Interview | Tabitha Arnold: "Whose Streets," and 'People's Art' | Sabrina Sigler

Updated: Feb 5



I came across this artwork while scrolling through Twitter and instantly became infatuated. I rushed to follow the creator across all social media as in the midst of the pandemic and everything else, art just hadn’t been impacting me as it used to, until “Whose Streets,”.


“Whose Streets,” is described as ‘a tufted rug made of wool yarn, measuring roughly 3 feet by 5 feet. It’s stitched with colorful images of political struggle, including workers, protestors, movement leaders, police, and flaming cop cars.’


A comment in reply to the tweet which amassed over 50,000 likes, says “It’s gorgeous! Peoples art” which made me think more broadly about the piece. “Whose Streets, embodies the concept of ‘People’s Art’, both in what it depicts and more importantly, the values behind it.



I interviewed the creator, Philadelphia-based visual artist and socialist organiser, Tabitha Arnold about the evolution of the unique creation and the relationship that can be found between resistance, revolution, and art.



Q: What inspired "Whose Streets,"?


A: Broadly, my idea for the piece came from my background as a labor organizer. I wanted to capture imagery from picket lines and protests, including the Black Lives Matter marches that took place over the summer in Philadelphia.


I’ve been looking at Palestinian liberation artists, whose drawings are incredible. I love how they center the power and beauty of Palestinian people rather than focusing exclusively on images of suffering. I’m also inspired by the artists’ radical ethos of distributing art to hang in every home.


With “Whose Streets,” I wanted to memorialize workers and protesters in a very grand, exalted light. I also looked at images of my favorite narrative textiles, including “Tar Beach II” by Faith Ringgold - and even the Bayeaux Tapestry.



Q: Can you tell me more about the process of creating the piece?


A: I made “Whose Streets” with a punch needle. I was a painter first, then a weaver, so when I discovered the punch needle, I thought it was the perfect combination of two mediums I loved. I started by stapling linen rug warp over canvas stretchers, then I punched the yarn through, like drawing with thread.


For “Whose Streets,” I transferred a very detailed drawing to the linen surface instead of just going for it like I have with past rugs. Once I mapped out the composition, it took me about 90 hours to cover the surface with yarn, and another 20-25 hours to finish the edges and tie on fringe. I don’t have a studio, so I worked on my tiny living room floor and tried very hard to protect the work from my cats.


Slideshow of work below:



Q: Do you have any particular inspirations for your wider work?


A: I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Afghan war rugs. I love how they use jarring imagery like guns and drones in a soft woven medium. It says a lot about trauma and how these images trickle into everyday lives and home environments.


I also find myself returning to Christian imagery, particularly Eastern Orthodox ikons, for their rich compositions and narrative power. I grew up attending an Orthodox Church in the Bible Belt, and while I’ve left a lot of that religious culture behind, my upbringing very much shaped my idea of justice and truth.


Some of my other favorite textile artists are Ann Hamilton, Sheila Hicks, and the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Textiles, in general, have an amazing legacy as an alt-history medium. Weavers from all cultures, who are often women, use fiber art as a vessel for personal stories and revolutionary messages.


I shifted from making abstract weavings to more representational imagery that I could talk about with my neighbors and coworkers, not just other people who attended art school.

Q: Disobedient's founding values look at resistance through art and the link between socialism and art - would you say this is something that influences your practice?


A: Yes, every day. When I first became a Socialist, I struggled a lot with the question of art’s place in the movement (I still struggle with this sometimes)!


I was lucky to attend college and get a fine art degree, but I felt like the post-grad trajectory of selling work to the wealthy elite and showing at exclusive institutions was the complete opposite of the future I imagined as a Socialist.


Eventually I got a few minimum wage customer service jobs because there aren’t a lot of careers for fine art graduates. Shitty jobs are radicalizing, and my experiences also turned on a light bulb in my head that I could use my fine art passion as a tool in my political organizing.


I shifted from making abstract weavings to more representational imagery that I could talk about with my neighbors and coworkers, not just other people who attended art school. Aside from textile work, I also began making more traditional propaganda: flyers, stickers, shirts, and postcards with pro-union messages to help people quietly seed solidarity into everyday life.


As a Socialist artist, I really love portraying the world I see and believe in: one where workers are powerful enough to shift the course of the future, where protest is an act of heroism and martyrdom, where there is so much powerful work going on in the midst of all the despair.

Q: Can you tell me more about your thoughts re: art and Socialism?


A: I have so many thoughts. One thing that really motivates me to create leftist art is the idea of owning the narrative. Like most people, I’m frustrated with the way the media portrays political events, and how easily disinformation spreads into conspiracy theories. Our images and stories are controlled by the ultra-wealthy few and it feels important to create a counter-narrative.


As a Socialist artist, I really love portraying the world I see and believe in: one where workers are powerful enough to shift the course of the future, where protest is an act of heroism and martyrdom, where there is so much powerful work going on in the midst of all the despair.


There’s enough gloom and doom in the world; we all know things are bad right now. I think art can be helpful by highlighting the hopeful aspects of organizing and solidarity. After all, there’s a lot of joy in the work and a lot to be excited about whether we win or lose a particular fight.


When people look back on this political moment, I hope they find my work as an alternate history to whatever state propaganda the US will eventually add to our school curriculum.


Q: Do you have any new pieces in the work currently?


A: I’m finishing up a commissioned rug for a labor organizer comrade that I’m very excited about. It’s a smaller piece focusing on themes of bread and roses, feminism, and opulence.


After that, I’m planning on making another large-scale piece about striking workers on a picket line, most likely starring Scabby the rat. I’m feeling inspired by the past year’s pickets, especially the striking Teamsters.


Finally, I just started a residency at Glen Foerd, a historic estate in Philadelphia. I’ll be making textile installations with conductive metal thread that play audio cues when touched.


Q: Can you tell me a bit more about you?


A: I grew up in Tennessee, but I’ve lived in Philadelphia for my entire adult life. I think it’s the greatest city in the world and I don’t know if I’ll ever leave. I love being a volunteer labor organizer with Philly Workers for Dignity, where I give advice to scrappy workers on the path to forming their own unions.


When I’m not working on art or political organizing, I like writing short stories, playing videogames, and admiring my pets.



You can purchase prints of “Whose Streets,” on Tabitha’s Etsy HERE.



Instagram: @tabithakarol / Twitter: @thetolerantweft / http://www.tabithaarnold.com/



Written by Sabrina Sigler (Editor)