owned restaurant.

"We equate blackness with the absence of things," Golson says in the video. "As a Black person, I can tell you we are not abstractions. We are living, breathing souls."

The activity was meant to reimagine the black square as a blank canvas, a space for discovery and dialogue, which is the idea behind all of Golson's work, from his writing to his visual art to his community projects.

"I feel like all my work centers on exchange - the exchange of stories, experience and truth. It is me just trying to connect with people," he says.

Ali Waller and Me Too

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Ali Waller poses with her art installation "I Will Not Let Him Win in Death," originally dedicated to the victims of Jeffrey Epstein. Waller makes molds of women's breasts to honor victims of sexual abuse.

In 2020, Ali Waller began work on an installation to tell the stories of survivors of sexual abuse.

The project was her response to the Jeffrey Epstein cases, in which the wealthy American businessman was convicted of sex-trafficking minors.

Initially, the project "was very anger-motivated," Waller says - much as her art had been as a teenager.

Beginning around age 13, Waller had endured years of sexual abuse, after which, she says, art became a necessity.

"I had all this energy trapped in my body, and it came out in all forms: photography; pottery; painting."

But even amid her rage, "I wanted my art to have purpose. I always wanted it to involve other people," she says.

Last May, Waller put out a call for women to come to her studio and have their bodies cast in plaster. Her goal was to make 200 casts of breasts, a reference to the $200 Epstein reportedly paid his victims for their compliance.

photo Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Madison Smith looks over hundreds of breast molds at local artist Ali Waller's Chattanooga exhibition of "I Will Not Let Him Win in Death."

Waller titled it "I Will Not Let Him Win in Death," and fastened the moldings on her studio walls, surrounding a small clear case which displayed the sculpture of a broken jaw meant to represent Epstein, whose autopsy following his death in jail had revealed broken bones.

"It's only one jaw, and it's so small next to the hundreds of casts, but it ruined so many lives," Waller says.

Over the months, she continued to add to the installation. At each casting, she would ask the women to share stories about their relationships with their body, sexuality or trauma. The conversations sparked a shift in focus, slowly moving away from the injustice of the crimes and instead, highlighting the resiliency of the survivors.

In July Waller reached 200 casts, and kept going.

"Once I was at 550 casts, I didn't feel the need to acknowledge Epstein anymore," she says.

She changed the name of the installation to "/200" and covered the broken jaw in baby's breath flowers.

Now at 908 castings, "/200" has been exhibited cross-country, and its ability to inspire powerful conversations has traveled with it.

Following her show in Palm Beach, Florida, Waller remembers being approached by a man.

"He had written all these questions down on his phone - how to support women; how to talk to other men about sexual abuse - and he wanted to talk to me about it," Waller says. "I want to offer the space for learning.

"We are never just a victim or just an abuser. We have both of these in our systems, and we are all worthy of these discussions."

Alex Paul Loza and Latino visibility

photo Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Alex Paul Loza works on a mural in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

When Alex Paul Loza was a senior in high school, his art teacher encouraged him to borrow supplies - ink, oil-based crayons; mediums with which he wasn't familiar.

"She wouldn't show me how to use them. It was about exploration," Loza says.

His work didn't need to be perfect, his teacher told him. He just needed to feel what he created.

At age 12, Loza had moved with his family from Peru to the U.S. In high school, he was still learning English, and art became his most effective form of communication, he says.

After high school Loza attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Illinois. Then, he became an art teacher at an after-school program.

The vast majority of his students were Mexican-American. He noticed they seemed to struggle with identity and purpose, feeling as though they didn't belong to either their parents' country or their own.

"I needed to show them that there are people who look like them who have made impacts on our community or in our country," Loza says.

So, he began painting portraits of public Latino figures such as Salma Hayek, Carlos Santana and Celia Cruz, which he used to teach his students about their heritage. The project grew, eventually becoming a mural that he and his students painted on the cafeteria wall.

After its completion, Loza remembers overhearing the children discuss the work.

"I picked out that color."

"My dad's from the same city as that man."

"I want to be a singer like her."

"It gave them a connection and awakened their desire to dream," he says.

In 2018, after relocating to Chattanooga with his wife, Loza began work on the city's first Latino mural, located near the Hispanic grocery store on the corner of Broad and Main streets. But before getting started, he asked the Latino community to share important themes in their lives, which he wanted to incorporate into the painting.

"Wherever they were from, whatever job they were doing, all of them said, 'Our children,'" Loza remembers. "It brought to mind a thing my mom used to tell me: 'I may not be able to achieve my dreams, but I work so you can achieve yours.'"

Loza's mural, titled "Dreaming Forward," or "Soñando," illustrates four Latino children, each with a different object: a kite; a plant; a paper airplane; cardboard wings. Their expressions are bright and hopeful. Their faces are turned toward the sky.

Art, says Loza, is a universal language.

"Regardless of how we look or what language we speak, we all have the same goals: the betterment of our children."

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Alex Paul Loza's "Dreaming Forward," or "Soñando," mural is seen.

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