Good Trouble with Monsters

Nov 15, 2023

by: Kit Loney

This past spring, I had the opportunity to bring monsters from our TinyIsPowerful “Good Trouble” workshops to a couple of North Charleston schools. 

This lesson, “Good Trouble,” began in 2021 with a question during a conversation with Pam: “If racism were a monster, what would it look like?” Playing off that idea, I made a sculpture with trash, primarily white and clear plastic from the recycling bin: a one-legged, life-size figure, about five feet tall, with sharp teeth and no eyes. I call him OM (Original Monster.) When we bring OM to an event, he tends to capture attention. He is not cute.  

I believe in monsters. That is to say, I understand them to be effective metaphors for our fears, both specific and general, individual and societal. They offer us a way of approaching The Other, as well as facing disturbing aspects of ourselves. Because our recycle art monsters are created by us, each is specifically made, often without our realizing it at the time, to respond to our needs or concerns. The monster you make can become a useful lens for probing the stories you grew up with, how they shape the way you see the world.

Monsters can come to us in many different ways and attitudes. 

The poems in Cornelius Eady’s collection, Brutal Imagination are written in the voice of the black man Susan Smith invented in 1994 after she drowned her two children in a South Carolina lake. Here was a ready-made “monster” based on a racial stereotype found at the heart of white fear, easily available to a desperate woman needing someone else to blame for the murder of her children. 

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells of the Windigo, a monster known in Native American cultures. The Windigo is the spirit of mindless environmental consumption and destruction, a ravenous greed that lays waste to forests and clean water. 

There are also cute monsters, rascally imps. Think of Maurice Sendak’s lovable creatures in Where the Wild Things Are. My first job out of undergrad school had me stitching prototypes for these to be produced as stuffed animals. These were monsters children were encouraged to cuddle.

Nonetheless, there was some real fear about them. Sendak spoke of gruff older relatives who would kid “I’m going to eat you up!” Imagine how this may have sounded to a young child.

Sendak spoke, as well, of how terrorized children of his generation were by the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Those hooded ghouls in his book Outside Over There allowed Sendak to address this lurking fear, because here’s the thing: When we make our monsters, we get to be in charge. We are the artists in control of the narrative. In the last pages of the book, the fearsome ghouls under the hoods turn out to be babies.  

With “Good Trouble,” OM made his first appearance at a TinyIsPowerful anti-racist book club meeting with James Simmons Elementary teachers at Hampton Park. Along with a growing crew of additional monsters, he has now also made appearances at a TinyIsPowerful Circle of Advisors meeting; chef camp at Charlestowne Landing; 701 Gallery in Columbia (in connection with the exhibit there by Jean-Marie Mauclet and Gwylene Gallimard); an Alternate Roots week workshop at the Columbia Art Museum; East Cooper Montessori School in Mt. Pleasant, SC; and James Simmons Montessori School in Charleston, SC. This past spring he came along to the monster making activities at my residencies at Lambs Elementary School, and Northwoods Middle School in North Charleston.

Each presention of this monster workshop has brought insight and enhancement. After the chef camp, we knew to supply soft plastics that can be easily cut with school scissors. Following the workshop at 701, there was a conversation among participants that helped guide how we approached the upcoming school workshops. Rather than specifying racism as the only monster, we opened up the possibilities to include a range of issues kids might face.

At the Alternate Roots Weekend workshop, some collaborative monsters were made. These were more elaborate than what could have been made by any one participant alone. Since then, I have shown some of these examples when I teach, and have suggested collaboration as an option, with fruitful results. At Northwoods Middle School recently, groups of students paraded out from a single hour-long session carrying impressive collaborative life-sized monsters with elaborate details such as telescoping legs and rows of precisely cut sharp foil teeth.

At the Roots workshop, we became aware of the sense that a delve into one’s monster could also lead to the discovery of a superhero. We then incorporated this idea into our lesson, suggesting that somewhere inside a monster a superhero may be found. 

In preparation for my most recent artist-in-residency at Northwoods Middle School, I realized I did not have enough plastic trash for more than two groups. I did have a good supply of discarded textbooks kept for the purpose of altered bookmaking, so two of the groups made “book monsters” from old art textbooks. I was excited to see the ideas and approaches these classes came up with. I am also intrigued by how the notion of a book monster might touch upon the way certain books are currently being challenged and banned in schools and libraries. Are they monsters—the books— or superheroes?

When we were at James Simmons Montessori, Rayn brought along pre-folded “zines,” simple blank books into which the kids who had finished could write and/or draw a story about their monster. This proved to be an effective lesson extension, and I have since brought an example of a zine about one my monsters when I present. Teachers have responded enthusiastically to this idea, which facilitates getting kids to reflect on the monsters they create. 

This zine component is critical to the true spirit of the “Good Trouble” lesson, because making the monster is really only the first part. The zine brings us to the second part of the experience. The longer part.  It takes us to where we begin the process of reflecting on our monsters. This can be a lengthy engagement.

For example, here are some of my reflections about OM: At first, I imagine completing this monster Nam Jun Paik-style with a tiny one-inch-cube television lodged in its throat. The TV would be showing what we all saw on the TV on January 6, 2021. I never actually get to the television part, and OM gets stored in the storage area under my house with my she-wolf monster. I set the two of them up at a chess board, thinking of the Greek vase painting of Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. In time, I come to notice that the “table” this chess board is on happens to be the paint box that belonged to my maternal grandfather, who made a living as a commercial artist. A WWII Navy veteran, he took advantage of the GI Bill to buy a house. I am, at the time, reading The Color of Law, and learning that this GI Bill opportunity was not available to Black veterans. I find this both shockingly unfair, then chafe at my own naïve ignorance. Here I am, a woman in my sixties, only just discovering this? What else have I, as a white person, not known about? Now I look at this chess game and consider that one side may have started with way more pieces. What kind of a game is that?

This leads to reflection on what I’ve been told of this grandfather I always admired as an artist, who died in the late 1950s when I was still little. Mom tells me he tended toward racist, antisemitic, misogynist attitudes. I can’t help but compare these to the more progressive beliefs of my other grandfather who, according to my dad, told my grandmother he didn’t care what the neighbors thought, he would invite his negro colleague to dinner because he was his friend. 

My mother tells me how this same grandmother, her mother-in-law, when she saw voting rights demonstrations in the early 1960s, expressed not understanding what ‘they’ wanted. When Mom responded with data she’d read about, the stark difference between Black and White life expectancy. My grandmother was shocked. She’d had no idea! Hmm.

Our monsters, in time, lead us to our stories. Can sharing our stories bring about more awareness? Might this be how we could have meaningful conversations about race, about gender stereotypes, and other points of contention in our communities?  

My journey with OM has led me to memoir-type written relfections of the attitudes about race that came with my upbringing. Your path will be different. Different experience, different story. And the story your monster leads you to may also take a different form. Perhaps your reflection will emerge as a play, a song, a comic book… 

Art can be a powerful tool.

With the residency at Northwoods Middle School, I was working with groups of ESOL students. They spoke various dialects of Spanish, Portuguese, Tagalog, but many of them spoke little English. While an ESOL teacher translated some of my presentation into Spanish, for the most part, the activity was taught via example and demonstration. I am happy to say that the students were very engaged and made some impressive monsters. I think this points to how visual art can be used as an effective way of traversing language barriers. What other kinds of barriers might it also traverse?