PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard in Los Angeles. | Photo: Courtney Coles.

Power to the People: Molly Surazhsky’s Billboard Art Inspires Political Action

When the coronavirus pandemic erupted in March, textile artist Molly Surazhsky (Art BFA 19) wasted no time piecing together fabric scraps into urgently needed masks.

The work in her Los Angeles studio came naturally to Surazhsky, whose Ukrainian family roots in tailoring stretch back generations. She donated some of her face coverings to Mutual Aid Action Los Angeles, an antipoverty group that battles inequality with food, housing, and other essentials.

Before long, she sought to lift her support for the organization to a much bigger platform: 10 politically minded billboards “spread through as much of LA as we could possibly cover.” Her PPE • People’s Power Enhancement series, designed to inspire political action while benefiting Mutual Aid Action LA, borders thoroughfares from Lennox northeast nearly to Glendale.

“Bringing art to a public space, especially right now, is absolutely essential,” Surazhsky says. “Bureaucracy and limited public funding have made it much more challenging to make art accessible to diverse communities in LA.”

Financed through a private fundraising effort organized by the Hunter Shaw Fine Art gallery, along with an anonymous donor and Surazhsky herself, the billboards went up Oct. 12 and should remain in place through early November. (Surazhsky doesn’t know the identity of the anonymous donor but “understands it was someone passionate about the political messaging.”)

The displays, which stand 10 feet, 5 inches high and 22 feet, 8 inches wide, feature a variety of models–some of them CalArtians–wearing artist-made masks with messages such as “Redistribute Power,” “Redistribute Wealth,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Care for All,” and “Vote Nov. 3rd.”

Artist Molly Surazhsky and collaborator Courtney Coles in front of one of the  PPE • People’s Power Enhancement's billboards. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez/CalArts.
Artist Molly Surazhsky and collaborator Courtney Coles in front of one of the PPE • People’s Power Enhancement’s billboards. | Photo: Rafael Hernandez/CalArts.

“Particularly with all the political upheaval right now, we live in a perpetual state of precarity,” Surazhsky says. “I’m hoping these messages resonate with people and create a dialogue–or a gateway to host conversation among people.”

Photographer Courtney Coles (Art MFA 19) worked closely with Surazhsky on the effort, shooting the images of the models. Coles says she hopes people see themselves in the billboards.

CalArts faculty Harry Gamboa Jr. is featured on a PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard. | Photo: Courtney Coles.

“I love working with people–their stories, who they are,” she says. “Seeing everyday people on a billboard–I think that will inspire people. It’s not selling people a product; I’m looking at real people with a real message and hope for change.”

Coles and Surazhsky have collaborated before, most recently early in the pandemic. They would meet to take photos outside major institutions such as The Broad, which endured layoffs over the health crisis.

Surazhsky says that informal project planted a seed for the PPE billboards, which include both individual and pairs of models. She “cast the campaign with a diverse spectrum of genders, ages, races, and orientations, including an ex-Sandinista freedom fighter and his daughter, a local witch and her familiar, along with notable figures from LA’s community of artists and activists such as Barbara T. Smith, Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Harry Gamboa Jr.,” as Hunter Shaw announced in a written statement.

It was crucial that the campaign represent “a portrait of LA,” Surazhsky says, an intent furthered by the billboards’ locations, which include South L.A. and near Pan Pacific Park.

PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard. | Photo: Courtney Coles.
PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard. | Photo: Courtney Coles.

“We’re speaking to people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, trying to bridge a range of diverse neighborhoods,” she explains. “The feedback I value most is from people who are not in the art world.”

A first-generation American of ex-Soviet descent, Surazhsky wove in historical references throughout the pieces. For instance, stitching seen around a triangle in the billboards is pink–a color that has represented silence amid the AIDS epidemic, she notes.

And the “bold, graphic patterns of the backdrop and face masks are appropriated from textile designs by Constructivist artist Varvara Stephanova, who, during the Russian Revolution, designed aspirational clothing and accessories for citizens in revolt,” Hunter Shaw said in its announcement. “PPE is also in direct dialogue with the tradition of artist-made billboards in the United States such as the celebrated Guerilla Girls campaigns, or more recent projects like For Freedoms’ controversial ‘50 State Initiative’ spearheaded by Hank Willis Thomas.”

The limited-edition masks seen on the PPE billboards will be on sale at Hunter Shaw Fine Art through year’s end. Proceeds will go toward Mutual Aid Action LA and Revolutionary Autonomous Communities.

Surazhsky has worked before with many of the CalArts students and alumnx featured on the billboards, including at a fashion show she hosted as a CalArts student. CalArtians seen in the pieces include Coles, current students Fiona Rose Casper-Strauss and Izzie Swan, former visiting faculty member Njideka Akunyili Crosby, alum Taehee Kim (Art-IM MFA 19), and CalArts School of Art faculty and Surazhsky’s mentor Gamboa.

PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard. | Photo: Courtney Coles.
PPE • People’s Power Enhancement billboard. | Photo: Courtney Coles.