ALUMNI IN ACTION
The Art of Social Change
By Julia Halprin Jackson
Artist, veteran and educator John Contreras, ’22 MFA Spatial Art, sees art as a conduit for dialogue and change.
Caution: This story mentions death caused by gun violence.
John Contreras has a signature laugh: half-chuckle, half-guffaw. He exudes a sunniness that fills his studio at San José State University’s 6,000-square-foot Foundry, an indoor art facility complete with workshops for bronze and aluminum casting, metal fabrication and welding, and an adjacent 12,000-square-foot outdoor fabrication yard.
He picks up a bronze baseball that he has split down the middle with a stainless steel screw.
“You know what I call this one?” He laughs. “‘Screwball.’”
Creating art allows Contreras, ’22 MFA Spatial Art, to feel, explore and share the complexity he sees in the world around him. Through art comes community, he says.
That’s why he, along with members of SJSU’s mural club, erected canvases at Viva Calle San José, a city program that connects people through one-day open streets activities, in November 2021. The canvases were for passersby to add their own artistry as part of a community mural.
“Viva Calle SJ was one of the first outdoor escapes that we had from COVID,” Contreras reflects. “It was a hands-on experience for kids to throw paint. They might not know it now, but it may have inspired them to paint, sculpt, take photos — create.”
Contreras (right) created temporary installations during the November 2021 Viva Calle SJ event. Photo: Courtesy of Katherine D. Harris.
Planting the seeds of expression
Contreras adds that art frees him up to be creative, silly, serious, reflective — and transformative. While some of his pieces, like “Screwball,” may seem playful, many of his works go one step further, exploring issues of mental health, trauma and the loss of childhood innocence.
Take, for example, “Where Christopher Robin Played”: Contreras assembled this sculpture of Winnie-the-Pooh stumbling across a dead Christopher Robin, gun lying by his side, in November 2021 as part of SJSU’s inaugural Day of Action Against Gun Violence, hosted by the Center for Community Learning and Leadership (CCLL).
CCLL Director and Psychology Professor Elena Klaw says that Contreras “played an integral part in building bridges between constituencies that seldom engage in dialogue,” including veterans and service members, mental health advocates, gun owners, students and politicians.
Contreras set up whiteboards exploring mental health and violence at the SJSU Day of Action Against Gun Violence. Photo: SJSU's Center for Community Learning and Leadership.
Contreras' "Screwball" alongside other pieces at his Foundry studio. Photo: David Schmitz.
Inspired by his discovery that the Winnie-the-Pooh creator, A.A. Milne, served in World War I, and his son served in World War II, the sculpture reenacts a traumatic memory from Contreras’ experience in Afghanistan. While deployed as a 7041 aviation operations specialist for the United States Marine Corps, Contreras witnessed the death of his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher Raible. Like Milne, Contreras expresses the fears and neuroses of a generation through art.
“Art has always been a means of communication for me,” he says. “You process ideas from your head into your hands and into an actual form.”
Contreras hopes to pursue a PhD in art therapy and establish a practice that incorporates art as a restorative tool.
“When you can visually see something transform right in front of you, it’s a release — a form of expression,” he explains. “You’ll be blown away by what you can physically create with your hands.”
Contreras believes that art and community dialogue can lead to action. Two months after the SJSU Day of Action Against Gun Violence, the City of San José enacted legislation that requires gun owners to purchase liability insurance — the first law of its kind in the nation. He counts this as a win.
“This is a huge step,” he says. “It just goes to show how powerful art can be when the community gets involved.”