The Madison organization builds connections between local artists and advocacy groups.
Photo: Artist Nipinet with a piece they created for Supply Chain’s winter sale. Photo by Elizabeth Lang.
The summer 2020 protests against police violence and systemic racism in Madison created some new intersections between the local arts community and social justice work. Visual artists, authorized and otherwise, created murals on plywood-covered storefronts downtown, many of them explicitly reflecting on racial injustice. Musicians donated proceeds from digital album sales to bail funds and organizations like Freedom Inc. Many outdoor events, including Link Madison’s gatherings on the Square and at James Madison Park, combined protest actions with art and music. The protests also sparked renewed conversation about racial inequity in Madison’s arts and music communities.
Amid the explosion of protest and expression, a group of local artists saw an opportunity to both support social-justice work and improve Madison’s support structure for the arts. They launched Supply Chain, which sells work from Madison-area artists, then splits the revenue between the artists and organizations of the artists’ choosing, including Link, Free the 350 Bail Fund, Feeding the Youth, Impact Demand, and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Supply Chain’s core founders declined to be interviewed for this story beyond offering a statement via e-mail. They asked not to be named, citing concerns about safety and doxxing in social justice work, and their desire to not overshadow the many individual artists who work with Supply Chain. They emphasize that Supply Chain is an “amorphous” and highly collaborative affair.
“Art builds community, and motivates individuals to promote social change. Art is one of the more accessible tools to help initiate dialogues that can bring about positive change in our community,” they wrote.
Through its website, Supply Chain has sold limited runs of prints, paintings, T-shirts, and even food from dozens of Madison-area artists. Things tend to sell out fast. At the end of 2020, the group reported raising more than $6,500 for artists and beneficiary organizations.
In addition to selling artwork, Supply Chain’s website offers free printable posters—including an absolutely brutal They Live-inspired portrayal of Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway—and plans for the future include starting a zine distro.
Artists are often called upon to donate their time, work, and sales proceeds to various causes, and that can put them at an economic disadvantage. Supply Chain hopes to resolve some of that tension by promoting artists and providing fair and transparent compensation. “Helping your community doesn’t need to be a total drain on your personal resources,” the founders noted in their e-mail statement.
Themes of social justice and identity play a strong role for most of the artists who collaborate through Supply Chain. Four of them spoke with Tone Madison for this story: Nipinet, Karolina Romanowska, Natalie Ergas, and Jaundy Brunswick.
Nipinet is an Anishinaabe and Michif Two Spirit self-taught artist whose family is from Turtle Mountain, North Dakota. They work as a tattoo artist at giige on Willy Street and they also create vibrant illustrations.
“A lot of my art focuses on intersections of identity and emotion. My Anishinaabe and Michif heritage is important to me,” Nipinet says. “So I do a lot of art around that.”
“I pull a lot of inspiration from the bright colors of traditional Anishinaabe artwork like woodland style paintings, our beadwork, and regalia,” Nipinet adds. “I love the combination of high contrast, bold black, and bright colors.“
Nipinet serves a diverse clientele that includes queer people, trans people, Indigenous people, and people of color more generally. In the course of creating tattoos for an inclusive community, Nipinet began noticing that their art was exploring the intersections of identity, culture, queerness and emotions.
“I am very invested in creating culturally authentic tattoos. I want people to be able to express their identity with the art on their body,” Nipinet says. “I [also] want my art to be thought provoking and respectful at the same time and that doesn’t always look like the same thing for each person.”
Because of that, Nipinet listens attentively to their clients to better understand their identities. At the same time, making a tattoo for someone else can also be a deeply self-reflective process for the artist.
“As an Indigenous artist, just making art that expresses my heritage, culture, background and what we’ve been through is an act of participating in social justice,” Nipinet says. “We’re still here. We still have our identities that are very important to us and we still are actively participating in our culture. We’re not gone.”
“Everything I make is Indigenous because I’m Indigenous and I made it,” Nipinet says.
For Supply Chain’s holiday sale in December, Nipinet created a print themed around winter medicines—including cedar, elderberry and a rabbit skull—to reflect on health, resilience, and taking care of yourself.
Part of the proceeds went to Impact Demand and Link Madison. Nipinet also sees this work as an opportunity to provoke some political consciousness in viewers.
“Art is a very good tool for grabbing someone by the emotions and forcing them to think about people in the world other than themselves,” Nipinet says.
Polish sculptor and printmaker Karolina Romanowska sees her work with Supply Chain in a similar light.
“This gives me a chance to not only do all the selfish things that involve being an artist,” Romanowska says. “It allows me not only to express myself, but also channel that into something greater than me.”
During the afternoons after work and on weekends, Romanowska creates clay sculptures that are influenced by animalism, folk art, and rituals. During the day she works at ArtWorking, where she helps provide career-oriented support for artists with developmental disabilities.
By combining these two very distinct art focuses, Romanowska has found that art has healing properties.
“I’ve seen art transform people. I’ve seen art give people a voice that literally can’t speak and that art has allowed them to have a narrative,” Romanowska says. “I was finally seeing that there was such truth about art. There’s truth about its healing properties.”
