Athena Soules Has an Occupation

Photo by Ash Hoden

Ancient myths are littered with tales of descent. Be it a voyage to the underworld or a debilitating injury, heroic figures customarily fell from grace. But to be heroic, one must overcome. From descent there must be a succeeding ascent. Otherwise, it’s only a fall; a story of death and disease. It is the very process of overcoming that makes one heroic, simultaneously grounded and majestic. Heroes are defined by their struggles.

Prior to actually meeting her, I knew select details about Athena Soules. A mutual friend thought we should talk. He mentioned a few things about what she had seen and done over the years. Then he introduced us by email. I didn’t know what to expect when she and I met in person. I only knew that it would be good.

Athena was raised in Atlanta but she knew from the age of five that she had to get to New York. Seeing the city in movies or in the media was enough. “That’s where I’m going. Period. And also, I wasn’t interested in getting a normal liberal arts education. I was excited there was something called “art school” that could get me to New York and teach me art.”

Atlanta gave her a good childhood though. “It was a much smaller city, and just a whole lot of creative people living in town. I was very exposed to a lot, a lot of artists from a very early age. And it all made perfect sense to me, what they were doing. It was just fascinating. Perfectly natural to start doing what they were doing.” She and her family lived in a small, liberal neighborhood, and in the early eighties the communal, hippy-ish atmosphere remained strong. Athena’s mother was a general practitioner, serving as a doctor for a number of artistic types in the community. “There were so many opportunities to make art from early on. It was never daunting, and it was always a pleasure to dive in and try out what was going on. As a young kid I was always pleased with what I came up with.” She did pottery, bookbinding, different techniques of painting, silkscreening… She holds out her hands. “Just the physicality of using these hands. I sure do love my hands. They can make it all happen. They’re my best tools, for sure.”

We’re in an outdoor patio behind a coffee shop in Clinton Hill, not far from Athena’s home. She has lived in the neighborhood for almost twenty years now. I find myself drawn to Athena’s voice. It’s feminine and comforting in a Southern way, even though she speaks without an accent. At the beginning of a thought she sometimes repeats a word or phrase, letting the idea solidify before delivering it in full with a melodic cadence. There’s a rhythm to it. She’s also very present to the conversation and speaks with intention, dropping the occasional expletive when emotion is involved. Combined with the soothing quality of her voice, the profanity punctuates her confident defiance. It is the softness and hardness of calmly speaking truth.

I ask what it was like to arrive in New York when she was eighteen. “It was pretty unbelievable that I had actually made it, arrived, and… You know I would just get out, get out on West 4th Street off the A-C into the West Village, and I could not believe I was, I was there. That I had made it. And also, there’re songs talking about intersections and I’d look up and like, I was at the intersection. I’ve made it, I’ve made it. Here I am.” Development has altered the city fairly dramatically since she arrived. Especially in Brooklyn. “It’s all changed around me. A lot to come to terms with over time, you know. All of, all of the change in the neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods. It’s all, it’s all pretty heavy. It’s just a reflection of the insane culture at large.”

How so?

“Just capitalism and gentrification. And greed. It’s just, it’s just, everybody, everybody with money has their feelers out about where the next place is, the next neighborhood. And then, and then they decide to build all these condos, high-rise condos, just within the last five years or so. They’re building these high-rises around downtown, and it’s saying, ‘Brooklyn’s new neighborhood.’ They’re saying there’s going to be a school and a park and, all inside walls basically. And I think they’ll probably have some affordable housing, but just the teeniest tiniest amount that they need in order to go ahead and build all of this to make a lot of money. I don’t think that’s how you create a neighborhood. That’s not a neighborhood. It’s not based on anything but greed. Not built upon any ideals, nothing.”

Did you always have this perception of the systems and economics, or is that something that came from being in New York and seeing it happen?

“That has only come since Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street opened up my eyes to the dynamics of this insane world and country and time we live in, and the relationship between money and politics, and money and the environment…”

That all came from seeing what happened with Occupy?

