By Adam Schendel
A spirit of empathy and resolve in the face of life’s hardships pervades the work of La Crosse artist Landon Sheely. To browse Sheely’s work, you will find that one of his most common mantras is “You Are Still Alive,” along with motifs of life and death such as skeletons rising out of coffins and skulls painted with bright colors or next to blooming flowers. But his work is also permeated by both unmistakably radical politics and a tradition of artistic protest that make Sheely’s art more vital than ever in the historic era that has unfolded in 2020.
“Usually when I express my flat out politics in art, it’s either in a light-hearted manner, a bit of a joke, or in a way to try and represent something that much of the world thinks is negative, in a brighter light,” says Sheely. “I don’t try to make political points, but rather human points. I try to create things that can encourage someone, make them smile, or spark a little rage filled with hope.”
Examples of Sheely’s political art are also found in numerous pieces on his online shop. One print features a police car being crushed in the jaws of a large panther head with the acronym “ACAB” written across the animal’s chin.
Another shows a skull made of brightly colored flowers against a dark background and the phrase “Abolition Against Police & Prison” encircling the image in colorful writing. Yet another features a traditional-looking religious image of the Crucifixion of Jesus with the phrase “PINKO” (a derogatory word for someone sympathetic to leftist politics) plastered in large red letters across the bottom. He sells shirts of a bird proclaiming, “No Border, No Migra,” a rallying call against brutal immigration enforcement at the American border.
Sheely initially didn’t begin working with these themes. He is originally from La Crosse but moved to Michigan and then California before coming back to the city. His first creative outlet was creating band merchandise for friends before he moved on to graphic design and now to what he calls “art/propaganda.”
“I never thought of it as a profession and I’m not sure I do now, either. I just keep making stuff and occasionally what I make, someone likes. A lot of the time with propaganda, however, it’s just creating, printing, and then passing it out or giving away print files,” Sheely explains.
He cites street and folk artists as the biggest influence on the work he does, as well as radical protest art throughout history, anything that is “so full of hope and love that it spills over into rebellion.” Specifically, Sheely names Bill Traylor, an African-American artist emancipated from slavery, along with folk artist Margaret Kilgallen, and Pat Perry as those who blew him away visually and influenced him.
His creative process starts with sitting down to sketch or play with shapes, and he credits his inspiration as coming from “current affairs, injustice, capitalism, and the state of things.” While he has lately been drawing with a tablet and making digital sketches, Sheely is still drawn to more traditional ways of making art.
“I love real print and the artifacts that come with printmaking, so even if a project is digital from start to finish, I try to pull as much of the perfection out of it with print techniques,” he adds.
Residents of La Crosse may encounter Sheely’s artwork in a variety of ways, the most prominent likely being the colorful mural he painted on the downtown parking ramp on the corner of Third and State streets entitled “Helping Hands,” showing people lifting up others toward the top of the ramp by standing on each others’ hands. Or perhaps residents have sat down for a cup of coffee at the Root Note to find a paper cutout on their table of an image Sheely created that shows a dark figure with a skull for a face standing in some flowers, with an urgent message to humanity written beneath: “The Earth is not dying it is being killed. Society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”
Sheely finds himself returning to these radical political messages in his work, noting that the most common themes he addresses are “immigration, borders, free movement, racism, socialism, anarchism, kindness, joy, resistance, coffee, and bicycling.”
With American politics being so heavily defined by the presidency of Donald Trump and his immigration policies, as well as the wave of protests and uprisings over the death of George Floyd that are demanding an end to racism and police violence, the spirit of protest against injustice in Sheely’s art finds new meaning lately.
“It’s pretty wild to think that an “Abolish ICE” design was pretty radical a few years ago, and “ACAB” shirts were only for punks a few months ago, and now the [political] center is running around demanding abolition [of policing and prisons],” he says as he reflects on the societal changes of 2020. “I LOVE the idea of my art NOT being radical. I don’t think wanting money to go toward community resources, gardens, and schools instead of militarized racist cops is a bad idea.”
There is no doubt that Landon Sheely’s art does a powerful job of capturing and expressing the desire for change that is sweeping the country right now, a tradition that stands for justice for oppressed people and a better future for the planet.
Sheely advances the cause for justice by making artwork that echoes activists and ordinary people across the US who have radically shifted the national conversation lately, with millions supporting democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in his presidential campaign and policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. They have come together this summer to make the Black Lives Matter movement one of the largest political movement campaigns in history as they propose policies to defund police departments and invest resources back into communities and crime prevention.
As for the role that art plays in society, Sheely thinks artists have a moral duty to be engaged.
“Art is not enough. I think artists…should use their voice to lift up the people that are getting pushed down. We as artists can try and make that ‘voice’ more pleasing and maybe more inspiring because of that pleasing visuality,” he said. “I guess right now my role should be to amplify unheard voices, and try to make (again, not so) radical ideas palatable, or at least a little more accessible.”
*You can follow Sheely on Instagram at @landonsheely and find his art for sale as prints and shirts at landonsheely.com.
All artwork courtesy of Landon Sheely. Support our journalism by making a donation here. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.