Textile Art, Labor Organizing, and Socialism: An Interview with Tabitha K. Arnold

by Nico Millman and Lauren Troop
Featured image by Tabitha K. Arnold / Colorspace Labs

Nico Millman and Lauren Troop conducted an email interview with Tabitha K. Arnold, a member of Philly Socialists, a labor organizer with Dignity, and a visual artist specializing in textile and fiber-based art. You can learn more about Tabitha at her personal website. Prints, stickers, postcards, and t-shirts featuring Tabitha’s art are available for purchase on her Etsy page

Portrait of Tabitha K. Arnold. Photo by Colorspace Labs.

Nico: Tell us about your involvement in Philly Socialists and your experience as a labor organizer for Dignity. What motivated you to join this movement? 

Tabitha: I first heard of Dignity in 2019 when I was looking for help with starting a union at my job. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop called Green Line when I stumbled upon a viral wage transparency document for cafe workers in Philly. I already had some organizing experience through volunteering with Reclaim Philadelphia, and I decided to try and connect with other baristas around the city to talk about conditions at our workplaces. Those meetings with baristas, coffee professionals, and union organizers led me to Dignity, who believed in me and my coworkers and eventually took our workplace on as a campaign.

I was originally motivated to start a union because I noticed that even small groups of organized workers could have a really profound impact on the world around them. Trying to change a very rotten capitalist system as one individual is exhausting, to say the least. I saw that worker organizing is contagious (I personally caught the bug from campaigns like Burgerville and Gimme Coffee) and I wanted to keep spreading it.

For the record, I will say that my unionizing effort was crushed by the pandemic. My coworkers and I were laid off in March 2020, and most union-friendly folks didn’t trust the boss enough to go back to work if they had the option to stay on unemployment. I stuck with Dignity and became a volunteer organizer because I felt like I learned a lot from the campaign, and I wanted to help other people get through the problems I encountered. 

Nico: What are some of your thoughts about the role of art in socialist labor organizing, and vice-versa, the role of socialist labor organizing in the world of art and culture? What have your experiences in the art world taught you about socialist organizing? 

Tabitha: The role of art in socialism is a big question. Sometimes I can be a real pessimist and doubt that art is useful in any material way. Right now I would argue that it does play an important role, considering that so much corporate money goes into making propaganda. Powerful people are desperate to control the images and narratives we receive about work. I think art can put values like solidarity and people power on a pedestal. You can see these themes in places like Soviet posters and Mexican murals, and it would be wrong to discount the cultural impact of living and working around those images.

I also find that I can use art as a conversation starter. Images about labor are great for agitating people and teasing out personal stories. So far, one of the best side effects of making my artwork has been provoking conversations with people I never thought were down to complain about their workplace.

As far as socialist labor organizing within the art world, I think art and cultural workers have some catching up to do in terms of class consciousness. We’re stereotyped as “starving artists” and exploited for our transience, as well as the fact that we love our work. Can you imagine the food service industry existing without a steady supply of artists, musicians, and performers to use as cheap, disposable labor? How would gentrifiers flip all those empty warehouses without renting them to artists first as fire hazards—I mean studios?

It often feels competitive and isolating to be an artist. I can understand the temptation as an artist to describe yourself as “self-made,” and capitalists love to glorify successful artists as an example of bootstrapping through sheer innovation and creativity. In contrast, I try to keep in mind that most of the good things that have happened in my art career are due to the immense support I get from my community.

As far as lessons from the art world that I use toward organizing, the most important thing I’ve learned from art is how to trust myself and be brave enough to go against the grain. The best moments in art and organizing always happen when I put aside being a people pleaser, or fearing backlash, and follow my actual conscience or inner voice—however humbling or scary that can be.

Tabitha’s textile, “Picket.” Photo by Colorspace Labs.

Nico: What events, histories, and art practices inspired your recent narrative textile, “Picket”? Can you also comment on some of the vivid imagery and symbols you include in this piece?   

“Picket” is a very straightforward piece. I wanted to make something that glorified the picket line, which is a profound moment in many labor fights that deserves more hype. I think that standing on a picket line with your coworkers, or other workers you don’t even know personally, can transform you as a person. When you’re there, you realize that you didn’t just come to chant in support of the people with grievances…those people are actually chanting for you, too! Everyone feels their power together and leaves with inspiration and hope to continue the work elsewhere.

The ritual of the picket line reminds me of church, which inspired me to add some snippets of Orthodox Christian imagery to the piece. Throughout my childhood, my dad brought me to an Orthodox church, which is a very ritual-based faith compared to most American Christianity. It’s more about actions—what you do with the physical movement of your body—than an obsession with the purity of inner thoughts or feelings. This action-based ethos is reflected in good labor organizing, where at the end of the day, it’s all about the concrete actions you’re willing to take toward collective power, which is way more important than everyone’s individual political opinions.

