The power of words is not lost on di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.
In 2020, the word VOTE sat at the entrance to the grounds, encouraging people to consider their power in deciding the country’s fate. Today, those driving down Sonoma Highway will see the word PEACE on the di Rosa’s dam, installed by the same local educator and artist responsible for the VOTE sign.
Walt Williams is a teacher at Creekside High School, writer of a long-standing blog called the Valley Voice, and well known for the SONOMAWOOD sign he builds together with his students, which graces the Sonoma Plaza every March during the Sonoma International Film Festival.
Williams is dedicated to raising awareness around important issues. When war broke out in Ukraine, he said he felt powerless.
“I needed to do something. So after the film festival, I had letters left over and decided to paint them Ukrainian colors and put them up, hoping that people who drive by will realize what a horrible situation it is. Do everything you can,” he explained.
The pertinence of art as social critique and the catalyst for heightened awareness plays a big role in di Rosa’s work. Kate Eilertsen, di Rosa’s executive director, says this kind of art has ever been a part of their mission.
“Di Rosa has always been a platform for local artists to speak out on the issues of our day,” said Eilertsen. “This philosophy has been baked into the DNA of di Rosa from its beginnings and is needed more today than ever. Di Rosa extends a huge thank you to Walt and Tuck for their continued support.”
As of May 5, a third evacuation operation was underway in the destroyed Ukrainian city of Mariupol, where thousands of civilians and Ukrainian soldiers are still trapped inside the Azovstal power plant, of which the Russian military is fighting to gain control. It is reportedly the last Ukrainian held outpost in Mariupol. The death toll is still unclear, but in the thousands.
The Bohemian spoke with Williams at greater length on his latest sign, and his work as an artist and activist.
Walt Willams— I’ve always worked in my classroom and life to get information out and motivate people. With VOTE sign, and now with the PEACE sign, in Ukrainian colors, I’m hoping to raise awareness. Kate (Eilertsen) is always incredibly open with me, and serendipitously this year di Rosa is doing a few events and exhibitions around peace as part of their 25th anniversary celebration. So this particular piece fit well. And I want to get a point across. I’ve been writing a blog for about six years called Valley Talking; that’s been my way of getting my word out there. And these are my one-word messages.
How do you choose—why PEACE?
WW— PEACE is a concept that I wanted to use, really because I wanted to do everything I could. And I feel so lucky to have this platform and opportunity to put these signs up. The PEACE sign was chosen because we want to get the word out to people. I’ve been amazed at the response—the number of Russians who think that this war is justified for example— it all points to how different the world is, and how much misinformation is being spread. It’s a time of mistrust and confusion, and we’re trying to get real information out there.
What do you want people to think when they see the sign?
WW—I want people doing everything they can to help. Donating to a cause, taking in a refugee if it’s possible—early in the war U.S. citizens were paying for Airbnb’s in Ukraine just to get some funding to the citizens. It might not change the world, but it can change a little bit of the world.
How does your son work with you?
WW—Tuck came back during Covid and is home with us. He works for the Boys and Girls Club, and while he’s here I love bringing him onto any projects that I do. He and I share the same interests in terms of sharing ideas. He’s always happy to help. And it makes him proud to see our work. It’s part empowerment, part father/son bonding.
How do you use art to deal with your challenges?
I find great catharsis in my production. My art really addresses the reality of these issues we’re all facing, and moves it out into the world. You really can’t be sad after painting for a couple of hours. There’s an incredible catharsis to it.
Is that part of why you teach your students art?
Definitely. With high school juniors and seniors, I’m seeing that they’re not as involved as they once were. I’ve been doing this for 22 years and there’s a general decline in involvement and attention. And it’s not an empowering activity, or good for mental health, to spend so much time detached from the world and attached to cell phones. I see what art does, I see how it can change people, change a mood, a direction in life. If I can empower the kids to create, I feel good about that. I want kids off their phones and engaged in their capacities. I feel teaching them art gives them a coping strategy for today’s world. A lot of kids think what we’re going through is just normal; they don’t know much else outside of these circumstances. But we’re in a bad way, and once they realize that, I want them to be empowered to process it. My students helped to make this PEACE sign, and I want it to help make them feel connected to their community, the way the SONOMAWOOD sign does, and connected to the circumstances we’re all facing right now.
Williams’ PEACE sign, installed by him and his son, Tuck, and painted along with his Creekside High School students, can be viewed at the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. Di Rosa is celebrating their 25th anniversary this year all year long with special programming, including artist talks, films, concerts and theatrical performances, honoring their last 25 years in the community as well as dedicating themselves to continued growth and community engagement in the next 25.
For more information and to engage with the center, visit www.dirosart.org.