Art Attack: Gene Stilp Uses Props And A Wicked Sense Of Humor To Focus Media Attention On Public Policy Issues

Imagine a public interest artist using the town square as a canvas. Now comes Gene Stilp, a 49-year-old lawyer with a keen advocacy sense, a nose for news, and the creativity and skills to communicate a complicated public policy initiative with a prop that's guaranteed to generate media coverage and capture hearts and minds. Gene is more at home in the workshop than the courtroom.

Stilp's gallery includes some unusual works:

A 30-foot ear of corn. This mutant vegetable greeted the participants at a Food and Drug Administration hearing on genetically modified foods in Washington, D.C. in late 1999. With about $400, Stilp and his activist associates assembled the enormous ear of corn out of chicken wire, 1,000 recycled milk cartons, and twine. The prop was featured in The New York Times, USA Today, and a myriad of electronic and print sources throughout the country

A 24-foot SUV. Stilp supplied the Public Interest Research Group with a 24-foot-long, 14-foot-high, 10-foot-wide inflatable SUV to help the group call attention to the gas-guzzling SUVs that are crowding the nations' highways. The SUV prop is hard for the media to avoid and it helps jolt the public into thinking about the consequences of wasting energy on oversized vehicles

The Peco burnt-toast toaster. In 1998 the Pennsylvania state legislature debated electric deregulation. In order to call attention to a proposed bailout of the nuclear industry, Stilp refashioned a 1963 Airstream Trailer into a 20-foot-long, 12-foot-high toaster. Two 10-foot-long, 4-foot-high pieces of blackened toast were popping out. With the flick of a remote switch, smoke poured out of the top of the toaster to replicate burning toast. Signs adorning the toaster proclaimed, "Don't Get Burned By PECO."

Stilp has been a an outspoken activist for more than two decades on issues ranging from hunger to nuclear safety. He is always ready to help concerned citizens make their voices heard in the corridors of power.

Stilp's motivation to build props stems from his desire to help groups that can't afford to buy television time or newspaper ads. Most Stilp creations start with a creative impulse followed by a quick trip to the hardware store or junkyard. With bailing wire and two-by-fours, he begins the job of making an issue move from the mimeograph machines of local and national activists to daily newspapers and evening news shows.

Capitalizing on the national attention generated every February by Groundhog Day, Stilp used Feb. 2 to launch the first official Global Warming Forecasting Ground Hog. With the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, "Globbie," a small, but effective, groundhog sculpture, predicted adverse climate changes for the coming year.

The corrupting influence special-interest money has on politics is an important matter. Stilp's approach to this issue prompted him to spend about $200 to build a full-scale replica of the Lincoln Bed. (The Lincoln Bedroom was made notorious as a result of President Clinton's campaign contributors being offered a chance to sleep in the real Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.)

As the U.S. Congress gathered in Hershey, Pennsylvania for a "civility retreat" in 1997, they were greeted by the prop - with an attached meter that recorded donations for time spent in the bed. This prop focused attention on campaign finance reform and the congressional and presidential campaign finance abuse investigations, and resulted in national media coverage of the need for campaign finance reform.

Stilp was interviewed by a host of national correspondents while he lounged in the "Lincoln Bed." In the coming year, Stilp hopes to transform his lifelong passion for building props for causes into an enduring institution called the National Prop Shop. This nonprofit enterprise will help public interest groups make use of creative props and incorporate props into their campaign efforts. Stilp wants the activist community to use the National Prop Shop, but ultimately he would like to see every community have the ability to assemble local talent to build the props they might need to dramatize local issues.

People interested in contributing ideas, materials, or funds for this unique public institution should contact Stilp at The Prop Shop, 1550 FVCR, Harrisburg, PA 17112.

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