Artist Sonya Michel first met Congressman Jamie Raskin at a street fair in Takoma Park, when he bought one of her artworks, a large painting of tulips, around 2015. “I’d never met him before, but I knew who he was, of course, and I was thrilled,” Michel says.
Michel is a professor emerita of history at the University of Maryland. After retiring in 2015, she launched her art career and began showing and selling her work. She paints and makes mixed-media collages and assemblages, often using found objects such as rusted pieces from her old grill.
The Silver Spring resident is a supporter of Raskin, who is her Congressman—he represents Montgomery County and parts of Prince George’s County. She says she had continued to stay in touch over email since selling her painting to him, and that included a recent email asking about Raskin’s bandanna collection—he wore the bandannas while undergoing treatment for lymphoma. (He recently announced that he’s in remission.) Some of those bandannas, reported The Washington Post, came from musician Steven Van Zandt, who sent Raskin head coverings from his own collection.
Michel had made a collage featuring a piece of bandanna for a Martha Spak Gallery’s “Art in Bloom” exhibit, which coincided with cherry blossom season in March. She sent Raskin an image of the collage, and he quickly wrote back asking to purchase the work.
Raskin told Michel that The Washington Post article had inspired some of his constituents to send bandannas, but he had received so many that he didn’t know what to do with them. Michel offered to make another collage with the extra bandanas.
A few days later, Raskin arrived at Michel’s house with a bag full of head scarves, and she got to work.
Michel went through the bag and noticed a wide variety of designs, from an American flag pattern to tie-dyed fabric: “As I put them together, I realized that the different kinds of textiles, the range of them, were making a comment about the American population and how multi-ethnic we are,” she says. “They don’t always go together; they’re not always that harmonious. In fact, sometimes they contrast and even conflict, which is exactly the way our society works.”
Raskin wanted to present the collage to his wife, Sarah Bloom Raskin, as a birthday gift. Michel is not surprised that so many constituents sent bandannas to show their support. “He’s very warm and friendly and accessible, and people respond accordingly, ” she says. “I think that this outpouring of bandannas shows, in a literally material way, how fond they are of him.”
Though Michel went into art without explicit political intentions, much of her work engages with popular culture or politics in some way. “I’d like to think that this piece I did for Jamie has both aesthetic qualities and aesthetic satisfactions, but it is also certainly making a statement about American society,” Michel says. Another of the artist’s works, titled “America is Drowning in Plastic,” features a small statue of Uncle Sam surrounded by plastic containers.