On the first anniversary of Kelly Thomas' death, Fullerton residents and artists connected to the cause have grouped together to present "Art with an Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas." The show, which opens on Friday, July 6, is a charity art exhibit at PÄS Gallery downtown, blocks from where Thomas was brutally beaten.
The exhibit will feature original work of over 40 artists, including celebrities such as Cherie Currie of the Runaways and actress Susan Olsen. All the money raised from the show will go to the Kelly Thomas Memorial Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the homeless in Orange County, founded by Kelly's father Ron. We talk to organizer and co-curator Stephan Baxter about his motivation, and why this exhibit is so important for Fullerton.
OC Weekly: Why did you decide to organize Art With an Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas?
Stephan Baxter: I knew Kelly, I wanted justice served and I love art!
I wanted to introduce what I believe to be the best thing in Fullerton, the Art Walk, to what I know was the ugliest day in Fullerton's history, July 5th 2011, the day Kelly was tortured and beaten by up to six on-duty Fullerton officers.
I would often see musicians and artists I knew personally at the Kelly Thomas protests. Rikk Agnew who could be regarded as the father of OC punk rock and is one of the contributing artists, was at most protests, as was his brother Frank. Steve Soto, Jorge Disguster, Ricky Stauffer, Phil Genova, Julie McDonnell, all are old friends from the music scene, and all were involved early on.
We were demanding answers because we hated what these men in uniform did to a member of our community, and we were going to hold them, and all those who attempted to obstruct the truth from coming out, accountable.
How did you find the artists?
I had been talking about the idea of a Kelly Thomas-inspired exhibit with my wife and a few activists I know, just in conversation, but the first established artist I talked to with any seriousness was John M. Sollom.
John is a full time working artist. He is all talent, good will and positive energy, and one of my favorite people on the planet. He is an unpretentious artistic powerhouse, and once he not only signed up, but agreed to co-curate the show with me, my idea had some credibility.
John is the real curator of the show, and he is contributing more pieces, all amazing, than any other artists. My role was in organizing the show, with John input defining what we were trying to accomplish, staying in touch with the artists and generally keeping it moving.
We put 4,000 promotional cards out to the world, so after the dozen or so local artists we really wanted to participate, for the most part, the rest found us.
What were your curating parameters?
The idea, and now the art itself, has simply been inspired by the fact that this family's son and brother was murdered in our public square, and initially at least the instincts of almost all who had power at the police department and at city hall were callous and wrong.
Kelly was not diagnosed until adulthood, and even after his diagnosis, there were periods of time where he lived a fairly normal life. There was more to Kelly than him being a mentally ill homeless man, and we intend to communicate in our exhibit.
If the viewer connects to Kelly as one of us, then this should trigger an emotional response in them, and as they continue through the gallery space they next find themselves in a converted warehouse. It is here were our guests will find the 30 foot walls blanketed with the actual protest signs which we have been collecting for this show for months, as well as photographs of the protest.
Our hope is that maybe then, someone who before only heard about what happened on the nightly news, but was not moved by this injustice, will understand what we were protesting, and why we were protesting. Perhaps one of them will even decide to get involved and help us get justice for Kelly.
What did Ron Thomas and family think of the show and the idea of the show?
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Before I had any artists lined up, I wanted to make the Thomas family aware of my plans. Beyond the obvious matter of respect, if they did not support what we were doing this entire enterprise would have been derailed. I had seen the parents at the protests, but never really talked to any of them. So I turned to a local activist and friend named Shelly who put me in contact with Ron and Kelly's step mother, Dana, and I contacted Kelly's sister and biological mother on Facebook. They each have given their strong support, and they are honored that so many artists were willing to apply their talents to this cause. They have not, however, attempted to control or influence the content.
The family will attend opening night, and so far they have only seen the images which I have used in promoting the exhibit. So for Ron Thomas to go out himself and promote our event shows me that we have gained his trust, and I will do everything I can to not make him regret it.
Art With An Agenda, 8 p.m. Friday, PÄS Gallery at the Magoski Art Colony, 223 W. Santa Fe St., Fullerton. (RSVP on Facebook.)The Adolescents play at the Kelly Thomas Memorial Concert, 2 p.m. Saturday at Fullerton Square.