Art With An Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas

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There's an image of Kelly Thomas that haunts everyone who's seen it. Right after news broke that the homeless, schizophrenic, 37-year-old was beaten by members of the Fullerton Police Department on July 5, 2011, news outlets released a close-up image of Thomas's face in the hospital. Except it doesn't look--even remotely--like a face. His visage looked more like a bruised and pulpy blackberry, a swollen mass of black, purple and red.

The unarmed, 135-pound Thomas was reportedly uncooperative when questioned by the police about breaking into cars at a downtown parking lot. For that, he was shocked with Tasers, kicked in the face, beaten with flashlights, his head slammed into the ground. Witnesses say he begged for his life and called for his father while he was being attacked; it took six officers to subdue him. He passed away five days after the beating, when his family took him off life support.

Fullerton is a small town. The northern Orange County city of 135,000 people only spans 22 square miles. Before Thomas made the news, Fullerton was famous for two things: It was home to the earliest hardcore punk bands--The Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange and D.I.--and Cal State Fullerton had a championship baseball team. In recent years, Downtown turned into what people considered bro-central: a conglomerate of many bars masquerading as restaurants with bouncers and the occasional pizza joint.

In the year after Thomas' death, all that has changed. That barely recognizable image of Thomas--and the circumstances that surrounded it--prompted hundreds of Fullerton residents--grandmothers, bros, punks, lawyers, artists, teachers and other homeless folk - to galvanize.

John Sollom.

John Sollom.

Stephan Baxter, an art aficionado and longtime resident who knew Kelly Thomas, was one of those of those who rallied against the Fullerton Police Department, week after week, at protests and vigils outside the police station, by city hall, at the site where Thomas was beaten.

At every protest, people carried homemade signs with photos and art. Most of them said: "Justice for Kelly;" "Police Are Not Above the Law;" "Protect and Serve, Not Beat and Murder" (A lamppost at the Fullerton Train Depot is a commemorative spot; even today, it is always decorated with flowers, cards and chalk drawings for Thomas.)

"I would go to these protests and see all these amazing signs, and at first I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could have an exhibit featuring these?" Baxter said. That idea germinated into him organizing and co-curating "Art With An Agenda: An Exhibit Inspired by Kelly Thomas." It was a natural fit, Baxter said, adding, "Artists and musicians have been a big part of the Justice for Kelly movement."

The exhibit, which opens on Friday, July 6--a year after Thomas was brutally beaten at the heart of Downtown Fullerton--will feature the original work of more than 50 local artists. All the art on display was inspired by the life and circumstances surrounding the death of Kelly Thomas.

"The death of Kelly Thomas has hit me real hard; not only as an artist but a human being," said John Sollom, the show's co-curator and one of the artists whose work will be on display. "Our police take an oath to protect and to serve, not to threaten, intimidate, assault, torture, and kill an unarmed Kelly Thomas. Kelly had mental problems and was homeless. He didn't deserve the inhuman treatment that happened to him at the Fullerton bus depot last July."

'Kelly with Mom' by John Sollom.

'Dick Jones' by John Sollom.

Thomas' death put the Fullerton Police Department and the Fullerton council under scrutiny. Sure, there has been some progress; last month, three city council members lost their seats in a recall due to their silence over the matter. Two of the six officers involved in the beating--Officer Manuel Ramos and Corporal Jay Cicinelli--have been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and await a trial.

While the local community was brought together by the incident, it's still mourning the loss of Thomas. "I attended almost all of the protests, and I reached a point where I was looking for something positive to focus on," Baxter said. The exhibit a creative outlet for the collective outrage that has permeated Fullerton for a year.

Notables taking part in the show include Hagop Najarian, head of the Cerritos College Art Department and Rene Cardona, the artist commissioned to paint the mural installation on the County Clerk building at the corner of Harbor Blvd. and Amerige Ave. in Fullerton. Celebrities such as Susan Olsen (Cindy from the Brady Bunch) and the Runaways' lead singer Cherie Currie are taking part in the show too. Currie followed the case closely, and carved a Kelly Thomas memorial bench for the exhibit. Psychiatrist Stewart Perlman, known for his work and paintings of the Los Angeles homeless, is also on the roster, aside from other Fullerton artists, college students, photojournalists, and artistically minded activists showing their work.

John Sollom.

"I only asked the artists to let the life of Kelly Thomas--and how he met his end--be what they thought about when they created their work," Baxter said. "Our intention, even more so then to raise money, is to connect the viewer to Kelly. We need them to think of Kelly as more than that battered face that was in the paper and on TV, or that wild haired homeless man," he added. Every penny raised--not just the proceeds--from the show will go directly to the Orange County homeless through the Kelly Thomas Memorial Foundation, an organization founded by Thomas' father Ron.

"On the anniversary of this dark day, I want to remind people, within and outside of Fullerton, that there was another Fullerton, one which was not represented by the City Council at the time, the leadership at the police department, or the Ed Hardy tools who wander the downtown bar scene every Saturday night," Baxter said, adding, "Let's call it the A**hole-Free Fullerton: the artists, the activists, the musicians, the educators, and so on."

'Pigs' by Rene Cardona.

Valerie Lewis.

Art With An Agenda opens on July 6 at the PÄS Gallery at the Magoski Art Colony, 223 W. Santa Fe St., Fullerton. It will coincide with the monthly Fullerton Art Walk. RSVP on Facebook.

The Kelly Thomas Memorial Concert, headlined by the Adolescents, will be held on Saturday, July 7, 2 p.m. at the Fullerton Square.

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About the Author

Born and raised in the Philippines, Lilledeshan Bose moved to the US in 2003 and settled in Orange County.
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