Editor’s Note: Karen Kaapcke is a painter based in New York City. She visited Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park over several days and created a painting each day to document her experience in the park. We asked her to write something short about the work she produced there and her experience in the birthplace of the movement.
When I finally started reading about the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the mainstream media I was stunned by how late, and how dismissive it was. After several visits, I found myself wondering how to participate; as a painter, I am always at once feeling a part of and outside of things, and this was no different. And yet my sympathies were strong and my anger at the media coverage was growing. At that time, I had written a short piece about portraiture and was thinking about how a portrait of something makes a statement about the seriousness, or the importance of what you are painting.
It came together; I needed to go paint at Zuccotti Park, to grant it the seriousness, the respect and the statement of importance that was, I felt, lacking. There was a certain element of fear, or of risk involved on the days I went. And then, I thought about those down there and the risks they were taking and realized that my fears potentially paled in comparison.
I don’t usually paint among others, let alone in such an active crowd. I didn’t know how I was going to proceed, I just went. As soon as I arrived, I looked around outside the park, scoping out a possible spot where I could set up, but this didn’t seem right. Again, I felt the insider/outsider dilemma. It would’ve been safer to remain outside the park, and it was a much better vantage point from which to paint, but it seemed all wrong. Among other things, it smelled of something like using OWS for my own aesthetic purposes. So I stuck myself inside, participated in every “mic check,” felt the energy and let myself go into it as a painter.
I didn’t want to stand out. I sat with the painting panels on my knees. I had to work fast, given that it was often drizzling or cold. There was very little room for thought. I realized that this kind of documenting had to be a raw kind of response, in order to best capture the humanity of each moment there. Each day brought me a different sentiment as a narrative developed.
As I headed down in the morning, I visualized the encampment, and the people there, and tried to get a reading of what my response to it would be, but I was always surprised by whatever the movement presented to me when I arrived.
The last day, when I went after the protesters were evicted, I had no visualization, no sense of what to expect, other than a bit of dread. I saw an empty park, except for the park workers in their yellow vests sweeping up leaves and a small group of protesters in the background. I stood for a while, and then entered the park and painted the emptiness.
My work has changed — I am not quite sure how yet. I always paint from life, but the pre-verbal need to document something so important has brought me closer to what it might mean to be a painter. The other day, I sat in my studio thinking about ‘”visual meaning,” about how to paint something essential. I knew this thought came from learning and responding to Occupy Wall Street.