“It did, and the reason that I hadn’t been more aware earlier is because I dealt with major, major, major illness. In my junior year of high school I was diagnosed with benign brain tumor, that had gotten very large in my brain. I had one surgery then. The guy did not get it all out. I had another, my second surgery, the summer after freshman year of college. That guy did not get it all out. This is all a part of the fucked-up medical system. And then finally, finally… I had one semester left of school, and I still needed to be on my parents’ insurance to get surgery, you know. So my mother took me out of school on a leave of absence to find the best neurosurgeon in the country. Because the first two didn’t do a good job it was all getting more and more complicated — every time you go in a brain, it fucks up the brain. I’ve also dealt with lots of epilepsy.”

From the surgeries?

“It was related to the surgeries and the tumor. Yeah. It’s like, if you can imagine every surgery there is scar tissue. But the brain is all about neural pathways and things. So it’s blocking neural pathways, and, you know, it’s really inhibiting the brain. It became more and more complicated in my brain. Also, in the current medical system they think, ‘Oh you’re still having seizures. Here’s more medicine. Here’s more drugs. Try another drug. Try a higher dose.’ So, for many many years I was way too drugged. And I didn’t have all my energy or cognition because of that.”

It was like being sedated?

“It was like being sedated, but also, my brain had been harmed. I needed to build back up my brain — like a muscle needs to be worked out — but I didn’t have the energy to use my brain because I was drugged. So this has been a very long recovery. Very very long. And I was not fully cognizant for many, many, many, many years. And I had a pretty quiet life. I babysat. That was my job — babysitting part time. And kind of that’s all I was able to handle — was like, work on healing my brain and taking care of some sweet children. But I didn’t have it in me to be open to what else was going on in the world. I didn’t have the capacity.”

Finally, in 2001 Athena’s mother found a neurosurgeon who finally managed to remove all of the tumor. Then in 2011, following a long and quiet period of recovery — her entire adult life having thus far centered around illness and overcoming it — she was beginning to feel ready for something more. Her mother was living with her in Brooklyn and her brother’s friend was visiting from out of town. One night he returned to the apartment full of excitement.

“He was so adrenalized. And he’s like, ‘Oh my god! And then all the Occupiers were marching! And the police came, and we changed levels!’ They were running around the Brooklyn Bridge to escape cops. I could just feel his excitement. And I’m like, ‘What is, what is going on?’ So, that was, that was my first introduction to Occupy Wall St. That’s what put it on the radar for me. And I thought, ‘Oh, what could I do for Occupy?’ So I think I made a donation center in the basement, or something. For food and clothes for Occupy or something. This is before I realized I could go there and, you know, I didn’t, I didn’t know there was a place for me there. I didn’t… I didn’t even know what it was.” This is one of those sentences that nearly comes off as a song, she speaks it so melodically.

“I’m happy to say, my mom and I have very very similar politics. So, we decided to check out a march. This is early to mid-October, right in the beginning of the Occupy movement. I wasn’t going to go without a sign. There’s no way I would have gone without making a sign. So I made one out of different textiles that are stretched on foam core, so it was like a board. I knew this 99% was the term, and I knew it was, “We are the 99%.” But I decided “We the 99%” was like “We the people.” I don’t remember exactly which march I took it to or the exact location — one thing my illness did: I do not have a good memory. But that first time I was out somebody bought my sign. And I didn’t know the values of Occupy yet. I didn’t know: ‘No, this is not about money.’ That’s kind of fucked-up to sell a sign. That’s not the point of it all. I had no idea that that was the case. And somebody really liked my art, and they offered to buy it right then. And I sold it to them. Then I went home and made another one. I think I even had the same templates and everything. But then we started spending time in Zucotti and seeing the energy of the People’s Mic, and just what was going down at Zucotti with all the people. At that point in my life I was ready for an exciting new chapter and I totally stumbled upon it.”

You’re learning about the politics of it in the process of being there?

Photo by Ash Hoden

“Absolutely. And then, once it’s explained to me, it’s like, ‘Of course.’ Then it’s obvious. It just needs to be explained and then, I think most people… Once they realize the injustices, then they notice them instantly everywhere. I feel like more and more and more people right now, that’s happening to so many more people. And  I thought I could best contribute to this movement with art. I was like, ‘Where are the artists with Occupy?’ I got connected…” Here, Athena pauses. She’s scanning for the memory. And when it hits, her face lights up, glowing with a child-like joy. It’s an incredibly attractive quality, this inner delight. She says, “This is very sweet. Do you want to hear the dominoes? Alright, so it’s coming back to me.”

