Sign of the Times?

One of the works of art on the CSUB campus has been defaced!

But don’t worry. As they say about Oklahoma, it’s OK.

For the past ten months CSUB has been celebrating The Grapes of Wrath with concerts, lectures, theatre performances, and art exhibits. The next few months will see several more major events. “Bakersfield Built,” an exhibition of 1930s Modernist architecture, will be held at the Todd Madigan Gallery opening October 24, with a home tour downtown the following day. “The Cultural Legacy of The Grapes of Wrath,” an international interdisciplinary academic conference, will be held at CSUB November 6-8.  

During the conference at the Doré Theatre there will be a revival of From Dust Thou Art, Peter Grego’s play based on real-life accounts in the California Odyssey oral history archive at CSUB’s Walter Stiern Library. And Paul Phillips, music director at Brown University, will preview the commissioned opera he has written based on Jerry Stanley's popular book Children of the Dust Bowl.

But how is it that one of the several art exhibits in the celebration came to be vandalized?

If you enter the campus from Camino Media, you will notice Cameron Brian’s scale model of the Weedpatch migrant workers camp in Arvin. Next to this is an oversized Route 66 sign with a shredded tire raven perched on top.

On the back of the sign is scrawled "NO OKIES!” This is Texas artist Joe Barrington's tribute to the southwestern migrants who were welcomed to California with this slur en route to Bakersfield. Yet they persevered, overcoming this prejudice and eventually turning the Okie label into a badge of pride.

I know that some—perhaps many—students and community members who have passed by Barrington’s Route 66 sign have been troubled by it. I know because they have told me so. We have had some good conversations about the artist’s intent and the work’s intended and unintended effects. These are the kinds of conversations art is supposed to inspire, which is why the work is so powerful. It makes us think about a troubled and still troubling time, where we came from, and whether we have really come so far.

One student from Oklahoma said that he didn’t feel too bad the first few times that he saw it, and he even “got” its point, but after a while it grated on him and he wanted to say so. He didn’t want it taken down, he just wanted to say something about it. Fair enough and shake hands.

If you pass Barrington’s sign today, you’ll see that someone has painted over the "NO" so that it now reads simply "OKIES!"

I don't view this as an act of vandalism. I consider it an act of participatory art.

Provocative art should not be surprised by a provoked response. The Grapes of Wrath celebration is supposed to be a community event, not an artists-only event. This celebration belongs to the community, and so this response delights me. It shows that someone is paying attention; someone cares enough to enter the dialog, answering art through art. They could have been offended, felt victimized, whined, lodged a complaint. Instead they took a can of paint and gave expression to their idea.

In fact, I feel that they “completed” Joe Barrington’s tribute. After all, they blocked out the “NO” not the “OKIES” part of the message, turning a derogative into a positive. 

This is what always impressed me about my parents who were Dust Bowl refugees and farm workers. They suffered just like Steinbeck’s Joads, but they never whined, they never complained, they never considered themselves victims. They worked. They figured it out. They responded to the times with hard work, humor and dignity. They would not have painted over the “NO” on the sign. They would not have denied the historical truth expressed in the “NO OKIES!” sign. They would have approved of the implied message of the now “defaced” sign.  

What’s the message now? It’s simple: Okies are here to stay.

Richard Collins, Dean
School of Arts and Humanities
California State University, Bakersfield

No Okies or No No Okies?