Tyrone Hart pulled back the sliding-glass door to his balcony to reveal a clear view of the ocean, joking about his million-dollar view.
His Atlantic City apartment doubles as his studio and private gallery of the self-taught artist’s work.
But in spite of the view, Hart’s work is far from seascapes and picturesque scenes of the Jersey Shore. On one wall hangs a naked Eve, and another painting depicts a black man bound with the American flag — the latter painting being featured in his exhibit, “Urban Justice & Urban Life,” at the Noyes Arts Garage.
Hart, whose work appeared on the cover of the book “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City” by “Boardwalk Empire” author Nelson Johnson, said he uses his art to discuss justice in America, race relations and the black experience past and present. The artist said he strives for the wow factor and even had one man approach him in tears during a show.
“He says, ‘Tyrone, you are a master. I feel everything in that painting you’re trying to tell me right now. That’s why I’m crying,’” he said. “From that, I knew right then my work was important — is important — because if I can strike one person, change your attitude toward me or my race, then I’ve done something. That’s what I stand for as an artist.”
Art isn’t just about personal expression for many artists who place activism at its core. Their work becomes a vehicle for telling stories about social issues.
A visiting international poet at Stockton University, Ahkil Katyal, said poetry can capture “the malaise, the disease of the times.”
Katyal, a professor of literature at Shiv Nadar University in India, has been writing for 10 years and is active in India’s LGBT community. Katyal is influenced by a city’s political climate, even writing a poem in his hotel following the U.S. presidential election.
Katyal, who held a three-week residency at Murphy Writing at Stockton University through the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, traveled to several cities across the United States.
“In India currently, there’s a deeply misogynist, homophobic and Islamophobic government in place. There’s nowhere in which you can be an active poet, writing and living in Delhi, without responding to that dispensation,” he said. “Even if it’s an extremely personal subject matter, even if it’s about love and loss and pain and beauty, it will, in one way or another, respond to precisely the structures you find around yourself.”
Kelley Prevard, 27, of Atlantic City, said her art became her “voice to speak about the issues” that were important to her.
“I try to challenge longstanding beliefs of gender, beauty and race in our society,” said Prevard, who recently won first place at the Economic Inequality Art Exhibit for her new piece, “Patterns of Oppression.”
Prevard has received praise for her work depicting such issues, but she’s also received pushback. But such discomfort, Prevard said, spurs change.
“I think that is the main part of using art for activism — you’ve got to be unafraid to make people too uncomfortable,” she said. “It forces us to take a look at it. I love that art has the ability to penetrate the soul of people. Sometimes words won’t do it. You can turn the page or turn the TV off.”
Photographer Nick Rayment, a 28-year-old Barnegat Township resident, would be hard-pressed to disagree.
“I think now, the problem is everyone is so busy. People don’t have the time, they don’t put the time aside to sit down and read,” he said. “I think if you can capture their eye with something interesting, it’ll cause them to stop.”
Rayment has spent several years giving a deeply personal glimpse into the lives of his family following his 21-year-old brother Zach’s cystic fibrosis diagnosis. Rayment, who said he was always geared toward street photography and even did a series covering the closing of casinos in Atlantic City, began snapping away when his brother was diagnosed in 2010.
Catching private moments of his brother’s breathing treatments and visits to the hospital, Rayment said he realized the project could be something powerful. But there was a delicate line he wanted to balance between art and advocacy.
“I wanted to advocate for it, but I didn’t want it to look like a commercial for a medication. This is my relationship with my brother who happens to have cystic fibrosis,” he said. “It’s one of the things that every so often I go back to it, I sit and write about it, and say, ‘OK, what direction is it going in?’ So it’s closely guarded, in a way.”
Rayment and Prevard said expressing themselves can be cathartic.
“Through my artwork, I’m trying to heal myself, and I hope that in my attempt to heal and understand the world I live in that it’ll connect to other people and it’ll heal other people,” Prevard said.
Christina Jackson, an assistant professor of sociology at Stockton, said she has been dealing with the idea of art and activism from both an academic point of view and through community art projects.
Jackson, who has worked with youth in Philadelphia on various art projects, said her research is influenced by the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, which has informed the way she looks at art and activism, such as its potential “to have transformative effects,” as well as its ability to “contest and challenge the social order.”
Although the arts can be used to reflect on the social issues that exist in our communities, Jackson said it can go much further.
“I think it’s also used as a way to challenge the way we connect with each other in a particular community around a particular topic and really getting at things that are maybe difficult to talk about. So in a sense, I think it’s more than reflection but a community-building tool,” she said.