In Washington Square Park she saw puppeteer Joe Therrien holding a huge cream-colored puppet of Lady Liberty, and decided to talk with him. He told her about a puppetry studio in Dumbo that was allowing Occupiers to use their space for making puppets and other Occupy art. “This is leading up to Halloween of 2011 and everybody was planning to get Occupy in the Village Halloween parade. So my mom and I ended up at 20 Jay Street to work on the art, whatever the art was. There it was decided upon that we needed a banner.” At the mention of the banner she giggles with delight. Again, in a child-like way. I begin to recognize that her most attractive traits and expressions are not lights that shine through despite her illness. Rather, they are expressions of delight emanating from a refined spirit — a spirit that was honed and polished by the struggle of making it through the darkness with purpose. She found the space where she is free to be as she is, and she had to fight to get there. Now she’s free to choose her battles, delightfully.

“I didn’t just step up and say, ‘I’ll make a banner.’ I mentioned that I’ll help work on it. It was extraordinarily scary to say — I was in no way ready to say, ‘Oh sure I’ll make a banner for the Halloween parade.’ That was really scary. So I said, ‘Ok, I’ll help with this, but I can’t do it all.’” As a group they debated what the banner should say. Occupy Halloween? Occupy Wall Street? Something else? Ultimately they decided “Occupy Wall Street” was the best message to convey in the parade. Clear and concise. She met with a man named Gan Golan and they sketched ideas. She met another man named Elliot Crown and the next day they went to stores looking for the right materials to use, deciding on heavy cotton drop-cloths that painters spread at the base of interior walls — long and narrow with the edges already hemmed. Then the task of making a banner for the Halloween parade landed on her shoulders, alone.

“I started working on the letter templates and stuff. I was planning on cutting… I’ve always worked a lot in textiles, you know, with cloth and things. So I was planning on cutting fabric out of the templates I made of the letters spelling Occupy Wall Street. And that’s what happened. We put them on ten foot poles for the Halloween parade. So there we are, marching in the West Village Halloween parade with my eighteen foot Occupy Wall Street banner on the poles. And we’re having an amazing Occupy conglomeration underneath, in the parade. Basically we’re marching, you know. And it’s a really great thing that banner didn’t say “Occupy Halloween” because guess what: Occupy Wall Street did need a banner. It’s not like the banner I made was the only Occupy Wall Street banner, but because of my illness and everything, I didn’t have a normal life. I didn’t have a regular nine-to-five job and I had time. Anytime there was a march, I was available. I could take my banner — and my mother — and then I was at the front of every march with my art.”

That’s amazing. The gift of time… For me that’s one of the big criticisms of the system, is that it steals your time.

“Yes! It’s because I had time. Yeah, because of my illness I had this freedom of… This gift of time. And so there was a real, real, real, real role for me to play, and it involved my art. That’s how I could contribute to this movement that I was still learning about. You know, the news was interviewing people and trying to make us seem like dirty jobless stupid hippies. So maybe they were happy when I couldn’t articulate what the hell I was doing there. But I knew I was there for a reason. I was learning more and more everyday about the unjust system, and then I also had a role I could play. So that’s how that unfolded. And there was a big Occupy march on New Year’s Eve — the New Year’s of 2012. I was marching and it got nasty with the cops. They slammed my face against a glass store window and handcuffed me and put me in the paddy wagon for no reason. Just because we were marching. I was in the female paddy wagon and us ladies were having a fucking amazing time in there. Just getting to know each other and just laughing at how fucked up it was that we were in there, and all this marching had just been constant, constant for over two months. It had been that exciting for two months. This was beyond anything I could ask for. I wouldn’t have wanted to be doing anything else but exactly that right that second. It was all pretty perfect. And so, yeah, I spent the night in jail and early in the morning I’m getting out. And I see them with my banner all crumpled up and I’m like, ‘Hey, give that back to me.’ They wouldn’t give it back to me. They gave me a voucher to pick it up in three months. But guess what?! We needed a banner! And I still had the templates and everything. So I made a second Occupy Wall St banner. It was very clear what my role was, and it was working out very well. It was perfect.”

