In the Spring of 2021, we spoke with graduating senior Lara Bros about her experience in Westphal’s undergraduate Art History program, her thesis project, and her continued work with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and People’s Paper Co-op. In addition to making her thesis paper available here, Lara hosted numerous events and gave talks about her project, including an interactive presentation as part of the Design Forum Lecture Series.
Where are you from, and what brought you to Drexel’s Art History program?
I was born and raised (mostly) on the Shore in New Jersey. I very fortunately grew up being exposed to art and having access to art supplies where I could freely explore that. As a kid, I was just really imaginative and always asking 101 questions. It was a big deal when I was younger to go to major museums like the MET in New York, and it was always the coolest experience. In spaces as grand as that, I think everything tends to feel so important, which is what drew me into art history and what kind of keeps me here. I took an AP art history course in my high school, and just ate it up. I had an incredible teacher, Mrs. Soyster, and she was so dedicated to facilitating other people’s learning and understandings. I wanted to travel to every place I saw an art piece at. I decided that I wanted to do art history, but I didn’t want to be pretentious about it. I wanted to do something I loved, which was facilitating understandings and helping to tell stories, and I thought that the only way I could do that was through becoming a professor or a museum professional. I decided to go to Drexel’s Art History program, mostly because of the co-op and Philly, but because I sort of wanted to explore this interest more.
What other areas of study have you pursued at Drexel?
My freshman year, I very briefly minored in Anthropology. I have minors right now in Criminal Justice, Justice Studies and Business Administration. I’ve been involved with the Honors College since I was accepted to Drexel, so I’ve been in a ton of seminars and lectures for honors courses, which are always so interesting and engaging. Partly towards the end of my first co-op, I realized I wanted to learn more about the criminal legal system, so I picked up a minor in Criminal Justice. In my last few terms, the Criminal Justice Department opened up Justice Studies and are hosting a ton of incredible classes just as I’m leaving. If that minor had existed a few years ago, I probably would have taken every course available in it by now!
Where did you complete your co-op experiences?
So in Art History, you do two 3 month long co-ops during sophomore and junior year. I actually did both of mine back-to-back at major museums, which I laugh at now because it’s the total opposite of the kind of work I’m interested in! I did my first co-op in 2019 at NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I worked mostly in Development and got to go to Art Basel, which was pretty interesting. My second co-op was also in 2019 at the Barnes Foundation right here in Philly. I worked in the Community, Youth, and Family Programs department, specifically for outreach to the West Philly community. If you’re on campus, you might have walked by a building that used to be an old bank on 38th and Lancaster, and that’s the space I worked in. It’s called the Bank or Lola 38, and it was a collaboration between the Barnes and the People’s Emergency Center to encourage folks to come to the Barnes and make spaces for teens and families to hang out and engage in some art making. There were a ton of programs, but this internship made me realize just how much I want to be engaged with my community and how important building relationships with the folks around you is. I believe really strongly, and especially as a Philly transplant, that you have to understand and respect the neighborhoods around you and get to know folks in the area. The city is experiencing a lot of gentrification, often due to universities like Drexel, and it’s so critical to drop the “entitlement” as a college student and talk to people.
by Lara Bros
Tell me about yourself as an artist. What inspires your collage work?
I actually didn’t really think of myself as an artist until a few years ago. I was still, and continue to, dismantle hierarchies of what “good art” is in my brain. Because I work mostly in collage, and dealing with my own internalized perceptions of “craft” as lesser, I never really saw the work I was doing as art. What changed that was a class I took with Delia Solomons at Drexel, who became my thesis advisor. She introduced us to the work of Tania Bruguera, who essentially talks about art as useful (“useful art”) as a way to present solutions. So what I’m thinking about is art tied to abolition. Bruguera’s concept is one that really informs my artmaking and art-understanding.
My work is mainly in collage, although I do some textile work with embroidery and canvas. One of the first bigger collages I made was called narcissus, and it documents my experience with and recovery from an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. So my work is sometimes really personal and most of the time a way for me to work through my own perceptions and document myself. I focus a lot on memory, nostalgia, vulnerability, and how lived experience really informs our perspectives and interactions with the world and each other. I love working with found materials and I think that by piecing together different textures and mediums, I can help viewers (and myself) participate in active storytelling. I really want people to be engaged with the work I make, asking questions and observing.
Lara Bros (BA Art History '21) at a gallery exhibition benefiting Philadelphia Community Bail Fund
You’ve talked about coming to art with an abolitionist lens. What does abolition mean today, and where does it intersect with the arts? How has your Drexel education helped you make that connection?
I personally define abolition as changing our relationship with punishment, and more broadly, imagining and putting into action a world that necessitates an end to carceral systems. Abolition today mostly speaks about ending police or prisons, and often extends that to carceral systems, like bail or even the welfare system (I talk more about this connection in my paper). I think that art really lends itself to abolition. Abolition is all about using imagination and dreaming up more just ways to have accountability and justice that often don’t exist, so of course art is involved. Art is such a vehicle to bridge the gaps in our understandings with each other’s experiences. I think especially with abolition, it’s critical to acknowledge that we all do harm, and discarding people because they have done harm is not justice. I say this as someone who has experienced violent assaults, and as someone who has harmed other people. Art has this really unique space of not being totally integrated into what I call the “traditional” world. Art is undoubtedly tied to capitalism, but it’s historically not really seen as a way to make change, especially in the mainstream world. I think that art has so much power, especially when it’s in the hands of the people, particularly those who have lived experience. We need to be looking towards folks who have direct experience of oppression as the experts in “solving” the issue.