For Romanowska, some of that healing comes from using her art to create a sense of home—a fraught concept for someone who spent part of her teen years moving back and forth between Poland and the United States.
“I use art as a tool to create a home around myself and create home in the pieces that I make. The idea of home is kind of abstract to me,” Romanowska says. “I find home in the work that I make and the community that surrounds my work.”
You can get a grasp of the concept of home by looking at Romanowska’s sculptures, which are bright animalistic figures that she describes as being a result of what she dreams or dream form of herself.
“It suggests a human and it suggests an animal, but I don’t want it to be one thing. It’s the expression of a face that’s important. It’s tactile and it’s just visually kind of stunning,” Romanowska says. “It’s not necessarily any kind of particular animal. It’s a mixture of certain animal features, textures and colors.”
Given that her art is done at the Midwest Clay Project and Studios, which is a community-shared clay studio, Romanowska sees her sculptures’ artistic process as a tool to blend personal narratives with communal ones. That is why when last summer’s protests began, she found herself with an itch to contribute in some way.
“I wanted to donate my art that would in turn make money for these organizations. What Supply Chain does is provide a stage for people to show their work and for the organizations to be recognized,” Romanowska said. “And it kind of locks them together, which is really amazing work.”
“I donated my money to Supply Chain because I really believe that what they do is something new and something that this community needs,” Romanowska says.
Natalie Ergas works during the day as an art educator for elementary school students and in the afternoons after work and the weekends she works on her own art for her business, Native Essence Art. Ergas focuses on creating hand-cut collage artwork by cutting up paper, arranging it and gluing it according to the concepts she researches when doing portraits or ideas. Her Mexican, Spanish, Filipino, French, and German heritage leads her to explore her own identity in her work.
“Art serves as a huge connection point for me into those cultures,” Ergas says. “I am American. I am not from Mexico. I am three generations out. My great grandparents came from the Philippines, from Spain, from Mexico.”
“It’s interesting in that way because I feel in my soul that I am connected to these cultures, but on the surface I don’t speak the languages of these cultures,” Ergas says. “But I feel that art, food and dance really connects me to who I am and my heritage.”
One of her pieces, “Milagro,” which is a collage in the shape of a Mexican milagro, a small metal religious charm synonymous with protection and good luck.
In “Milagro,” she combines bright red, green, brown, white, and black paper clippings with a hand that creates an exuberant contrast referencing a vivid Latino culture.
“Looking into the Mexican milagro, what that is and being able to use my art to express my own voice and my own connection, but also the idea of the Milagro has been really cool for me and really powerful,” Ergas says.
But in her daily job as an art educator, identity comes through as a result of art being a tool to help others.
“I always liked helping others discover kind of themselves and their own identities through art. Art is a chance for me to help other people,” Ergas says. “Make other people’s stories known and express not only what I think, but what other people think too.”
And because she wants to use art to help others, Ergas gladly joined to collaborate with Supply Chain. She found within the collective a space where she could use her art to donate the proceeds to the Centro Hispano of Dane County.
“I feel like it’s sort of my calling. It’s what I need to do to support my Latinx community. I just like the grassroots initiatives that [the Centro Hispano] is doing and they help the community a lot,” Ergas says.
Jaundy Brunswick is also a collage artist who thinks a lot about identity, but her approach developed from her love for fashion design, art magazines, and textiles.
Brunswick sees collage as a meditative practice that allows her to turn everything off around her and disconnect. But this conception of understanding collages as a meditative practice is strongly linked with her identity as a woman of color.
“Growing up, I just wanted to be the same as everyone else. I was constantly in spaces where I was the only person of color,” Brunswick tells Tone Madison in an email interview. “I had to endure questions to where I came from and why I was there or alternatively just stared at with wonder and confusion. It really made me turn inward.”
Moving to Madison allowed her to better understand her identity and find refuge in her art.
“I am still a work in progress. That feeling of wanting to blend in does not disappear overnight, but my art has helped me heal those feelings,” Brunswick says.
That healing transfers to her artwork in the form of vivid bright and neon colors that contrast with the way Brunswick presents herself in real life.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I never wear color. I am almost always in black head to toe,” Brunswick says.
Her collages generally include a bright and neon pink base combined with vivid orange, light green, or light blue that are mostly influenced by the colors of Mexican and African art.
Brunswick sees art as a tool to promote social change and critical consciousness to create a positive impact.
“I want my art to heal someone else the way it has healed me. Maybe, give them the courage to make their own art to speak their story,” Brunswick says.
For Supply Chain’s holiday sale, she collaborated with artist Hailee Von Haden to create wearable art. They donated their proceeds to Harambee Village, a local non-profit that works to dismantle racial health disparities.
For Supply Chain, it all comes down to people empowering each other.
“This work has been really important to us, and we hope to make a mark in our community in a positive way,” the founders told Tone Madison in an email. “We’ve got the power as individuals and communities to make real impact and change.”
The group’s work also bolsters its artists’ sense of purpose. “It makes me feel really happy, proud and strong,” Ergas says. “[I feel] powerful for myself, but also other artists; that we can really be the cornerstone for change and awareness.”
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