Art & Social Justice: An Interview with Claire Salvo

Los Angeles based artist Claire Salvo uses creative talent, charcoal and oil paint to share the stories of refugee children through her amazing portraiture. In addition to being an artist, Salvo is also a musician as part of the DJ duo The Jane Doze. Join us as we discuss with the artist her recent project REFUGE, the importance of social justice and the impact art can make in a politically trying time.

Let’s begin with your most recent project REFUGE, which focuses on giving a face and a voice to refugee children. Can you tell us a bit about the scope of the project and the organizations involved? What inspired you to begin this series?

Two months before the 2016 election, I moved from New York City (where I lived for nine years) to my hometown of Lancaster, PA. Lancaster is a conservative and rural place, overwhelmingly Christian and Republican. Trump’s campaign messages struck a chord here, and he won the county by a double-digit margin.  

Lancaster is also home to a large refugee community. In fact, the city resettles 20x more refugees per capita than any other city in the United States. I was interested in exploring this dichotomy: Lancaster’s overwhelming support of nationalist, anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, and its long and well-documented commitment to resettling the world’s most vulnerable.

I partnered with the Lancaster chapter of Church World Service, a resettlement organization, to interview and photograph four families from Syria, Ethiopia and Somalia. I toured the exhibit in three cities – Washington, D.C., Lancaster, P.A., and San Francisco, C.A. In Washington, I teamed up with two amazing companies working to support refugees: Dress Abstract and Foodhini. On the West Coast, I partnered with AirBnB – in addition to providing a space for a public exhibition, they displayed the pieces in their headquarters.

You mentioned that these refugee children have recently resettled in your hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Having personal ties to the area, how as this project impacted you? Can you tell us about your personal experience creating these portraits of the refugee children?

In addition to interviewing the four families, I spent three months teaching English to recently resettled adults. That was a transformative experience. The student body was an ever-rotating mix of refugees from the DRC, Cuba, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Haiti and Syria. In the classroom there were no politics, just an overwhelming gratitude to be here and an absolute determination to make it. For me, it was a lesson in what all humans have in common and how to communicate and connect non-verbally.

Shining light on social justice and injustice is especially imperative now more than ever. What do you hope will come out of the REFUGE project? Do you have plans to develop this project further?

My hope with REFUGE was to humanize an issue that is so highly politicized (and by some people, absolutely demonized) – to create a space where locals and refugees could forge and foster relationships. I would love to continue with some iteration of this project, to continue to work at the intersection of art, storytelling and social justice. I feel particularly drawn to women’s issues and think my next series will go in that direction.

You have a unique style in painting that is visually striking, as you can see your individual paint strokes and texture. Were you trained as an artist? Tell us a bit about your artistic background.

Thank you. I was never formally trained. I have my BA in Communications from NYU and worked in the music industry for many years after college. Until REFUGE, art was just a hobby. I picked up a pencil when I was two years old and never really put it down. I was obsessed with hyperrealism, working small and slow to render the subject as realistically as I could. REFUGE was not a departure from this style, though charcoal was new for me. I have recently started exploring oils, color and abstraction. Relinquishing control and perfection is a new and welcome challenge. To me, these oil paintings are so much more expressive than my older pencil pieces and I’m excited to see how this style develops.

Originally being from Pennsylvania, you now live and work in Los Angeles. How has being based in a city as colorful and vibrant as LA inspired you creatively?

During my nine years in New York City, my wardrobe gradually became only shades of white, black and gray. Maybe it’s the sun, the heat, the influence of other people, but I’ve started wearing color here – I’m surrounded by it: the ocean, the sky…even my kitchen table is turquoise. It seems only natural that my environment would influence my work.   

I also think the West Coast’s notoriously laid-back attitude and slower pace of life have given me the space to push my creativity in new directions.

You are also part of a DJ pair called The Jane Doze, which has toured all over the world. Do you consider yourself a musician first, or an artist, or both? When did you begin creating art and when did you begin making music?

That project ended in late 2015, and in retrospect, prompted this new journey into art as profession. I am an artist first – my parents have framed drawings I did at age 2. I began playing piano at 5, but did not start producing music until I was 18. I have a deep love and appreciation for music, but feel that art is unequivocally my path.

Has your work as an artist influenced or changed your creative practice as a musician?

While I was in music, I took a hiatus from art – I went a few years without drawing. The Jane Doze was my life and my focus. That project taught me the value of using both a business and creative mind to build a brand. A career in art will require the same balance, strategy and work ethic. I’m incredibly grateful to have had that experience in music – traveling the world with my best friend, navigating a notoriously difficult and competitive industry, and taking highs and lows in stride.