Youngstown State University’s art department invited Shaun Slifer and Bec Young, artists from the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative, to the McDonough Museum of Art to speak to students about their group and provide a functioning example of modern artists working cooperatively.
Dana Sperry, professor of digital media, said the speech aimed to provide students with a working model of how artists work together.
“I heard Shaun talk about Justseeds at an apartment talk two years ago,” Sperry said. “That talk was really honest and forthright about artists working together — how that works or doesn’t work. It is something that we don’t talk about that all of you are going to have to do; all you are going to have to work with people. … We have this mythology that somehow you will just go off to your study and be all by yourself, and that will be enough to perpetuate yourself. That is not how that works.”
The Justseeds Cooperative is a collection of 24 artists from across North America, who use their skills to create print and design work to express and support political, social and environmental beliefs. The group, which lacks any traditional or strict hierarchy, proliferates the idea of collaborative efforts working harmoniously with individual expression.
“We are a worker-owned cooperative — collectively structured group of politically themed print makers. That is kind of my elevator speech of what we do,” Slifer said. “I think it has been seven years now that we have properly been a cooperative of people committed to working each other.”
Though the cooperative is made of members across the continent, they own a distribution center in Pittsburgh — run by Young and Slifer. This is where they receive members’ projects, archive members’ work, sell prints and portfolios, and package and ship orders.
“The selling of things, the selling of prints, is a tactic for us to support each other individually and try to create sort of a financial basis to do permanent projects,” Slifer said
Aside from offering support to each other – financially, personally and professionally – and operating the distributive center, the group also produces installations in galleries, produce works together, create portfolios of work for display and sale, place wheatpaste posters on the streets and contribute graphics to grassroots groups they support.
“One of the ways we cooperate is to make portfolios,” Young said. “I guess we feel that the portfolios are some of the most successful ways we cooperate.”
The group creates portfolios of limited edition set of prints from their artists for collectors, libraries and archives, as well as assisting the movements they support by offering free downloads of these graphics.
“For us, it is also an exercise in trying to focus and be integrated or in service to a type of movement that we believe in and want to contribute to or want to work within, but maybe aren’t otherwise necessarily involved in,” Slifer said. “A ton of us got involved in this kind of graphic work because we got tired of seeing the sorts of movements that we felt invested in, representing themselves horribly graphically. … These are also efforts at that.”
Young said one such portfolio they worked on, dubbed “War is Trauma,” involved working with Iraq Veterans Against the War — an organization they continue to collaborate with.
“[The portfolio] also contains work by veterans. So a lot of the Justseeds artists are involved with making artwork, but we also invited a lot of the veterans that were involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War to participate and put work in the portfolio,” Young said.
Slifer said he worked with the veterans pasting work around Chicago protesting the redeployment of veterans with PTSD and other mental trauma.
“I was thirty that year, and I was rolling around with a guy who was 18 and had just bailed right after basic training. He was supposed to go to Iraq but had read a couple of books and was like, ‘I’m not going,’” he said. “We were rolling around kind of graffiting Chicago and it was a really powerful experience actually working with them directly.”
Sperry said the event at YSU was part of the Emergent Future Now lecture series.
“This is the last installment of a long lecture series called Emergent Futures Now, which is about collaborations and collectives and cooperatives, and how they work and how they function,” he said.