Photo by Ash Hoden

Was your mom excited to see you get involved?

“I’m sure she was excited. I think she was also concerned. She had seen me sick for many, many, many, many years and she hated to think that I was pushing myself too hard. She was scared I was gonna forget my medicine. She was very scared for me for many, many, many years. And finally, finally she’s not. I mean, basically I had to heal for her to stop being worried, right. We were very excited. Early on in Occupy, I was in bed one morning and I got a text from a friend I grew up with in Atlanta: ’You and your banner are in Vanity Fair.’ Then she wrote me two seconds later, ‘And your mom!’ She had spotted my mom in the picture as well. So there’s an article in Vanity Fair about Occupy and the double page spread was my banner under the yellow beautiful fall trees in Zucotti. It was all mind-blowing. How did I get here? How is this happening? My friend in Atlanta is seeing this, and… So exciting.”

By helping to give identity to the protests Athena was re-establishing her own identity. She was defining her place in the world. “I was entirely motivated to be as healthy as possible because I didn’t want to miss a thing. Before there was nothing to miss. It was like, ‘Ok you have your little life, your little routine.’ But there was no inspiration. And actually that’s why I was an abstract artist before Occupy Wall Street. I did abstract paintings. My art never had meaning until I could apply it to political messages that I believed in. Before I was only dealing with the aesthetics. It didn’t have meaning because I didn’t know… Basically I’m a designer and abstract artist. I’m not like a draftswoman. I’m not really even a drawer. Those are not my skills. I’m skilled at color, and composition and design. So I used color composition and design to make abstract paintings and collage. But now I can use the skills I have and apply them to very clear art that’s summarizing the grassroots movements I’m working within, and to help get a select few progressive politicians elected.”

Sometimes we are the last people to measure our own impacts, though. “There are just so many amazing people right now, using their best talents… My best talents are my visual skills. That’s what I can offer. But I feel like so many, so many talented people are using their best skills and applying them to these fights as well; these fights for justice in all these grassroots movements. I can’t even believe the people I know. It took me a long time to realize… I was around so many amazing people and watching them and learning from them… I was just so admiring. I couldn’t believe the power they had. The clarity they had. It took me so long to realize I was not on the outside of that. ‘Wow, I’m one of these people.’ And I hadn’t understood that at all. I thought I was just watching these awesome people. Then it turns out, ‘Wow, the role I’m playing… Yeah, I’m one of these people.’ A very powerful network of people dedicating their time and talents to the many grassroots movements of today. … This is a pivotal moment in history. I am so grateful to be here right now in New York with all of this happening. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I’m honored to be a part of this. I’m so glad that I can be at this exact point and location in history. It’s beyond exciting. It’s like, ‘Shit, what is happening tomorrow?’ I mean, things are changing so fast. I just keep my ears and eyes open and figure out, ‘Whoa, these people I truly respect, what are they talking about?’ There’s very little truth in the media. It’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not true. I learned to get my news from friends and people I trust, not the mainstream media.”

On the surface this method of gaining information may sound questionable, as though it’s a simple matter of using the word on the street to stay informed. That’s not necessarily the case. When she spoke of this informational network I remembered discovering that there was a massive protest in Yemen only because I saw it on a Facebook video. Roughly one million people were gathered in protest in Sanaa. My first reaction to the video was: This is huge! Then I thought: But I don’t trust Facebook for shit. I immediately did a web search to find coverage from a more legitimate news source. Finding almost no mention throughout the international, English-language media outlets — only a few articles that understated the size of the crowd while pointing to Saudi Arabia as the sole aggressor being protested against — I thought: Why is nobody covering this? Then I recalled a podcast I had heard a year or so prior in which an American journalist, discussing the political turmoil in Yemen, vaguely mentioned that the United States had installed Yemen’s current president — the one whose government was failed — and the picture became a little more clear. The United States doesn’t confess its sins on prime time. When Athena mentioned her network, I recalled that the Yemen protest video had been posted to an Occupy Wall Street group on Facebook. Had I not seen that video, shared by somebody in Athena’s network of trusted sources, I never would have known about the turmoil in Yemen. That type of news only spreads underground.