I also filled “Picket” with images of worker organizing, such as whispering to your coworkers, marching in the streets, and expressing solidarity during times of struggle. I added vehicles like airplanes, UPS vans, and garbage trucks, partly because I wanted to recognize these union workers and how much their labor builds and sustains our world. I also added them because the power of a picket is that each of these union brothers and sisters commits to standing with you, refusing to cross the line and bail out the boss. 

Of course, Scabby the rat is the star of the piece. I love Scabby because we don’t have enough symbols on the left. I was trying to brainstorm images for a Socialist tarot deck recently, and I gave up after raised fists, bread and roses, and hammers and sickles. Scabby is one of the last, most imposing symbols of labor power we have, and I just love everything he represents. You know you’re absolutely fucked if he appears outside your building. 

Lauren: How do you think that textiles and fiber art uniquely facilitate story-telling? What drew you to working with textiles? 

I started making textiles about five years ago when I typed “how to weave” into YouTube. I am happiest when I can be a self-learner, so I love that the medium is very folk and DIY and you can make discoveries on your own. I also find the fiber art community so warm and welcoming compared to the social scene of painting, which tends to feel more competitive and lonely. Fiber art has an ancient history of being primarily a women’s craft, with techniques passed down within families and communities, growing almost completely outside of the ivory tower of art museums and academies. 

So, one reason I work with textiles is just because it’s fun and intuitive and connects you to lots of amazing people around the world. As far as its storytelling capability, I love that it’s so naturally accessible to people. Something about seeing pictures on a rug feels less intimidating than trying to squeeze out meaning from a painted canvas on a museum wall. People seem to associate textiles with home, mothering, and comfort, which makes it a really interesting medium to hold complicated and sometimes dark stories. 

Tabitha holding original textile, “Picket.” Photo by Colorspace Labs.

Lauren: Are there other artist-organizers who inspire you and your work?

Tabitha: I have many inspirations in both the art and organizing world, but it’s somewhat rare for these paths to overlap. Probably because they each ask a lot of you, so you have to be a little insane to devote yourself to both. One of the first artist-organizers I ever came across was Swoon, who went from making huge wheatpastes in New York City to organizing for housing justice. She definitely planted the seed in my mind that socialist art is possible.

When I was first getting involved in labor work, I became a big fan of Boots Riley, particularly because I saw Sorry To Bother You. As a young artist struggling to reconcile my politics with my art, I was amazed to see socialist labor organizing on the big screen, and depicted pretty accurately too! It was very formative for me to watch another artist combine the work of socialism with the art of filmmaking, and I think he was very successful in capturing the urgency and excitement of the socialist struggle in a way that left audiences feeling inspired.

Finally, I’ve become deeply interested in Palestinian liberation art, much of which is documented by artist-organizer Samia Halaby. I’m really grateful to Halaby for passing down this period of radical art that is generally left out of the Art History canon. She follows a group of Palestinian artists who circulated propaganda posters throughout the 20th century with an ethos of “art in every home.” The radical optimism of the work has really resonated with me. I love how they chose to uplift the power and beauty of Palestine, and their own connection to the land, rather than focusing on the usual images of death and destruction that we associate with Israeli occupation. 

Lauren: What were your biggest inspirations this past year? How did the pandemic affect your practice?

Tabitha: Dignity had a very intense summer in 2020. Many of us were laid off, so we supported hot shops in the food service industry. I stood on picket lines with workers who couldn’t leave their frontline jobs, and we demanded hazard pay, safe work conditions, and other basic rights. It felt very bleak to look their bosses in the face and see how much contempt they had for the people who ran their business. I felt like I was running on anger for most of 2020, just feeling devalued and disposable in our broken system.

The pandemic, however, ended up becoming an unexpected blessing for my art practice. Before I got laid off, I didn’t have time or energy to make art as often as I wanted. I was also really starting to question whether I would continue on an artist path, or if my energy was better spent on more direct organizing work. It was a real quarter-life-crisis moment. When COVID arrived and shut everything down, I had the rare opportunity to not think about work at all for the few months I lived on unemployment. Now I believe that everyone deserves periods of rest and reflection away from work, and not just during pandemics!

Summer 2020 also brought a historic moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, and images from the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests in Philly have stayed with me. It was a very charged few months where it felt like another future was possible, and the power of a unified people’s movement was real and tangible.

I remember standing near city hall one Saturday in June, watching hundreds of people attempt to tear the Rizzo statue out of the ground. I have a vivid memory of thinking, “I guess art is important.” At this intense and critical moment, I saw that people channeled their power and anger into sculptures and symbols. To me, that meant that images matter to the movement after all.

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