If they’re sufficiently harsh, words can leave an impression. Lately, some of the harshest and most wounding have come from state legislatures. Certain lawmakers have framed non-straight Americans as a threat to children, and they’ve sought to excise their stories from school curriculum. Book banning — once thought of as a relic of a more barbarous age — has come roaring back into the national conversation.
Evidence of this trauma is all over “Don’t Say Other,” a forthright and fiercely motivated show that closes at the Art House Gallery (345 Marin Blvd.) this weekend. Jersey artist Diana Schmertz laser-cuts the words to recent legislation into watercolor images of books and artworks that have been targeted by censors. Residue from the cuttings gathers at the bottoms of the frames. The effect is simultaneously emotional and inspiring. Schmertz’s show is at once a portrait of a nation where literacy is under siege, and a testimony to the enduring expressive power of art. No matter how many characters are punched out of these covers, they’re still instantly recognizable.
Tris McCall/Jersey City Times: What are your feelings when you read legislation like the ones you’ve cut into your book covers and images? Can you describe your emotions when you encounter something like the Florida Parental Rights in Education Bill?
Diana Schmertz: Honestly, I feel enraged and paralyzed at the same time. These laws are dystopian, and they make me fear for society and any person who does not fit into a heteronormative white mold. I also fear for straight white people because eventually they will also be “othered” for one reason or another. I pull myself out of these states and make artwork to promote empathy, which can help counteract these prejudices and fanatical laws.
The Parental Rights in Education law (The Don’t Say Gay Act) was initially passed to outlaw discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity until 4th grade. Just this past month the Florida government extended the law until the end of high school. When I heard this on the news my heart became heavy. There is absolutely no representation of LGBTQ+ people allowed in Florida schools. Children and teens are not able to talk openly about their friends, parents, relatives, or their own personal feelings. So many profound books by authors like James Baldwin, Alice Walker or Anne Carson will be hidden from students. I do not understand how this is legal in America.