“When we share our news stories to one another, we know they are accurate because we trust one another because of this network we all have. So that’s how I get my news. That’s how I learn. I hear about something and I go to a friend who is very informed. ‘Tell me about this. What’s going on here?’ And then I know better because they tell me. I can’t believe how much I get to learn from all of these amazing people I know. This broad, dense network of people is getting more and more coherent and more capable. It’s getting more skilled than the smaller original Occupy network was. So many grassroots movements, all moving forward — totally getting more powerful.”

Mainstream media likes to portray Occupy as this thing that happened that didn’t have any impact on anyone. ‘It was just a fluke of the time, only a few months, don’t even worry about it, it happened back then, nothing’s moving forward from there.’ And it’s far from the truth.

Photo by Ash Hoden

“Yeah. Basically Bernie Sanders was talking about everything we were talking about at Occupy. When we marched people would be like, ‘Take a bath, get a job.’ That’s what they would be yelling at us on the street. But the fact that Bernie could come so far in the race for Democratic Presidential candidate with the same concepts that we were saying at Occupy… So many people listened to Bernie, and even if they don’t agree, they can’t deny what he’s saying. People did not understand these concepts five years ago. Occupy just turned five on September 17th. Its concepts have climbed and climbed and climbed, becoming more present in our culture. More and more people are understanding it because, actually, more people are worse off than they were five years ago. It’s just going downhill for quality of life for the majority of people. So it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you see what we’re talking about? You’re suffering because of these injustices.’ And then it’s very obvious to the people who are suffering. ‘Yeah, that’s what’s fucked up,’ folks agree. It’s becoming more and more obvious. That’s why so many people could understand what Bernie was saying. It’s getting worse before it gets better.”

Following the Occupy protests Athena remained active in its network, contributing to whichever movements or events that she could. One of her first post-Occupy protests was the 2012 fight against the Keystone pipeline. For that she created a new banner that read “Stop Keystone.” But she also considered the overall composition of the protest, collaborating with others to make octagonal stop signs with Keystone stamped on the front.

“That was the first time I was thinking of different visuals. I don’t have to just make a banner. Let’s make a visual composition. The more and more I saw it on cameras and the press and everything, because it was being photographed a lot — the banner was the title of the movement. The banner was summarizing it. What are you going to take a picture of? You’re going to take a picture of that with the crowd behind it. The people holding it. The people standing behind it. Clearly, it was the people’s message. That’s when I started thinking about the entire visual composition. ‘Wow. The stop signs will be on sticks and they’ll be up behind the “Stop Keystone” banner and it’ll look great in a camera shot. I started thinking like that. After seeing it in the media I started thinking, ‘Let’s figure out how this is most effective in the media. Let’s make it look as good as possible. Let’s make sure that it is entirely legible by pulling it as hard as we can to make it as clean as it can be. There are no folds, there’s no bowing. ‘Let’s do this with all our might as effectively as possible. Where are the cameras? We’re gonna face that way. So I kind of… I did become a director of that banner. Also, the banner was able to pace all the marches. I learned how to organize and do this stuff just by being there, and by being a part of it, because of what I made. ‘Ok, this is how fast a march goes or else people trail off behind.’ I was able to pace the march with the pace of the banner holders. So, suddenly that’s my job, my role.”

Art brought you in to the organizational aspect of it — the basic construct of how to most effectively deliver the message and the people?

“Absolutely. It became more of a performance. Not just a piece of visual art, but a performance. And that increased more and more as the art increased more and more.”

The Tax Dodgers — a parody baseball team created by Gan Golan, Athena’s close friend and one of her earliest connections to Occupy — is one example of how social protests were conveyed through performance. Each player represented a tax-evading corporation and the team uniforms resembled those of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They created skits and wrote songs and there was a squad of hula-hooping cheerleaders called the Corporate Loopholes. Athena was herself a Loophole. This effort made it into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where the team was invited to do a performance and was asked to donate a uniform for an exhibit called Baseball Today. Speaking of Golan and his work in putting the team together, “It was a major production that he pulled off beautifully. But I helped him a lot and I learned from him the details that have to be put together. Yeah, everything has to be there for that uniform. And yeah, if you forgot the baseball bats, you don’t have a performance. You better have everything or you don’t have anything. That was actually really good exercise for my brain. ‘Ok, let’s figure this out. Do we have this? Do we have this? Let me make some lists. Ok, yeah we got this, we got this, we got this.’ It was great.”

