Like most artists, Malena Magnolia has been drawing and painting for as long as she can remember. But unlike the galleries and fine art materials most dream about in childhood, she now creates assemblages of mud and dirt on concrete sidewalks and the sides of buildings.
“I want to make art that is accessible to everyday people, not just folks who have an art background,” she said in a recent interview. “There is a very small demographic who attend galleries. To reach more people, it makes sense to put it on the street. And the fact that it washes away over time is a perk because it’s not permanently altering something and is environmentally friendly.”
Reaching as many people as possible is at the heart of Magnolia’s mission to share messages of social justice and foster change through her work. Her interest in art “that affects people on a deeper level” began at Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was introduced to feminism during her freshman year. Raised Mormon, Magnolia said that feminist theory “made sense to me. My religious background was restricting and didn’t see me as an equal, and I’m not the kind of person who takes that.”
At first, she applied feminist concepts personally, “exploring gender with myself and what it means to be a powerful woman in charge, or just in charge of her life.” Now, she said, she sees feminism as the intersection of conversation and action—an ideology to be lived as well as talked about. She described the connection between gender-based and sexual violence, its ties to race and class, and how she makes art to empower as many people as possible.
When Magnolia creates a new piece, she develops a stencil and uses mud instead of spray paint to fill it, then leaves the final product right there on the street. She usually hears about a new work’s reception through word of mouth.
“Not all of my art is blatantly political—sometimes I use these floral designs,” she said. “People might stop as I’m putting it up and say ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ If there’s any sort of political rhetoric or text about women’s lib, I get a lot more pushback, but that’s only within a couple of minutes. The work that’s more blatant, that’s usually the work that gets added to or defaced.”
She described a college project in which she made a mud stencil of an average-sized, curvy woman and the words “There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s society that’s f&@*ed.” “I put that up on canvas, and someone else made a stencil over the top that put a McDonald’s icon on her butt and then wrote ‘But the scale doesn’t lie, fatty,’” she said.
Magnolia said she welcomes this type of interaction. “Usually when people deface my work it proves why the work is necessary,” she said. “I just leave it. It’s interesting. That’s part of the beauty of street art—my work isn’t a commodity—anyone can deface it or interact with it. I don’t get paid for it, but I don’t care. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Magnolia’s latest work revolves around a project she’s leading through The Bridge PAI. “No More Violence: A Community In Recovery And The Struggle For Safety” is an ongoing series of community-led artistic projects designed to address and challenge sexual violence in our area.
Based on the statistic that every 107 seconds, someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S., Magnolia created 107 Seconds, an event in which she mounted onto the back of her truck a mud stencil that read “Stop rape, believe survivors,” then drove around the UVA campus 107 times—once for every passing second—clocking a total of 14 hours of road time. She also spent a day photographing 80 people holding this same sign around Grounds.
“No More Violence” projects include a series of safe space discussions about the ways these events have affected the community, what must be done to alter a culture of rape, and workshops led by Magnolia for anyone who wants to create their own stencils to combat sexual violence.
“Most people who came to these meetings are survivors of sexual assault, and as I’ve led these workshops more people have come to me in confidence. It’s overwhelming and heartbreaking how common it is.”
The Bridge PAI will host an exhibit made by the community, plus a stencil that “traces the roots of sexual violence back to valley hunting and Thomas Jefferson,” Magnolia said. “I don’t think anything in the present is separate from its history. I’m doing a 5′ long mud stencil of Sally Hemings in front of Monticello, focusing on her as a survivor and not focusing on Thomas Jefferson, which is what we always see in Charlottesville.”
During the exhibition, The Bridge will also offer a space in its gallery as a “therapy wall” with assorted markers, paints and brushes for people to anonymously (or not) share quotes, feelings or thoughts about their experiences.
“This series uses art to engage with history, to challenge the current system as it deals with sexual assault, to take back our community and public domain, and to act as a vehicle of healing,” Magnolia said. “It gives voices to survivors who will no longer be silenced.”