The wall between Mexico and the United States that Donald Trump and his “deplorables” dream about towers in front of the West Hartford home of Central Connecticut State University history professor Matt Warshauer. Presiding over the cardboard construction on 115 North Main Street, Trump waves his tiny hands and blows smoke from his big mouth. Skeletal border guards point automatic assault rifles over the barbed wire, protecting the perimeter. Bernie Sanders bemoans the shortcomings of the two-party system behind bars, “locked up by the DNC.” Hillary Clinton dons a star-spangled tutu, chained to the Democratic mascot, a red, white, and blue donkey, smiling maniacally out toward the street.
Around the wall, skeletal immigrants hold up signs proclaiming, “I’m not a criminal” and, “we were all immigrants.” Warshauer unveils his political satire each September, after assembling his art in secret behind the house. The structure appears complete on his front lawn, as if from nowhere. For the past seventeen years, Warshauer has fashioned a Halloween display. In 2003, his passion for politics connected to his obsession with Halloween, and he created his first satire. “I was so unbelievably outraged over the Iraq war, that I put an effigy of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on the big tree in my front yard wearing pants with flames all over them, and a big sign that said, ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire.’” He leaned back in his chair with a smirk. A saber from the civil war hung on the wall above his office desk. In 2012 he exhibited President Obama and Mitt Romney on a see-saw playing tug of war with the American flag.
With a confident smile, Warshauer remembered his friend’s incredulous reaction to the Huey helicopter he built last year, and their doubts about moving it. “I walked over and with one hand I lifted the entire thing. That was pretty cool.” Six years ago, at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, he encountered a street artist helping kids make art out of cardboard. “It was like a lightbulb going off, I just looked at it and went—that’s it.” He set off on a mission to find huge pieces of quality cardboard. He found John the “box guy.”
The box guy, like many others, anticipates Warshauer’s next production, and starts to save boxes as soon as he gets a call from Warshauer, the Halloween guy. Cardboard allows Warshauer to utilize his woodworking skills. “Anything you can do with wood you can do with cardboard. You can layer it, you can shape it, you can cut it, you can paint it, you can add to it. It’s cardboard, so if you mess up, you just start over.” His political public art takes on the complex dimensions of the material.
While Warshauer’s left-of-center political leanings influence his art, he raises broader questions for trick or treaters to consider. “It’s one thing to make sort of a bold statement and it’s another thing to ask a bold question.” This year’s Trumpian disruption of politics as usual, manifests as a sign on the wall, “Is the system so broken that we need to elect a madman?” Last year, this question hung over a war torn Vietnamese landscape, “What have we learned of war beyond the need to support our troops?”
One year, Warshauer and his family constructed a fourteen-foot high, six-foot long colosseum with Roman gladiators decapitating toga wearing politicians, evoking the beheadings in the Middle East. On the lawn, emblazoned on red placards, Latin phrases, “W misit nos in abyssum” and, “panem et circenses,” translated, “W sent us into the abyss,” and, “bread and circuses,” called attention to the lack of interest in the political system, and politicians’ inability to act.
Of all Warshauer’s creations, Donald Trump’s wall, which he found “not challenging at all,” generated the most buzz. On Fusion, a Facebook page, images of the wall reached 725,000 views. An Instagram site, Barstool, accrued eighty-five-thousand likes. Reuters, The Ct Post, The Hartford Current, and dozens of other local news outlets, published stories on the display. Al Arabiya out of Dubai even contacted Warshauer. That is the definition of going viral.
Warshauer’s outlook changed as he switched from placing ghoul heads, to building installations out of cardboard. “I started realizing I am a public artist, this is all for public consumption, it’s all temporary.” Once Halloween has ended, Warshauer swipes his Buddhist broom over his creation, and like the dust of a mandala thrown to the wind, his creations are cut up and recycled. As for the next iteration of his art? “I have some ideas. I’m not going to tell you what they are. Look, our political system will always give me something. Always.”