“This is my response to George Bush and the Supreme Court, which is no. Women are going to have their rights taken away. The Supreme Court bonehead idiots, testosterone-driven power mongers, are saying that we’ve got to roll backwards. My piece is saying that with the fetus, you tell it to roll backwards and whatever they’ve decided its new definition is it will agree with. The same thing with the child. But a woman has the choice to say no.”

Activist painter Diane Grams is talking about Only the Innocent Must Obey Orders, for which she won an honorable mention in a group show currently at the Hyde Park Art Center. Dense and textural like most of her work, the red, white, and blue piece combines varying thicknesses of linseed oil and paint with strands of human hair. Across the surface are words roughly stenciled and line drawings of a fetus and a Girl Scout somersaulting backward while a woman holds semaphore flags that spell out “no.”

“I was looking through an old Boy Scout manual and was amazed that they were given rewards for doing physical activity like rolling backwards. I remember in the Girl Scouts, it was learning to sew and to clean up as you go while you’re cooking. I used the Boy Scout thing here because this is where we could end up. We’re going backwards.”

Grams initially intended to include a backward-rolling woman in the piece, too, but later found herself disturbed by such an image. “I asked myself, what would I do if somebody told me to roll backwards? I’d say no. The phrase “only the innocent must obey orders’ popped into my head as I was working on it. A woman cannot be innocent.”

Grams works from the conviction that artists must be resolutely engaged in addressing social issues. “We are the people who have the vision. I’m fascinated by the activism kind of art. I could live off selling things to the Merchandise Mart, but what I value in art is when I look at something and it opens up a space in my brain that wasn’t there. That’s what I want my work to do.”

When she’s not painting, Grams is active with Battleax, a four-woman performance art group, with whom she reads her scathing poetry and generally carries on about her broad political concerns.

“I do a lot of saying what I think is important for people to know,” she says. “The conservatives are saying that the people, whoever the people are–the five states in the southern corner of the United States that have computers and go to church and then race home so they can mail letters to congressmen fast–the religious fundamentalists are saying that this thing inside a woman is life, that they value children, but I think it’s a total political ploy laced with racism and sexism. It’s about putting the white man back on top in every aspect of life.

“I would love to have a child, but the idea of forcing me to do that is terrible. The point I want to make is that I’m not just going to grin and bear it.”

The Hyde Park Art Center show runs through this Saturday, July 20; it’s open 11 to 5 at 1701 E. 53rd St. For info call 324-5520.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.