Athena has since become the main organizer for the NYC Light Brigade. Using 2’x3’ LED letters, New York’s version of the brigade evolved from another Golan project called Tax Evaders — a politicized parody of the Space Invaders video game that was projected on corporate buildings at night. “We made enough letters to spell out “TAX EVADERS” and to spell out “GOLDMAN SACHS” and we went in front of all these places, like GE and Verizon. This is all on tax night, or leading up to it, I can’t remember. But I adopted the role of making these light brigade letters. Bringing the right ones, taking inventory… ‘Ok, you hold this, you hold this. Alright, a little more to the left…’ We had the Tax Evader video game projected — people could actually play it — it’s projected all huge, and we had our light brigade letters spelling out “TAX EVADERS” [at the base of the building]. The thing that’s so great about the light brigade is that each person is holding a letter — the people holding the signs are really showing that this is a real message from real people. They’re standing behind the message, just like the banners. You can spell anything you want. It’s like a Scrabble game. We could comment on anything, any injustice, anything we believe in.”

The NYC Light Brigade also spelled out messages for the Black Lives Matter movement and messages against NSA spying operations and the use of military drones. On the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, Athena developed her own mission: to photograph the NYC Light Brigade spelling out “I HAVE A DREAM” in front of the MLK monument, and to do likewise in front of the White House, but spelling out “I HAVE A DRONE.” “Basically the entire point was to just get that one visual composition. I think I was testing myself to see, ‘Can I pull off this whole production?’ Getting a whole crew down to DC, bringing the right materials… ‘I just want this one visual piece. It has all these details.’ I was really testing myself, and trying to prove myself to the more experienced creative activists. ‘Can I actually do this?’” Athena did pull it off. “That’s the kind of thing where you gotta have all the details. If you’re missing one letter, then you can’t do it, period. If you don’t have spare lights and the lights break, then you have half a “D” instead of a whole “D.” The way I do art, I like all of the details and it’s good for my brain too — keeping track of everything. It all definitely connects and goes together.”

Do you think Occupy and political activism helped in your recovery?

“I do, because I was completely compelled to be as cognizant as possible, and I wanted to learn as much as possible. ‘Ok, you better take care of yourself because you want to learn from this and you want to do the best job you can. You gotta be on top of things.’ It was a huge inspiration to figure out how to keep myself healthy. It was also quite stressful, so it did give me seizures and things. My seizures tend to come after stressful periods. So, yeah, I didn’t stop having seizures or anything. Also, I didn’t mention, but I lost 40% of my vision on the right side of both eyes. I’d look at somebody’s face and their eye was not there on the right. Some of it came back, even though they said it couldn’t come back. Also, I’ve just learned to compensate. I’m not looking at you head-on, right? I’m looking at you this way. I can see your whole face because I figured out how to look this way. And, the things with my memory and stuff…

Photo by Ash Hoden

Well, I just learned how to take notes. I learned to do what I needed to do to get through. I figured out how to do what I wanted to do [by using] different techniques and using different tools and everything. I think some of it did come back, even though they said it couldn’t. Yes, some of it did come back. It’s all about building those neural pathways and, ‘Let’s just keep exercising the muscle of the brain and scanning… Just, use your eyes.’ I’m an artist. I’m always looking looking looking… It really doesn’t impede me. It really doesn’t.”

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in life?

“I think it’s just remaining clear, taking the very next step that you know is there and you can take, and to not worry about not knowing what’s after that. ‘Ok, I need to do this now.’ And, ‘Ok, now that I’m here, I see that this needs to be done.’ That’s how I was able to get healthier. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to stay as clear as possible and as committed as possible to moving towards the positive. If it’s health, or accomplishing art for a specific action, it’s like, ‘Well, what needs to be done next?’ That’s how I got through my illness.”

That’s also how you ascend, by staying focused and taking the next most suitable action. That’s how you do something heroic.

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