J. Preston Witt is the one of three creatives profiled in a series featuring artists from ahha Tulsa’s Open Studios. All three profiles may be found here on the TCC Connection website.
On Aug. 5, ahha Tulsa held its Open Studios for the public during the First Friday Art Crawl. Two of the artists from ahha Tulsa, Jamie Pierson and Antonio Andrews, and J.Preston Witt from Tulsa Artist Fellowship were featured in the collection of articles about the August First Friday Art Crawl.
As the Aug. 5, Open Studio at Archer commenced. In the hallways of the studio space, giant paper mache sculptures of weed leaves, a uterus with teeth, and a pig in a police costume stick out to studio goers from J. Preston Witt’s studio. On a laptop screen flashes photographs of the sculptures worn at Pro-Choice rallies, and the 2020 protests connected to the death of George Floyd.
“I came to Tulsa in 2020. Because I was an outsider, I knew I did not want to start anything myself, so I looked for opportunities to support other people’s projects. I jumped onboard with as many small, artistic/activist initiatives I could, trying to make friends, build trust, and learn how things worked around Oklahoma,” Witt explained.
One of those projects was founded by artists Ghazal Ghazi, a multidisciplinary visual artist and poet, and Yatika Starr Fields, a painter and muralist, with the help of a few other local collaborators (Spencer Plumlee, Sean Tyler, and others). They created three giant protest puppets to march around former president Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally during Juneteenth weekend 2020. The sculptures were made with chicken wire, newspaper glued and pressed together, and later painted.
Walking around the BOK Center that day, Witt felt “upset after quietly listening to terrible things being said around me for hours on end inside the rally, I ran into the puppet crew and my whole mood changed on a dime. I joined up, the crowd was incredible, loud, and vibrant, and the puppets were so effective at maintaining a particular kind of purpose and atmosphere for the protest that I knew I wanted to get involved.”
He got close to artist Ghazal Ghazi and started creating over 10-feet-tall and over 30-feet-wide sculptures and traveling around the country to support small protests. He said, “The puppets are meant to support those in Tulsa (Mvskogee Land) and are owned by whoever has the most need for them and can use them best. So, if you need to use one, reach out! I am hoping the puppet forces will grow in number and size and get used for many years to come.”
He explained, “Protest art is meant to be made in collaboration with other people, especially in collaboration with the organizers and community the puppet is meant to support.”
When Witt took the Trump puppet to Philadelphia in 2020, images from that day went viral on Twitter. Witt said, “I somewhat angrily refused all interviews, especially in 2020, because I resented being asked my opinion as a white guy when there were plenty of other people standing around whose opinions mattered more.”
He did give an interview to a reporter who claimed to be from a local student newspaper. The reporter turned out to be a “far-right “gotcha” kind of YouTube personality, and that video apparently went viral on the far-right internet.” Witt has not given interviews since.
Though now Witt creates political sculptures, he explained that his story began with writing. “Writing was important to me as a young person because when I got around people and tried to have a conversation, my brain shut off. I could never say much, and whenever I did, it came out so poorly that it made it even harder to open my mouth the next time. Writing eventually helped me to grow and understand my insides, taught me to organize and complicated my thoughts.” Currently, Witt is finishing a realistic novel about a Midwestern middle school teacher who has to go back in the closet to get a job at a Catholic school.
Political issues are the lifeblood of Witt’s work. To him, the best aspects are, “Making art and being loud about injustice is just the best way to make true friends because these actions are really only organized by a small subset of the population.”
Though it does have its drawbacks, “There are a lot of vicious, paranoid, terrified folks walking around pretending to be brave and waving guns at protesters or just siding with people who have all the power—it’s laughable, but it’s scary.” He also pointed at Oklahoma City District Attorney David Prater during the 2020 protests accusing five teenagers and 20-year-olds of terrorism as a form of state repression. He said, “When basic acts of resistance from citizens are treated as violent threats by militarized police, you can no longer pretend you are living in a free state.”
It can lead to burnout, but Witt finds that solidarity and community is what keeps him going, “You do not have to be some brave selfless person to try to do something … act in … accordance with the most basic tenets of human decency.”
For the future, Witt wants to create work in solidarity with Ikiya Collective.