It felt like a suckerpunch. Like many other Americans leading into Election Day, artist Jamie Pettis had no reasonable expectation that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump might actually win.
As reality set in on the night of Nov. 8, she felt shock. Then the tears came.
Yes, it was only an election. People voted; somebody won and others didn’t.
But for Pettis and many who similarly view the world, a candidate was elected that she felt was outwardly hateful.
Upon hearing the news, Pettis’ mind turned to a December art show she began planning months earlier.
Backfire: A Cultural Explosion gathers visual and musical artists together on Friday to buck what they believe are largely intolerant attitudes that permeate Oklahoma and its government.
Pettis said this show provides refuge for our marginalized communities.
“I didn’t expect for this event to fall under these circumstances,” she said. “It’s almost ironic that it’s happening this way. It’s very much needed now.”Pettis, an Arizona-based artist originally from Holdenville, creates her art under the Brazen Wolf moniker.
The exhibit includes works by Steven Paul Judd and Jack Fowler. Soul Time with DJ Tom Hudson and rappers Fresh and Jabee will perform.
Backfire: A Cultural Explosion is 6 p.m.-1 a.m. at The Root, 3013 N. Walker Ave. Music begins at 10 p.m. The event coincides with Paseo Arts District’s First Friday Gallery Art Walk.
Pettis wouldn’t wallow in negativity. Instead, she wiped her tears and got to work.
Her piece “I Am in This With You,” featuring two women embracing in solidarity, was her response to how she felt about the election.
“It’s like, ‘We’re in this together; what are you so afraid of?’” she said.
The show, Pettis said, celebrates all people and how that diversity paints a complete picture of humanity.
“We’re not trying to separate ourselves; anyone can come and celebrate,” she said. “We’re just trying to be one — one among each other.”
‘Eye candy’From her father’s second-floor downtown art studio, it was easy for a young Pettis to pretend she inhabited a New York City loft.
Only after glancing out the window and seeing a loaded cattle truck pass by was it obvious she was in rural southeast Oklahoma.
Pettis grew up in Holdenville, a town with a population less than 6,000. Her father was a lawyer by profession. Art was his hobby.
She often watched him work on his pastels in his loft atop the town.
Creativity was his escape.
It soon became hers, as well.
Intolerance and racism existed in Holdenville, as did love and acceptance. Both extremes are found in every town and city.
Pettis said she found a circle of friends that kept her open-minded.
It included filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, whom Pettis has known almost since the day she was born.
“It’s funny how you could get out of it this way, because there was a pocket of us who … were these really socially conscious people,” she said.
After high school, Pettis moved to Stillwater to attend Oklahoma State University. While there, she interned for Marc Jacobs’ head women’s designer in New York City.
After college, she moved around the country to places like California, Colorado and even back to Oklahoma before eventually settling in Arizona to be with her then-girlfriend.
After moving to Phoenix almost seven years ago, Pettis decided to pursue art full-time.
Her work generally focuses on people and explores sexual openness and humanity’s complexity.
It is also full of vibrant color.
Lately, she has worked a lot with Prismacolor colored pencils.
“It’s like eye candy to me,” she explained. “This sounds kind of weird, but I like to make a painting or drawing that is almost edible. That’s when I lose myself in those pieces.”
Though Pettis hasn’t lived in Oklahoma full-time in years, she makes an effort to exhibit her work in her home state several times a year.
She said that effort is partly rooted in her obsession with how Oklahoma City’s art community has blossomed recently.
A community rawness exists here that can be hard to find in larger cities that carry more corporate influence.
She also aspires to be someone whom young people in the local art or gay community can look up to.
“There’s something about Oklahoma that has my heart unlike any other place,” Pettis said.
‘Get ourselves right’Rap didn’t make Jacobi Isham feel special. It was something almost everyone was doing — or at least that’s how he perceived it.
Isham, under his rap moniker Fresh, opens for Jabee at Backfire. Long before he performed shows in the Paseo, Fresh, now 26, was a teenager at home with a huddle of friends rapping into a small computer microphone.
They wrapped a washrag around the mic to create a makeshift pop filter.
“It was either [make music] or it was go out into the streets and get in trouble,” Fresh said. “When I go back and listen to some of that stuff, it’s embarrassing, but it was cool for the time being.”Fresh attended high school in Lawton and was a standout basketball player.
Parts of the city were violent or crime-ridden.
Fresh didn’t spend much time thinking about it, though, because his experience was the only reality he knew.
“When we went to rivalry games in basketball or football, we expected there to be a shooting there; we expected there to be a fight,” he said. “We were always just ready for it. I thought that’s how it was in all high schools.”
After graduating high school, Fresh played junior college basketball before signing at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, where he helped the team advance to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship game in 2012.
After college, he fully focused his energy on creating music, which he said wasn’t necessarily an easy decision to make.
Some people look down on local rappers, he said.
“I always rapped, but never put it out on Facebook or had that image,” he said. “Doing that was like, ‘Man, do I want to put myself out there for it?’ I still get it to this day.”
Fresh released the single “25/8” last year and plans to promote the song in 2017.
Much of his music reflects his positive attitude.
“I found myself in hip-hop,” he said. “The more I did that, the more I believed in myself and the easier it was to tune out [negativity] and say, ‘Hey, they’re just scared themselves. They’re trying to project their fears onto other people.’”
Fresh said he thinks it is important to lead by example and show the world there is more to Oklahoma than generalized negative stereotypes.
But before people can break down those perceptions, they must look inward.
“Once we get ourselves right, then yeah, let’s express that and spread that,” Fresh said. “There can be a lot of people who say these things and don’t really feel that way.”
‘Feeling it’Whatever happens over the next few years, Fresh is sure rap music and hip-hop culture will appropriately scrutinize and confront current events.
“Hip-hop has always been the news station of culture,” he said. “There’s not going to be a reason for it, but I think it’s just going to be a natural response.”Still, Fresh feels there has been a “watering down” of hip-hop in recent years — specifically on the national and mainstream radio levels.
He acknowledged that some of that might be because some younger rappers did not come up facing the kind of oppression older emcees experienced.
In a community where prejudiced individuals are now less shy sharing negativity with others, Fresh said he hopes rappers also are more extroverted about speaking out on important issues.
“I think we’ll see a lot of that realness and rawness have to come out again, because everyone’s going to be feeling it,” he said. “You can’t run away from it.”
Remember, the Backfire concept was conceived long before anyone knew how this year’s election would end. Pettis’ project responds to what she and participating artists believe is a long tradition of intolerance in Oklahoma that is upheld by those in positions of power.
In that sense, she said the show is necessary regardless of who won the election.
She said local leaders of minority and marginalized communities will briefly share with guests their needs and what can be done to help.
In coming years, Pettis hopes she continues to seek and find artistic expression that also cultivates comfort from within.
“You’ll see probably more of me, true to what I do, and finding a way to get a more all-encompassing message across,” she said.
She doesn’t have time for bitterness or self-pity, she said.
There’s a whole world out there to love.
“As infuriating and as angering as some things can be,” she said, “I can’t sit in negativity for too long.”
Print Headline: Emotional blowout, Artist Jamie Pettis curates Backfire: A Cultural Explosion to retaliate against the establishment and negative state stereotypes while fostering community and love.