John Sokol's Obama Portrait | Program Notes
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Friday, November 7, 2008

John Sokol's Obama Portrait

Posted By on Fri, Nov 7, 2008 at 4:36 PM

Now that Campaign 2006-08: The People (Finally) Decide is over, in retrospect the most interesting piece of election art I saw is one with a Pittsburgh link.

It's poet and artist John Sokol's portrait of Barack Obama, composed of hand-scripted excerpts from the 2004 Democratic Convention's "A More Perfect Union" speech that made Obama a political star. Sokol, who's in his early 60s, is based in Akron and lived in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. In late September, when I showed up at Obama's South Side campaign office to volunteer, Sokol's friend Bob Ziller, himself a busy Pittsburgh artist, was out on the East Carson sidewalk, selling T-shirts bearing the striking image of a pensive Senator.

That speech, like most of Obama's addresses, was good. But Sokol's portrait suggests a deeper symbolism: Obama as a man literally made of his words.

Critics enjoy deriding Obama as nothing but a pretty speechifier. "Mere words," say many of the same people who profess to revere the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, or who salivated over Ronald Reagan's cockeyed bromides and happily wet themselves when George W. Bush bravely gambled other people's lives with "Bring 'em on."

Words matter. They have power even when you use them without knowing what they mean: "Socialist." "Mission Accomplished." "War on Terror."

One of Obama's strengths, I think -- maybe his biggest -- is his ability to find common ground between people, to empathize with opponents and locate the humanity that binds us, even on ancient and seemingly insoluble matters like race, war and abortion. And he locates it through language.

When we think, we think (mostly) in words, and though misused words can lead us astray, a thoughtful person's words can reveal new ways of seeing the world. Obama's speech on race, in Philadelphia this year, drew the fine line between knowing that someone (the grandmother who raised him) held racist attitudes and loving that person anyway. Surely Obama's talk of bridging such gaps was at least partly responsible for a Democratic presidential candidate's geographically inclusive win in more than 40 years.

Words, of course, must eventually resolve into action -- promises rendered in deeds. And now's the time to begin working to ensure that Obama is not just the man of words in Sokol's vision, but a man of his word.

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