I consider myself a student of abolition, because I’m always learning, and also because abolition doesn’t ever require perfectionism. You simply need to show up with the desire to be accountable. My thoughts on abolition as connected to art are shaped around this idea by the AIDs activism group, ACT UP. It’s “art without action is not enough,” which is actually on one of their more famous protest posters, and it rings very true. We can make things, but they have to be in connection with other things, which is a huge part of mutual aid and abolition-centered community work. We want to build sustainability and community care where we don’t rely on oppressive structures. We have to do that through meeting folks’ survival needs, like housing and food, but also feeding the soul and psyche through art and expression. I actually wouldn’t say that Drexel really helped me make that connection to abolition. Rather, it was the gaps in information from art history curriculum that were filled by my own need to learn, conversations with peers and friends, and the answering of many questions by professors who encouraged me to tell them they’re wrong. So really, it’s not Drexel or the institution of higher education at all. It’s myself and the relationships I formed that facilitated learning beyond the constraints of Drexel’s taxing and demanding schedule.
Tell me about your thesis project and partnership with the People’s Paper Co-Op and Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. How did you become involved with these organizations to complete your thesis? How do you envision the impact of your project?
My thesis project is over 9 months in the making! I’m mainly interested in the intersection of arts and social justice, and how we can use arts (very much in an abolitionist way) to imagine and create a better world. My thesis project is essentially a research paper that analyzes three posters that the fellows at the People’s Paper Co-op made in order to put them into the larger context of art history, especially with political posters. The analysis also shows how each poster responds to a certain issue women who are subjected to the carceral system face. All fellows are formerly incarcerated women, who don’t need prior art experience, and they collaborate with artists across the country. I looked at the posters Free Our Mamas by Shoshana Gordon, which responds to labeling of people as criminal by the state, Freedom is My Divine Right by Malachi Lily, which responds to the desanctification of Black motherhood by the carceral system, and Gift of Loving Who We Are Today, which responds to the criminalizing imagery of Black folks historically, especially with mugshots. I’m mostly amplifying the voices of Black women who are involved in the system, because when we center the experiences of the most marginalized people, we work for the liberation of everyone. So all of these posters have elements of abolition, especially in the materiality, which is handmade paper made from shredded criminal records from expungement clinics.
I actually became involved with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund (PCBF) before I ever heard about the Co-op. In 2017, right after I moved to Philly, I found out about the annual Mama’s Day bail out, which we raised over $90K for this year. So every spring, because Black women, femmes, gender nonconforming folks and trans folks are some of the most vulnerable people in jails, we fundraise money to bail them out. Usually, we focus on Black mamas and caregivers, but because of COVID and the atrocious conditions in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, it’s all these folks. I started fundraising with them and have basically done it ever since I first got involved. I learned about the Co-op because every spring they sell the posters they make, the ones I analyzed in my paper, to fundraise money for the bail fund. So when you buy art, you’re essentially contributing to the freedom of a mama who has been removed from their community. I think that this is an example of how powerful art is, and I wanted to use my skills and passion to bring more awareness to this effort, and hopefully educate folks who might not normally even care. I wanted to give flowers to the people who have been involved in this mutual aid and abolition work for years, and create a space where there’s learning and collaboration. I could not have done this without the community of PCBF and the Co-op.
Right now, my thesis is a completed paper, which isn’t really a traditional thesis. I wanted all my language to be accessible, because academia is hierarchical and often shuts people out who don’t have access to higher education. Over last summer and the fall, I did months of intensive research where I looked at so many resources and talked to so many people because incarceration is not my experience. I wanted to make sure I was honoring the people involved and not exploiting any stories. Often, I feel like I’ve noticed that people who are involved in the carceral system tend to be used or expected to divulge the trauma they experienced while incarcerated, and this project is so about honoring that, but also honoring people’s personhood and respecting boundaries and looking to them as the experts in change because they experienced this. We don’t need people to “prove” anything to us.
Right now, the paper was finished at the end of winter term, and there is currently a website I created to help track fundraising and provide more info on the project. I’m hoping that people check it out and pass on the information. More awareness around an issue is great, and it leads hopefully to more people donating to free our mamas, and maybe even making sustained and thoughtful contributions past mamas day, like paying reparations to individuals or making a monthly donation. It’s really important to me that the momentum continues past the big day. Bail is no related to culpability, and this is something we have to fight consistently.
Where can we see more of your work and follow future updates?
My personal work can be followed on my website or on my Instagram! I’m constantly posting about things I’m learning and what I’m working on, so feel free to check it out. My thesis project right now is living at www.freeourmamas.com and there’s so much info on that website, from the posters, to videos of presentations, to learning more about abolition and how to continue mutual aid efforts. Also check out the People’s Paper Coop and the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. Please continue to support and keep the momentum for the bail fund up past Mama’s Day!
Check out Lara’s takeover of the @DrexelWestphal Instagram account for more!