Donna Muhs-Mccarten: Dedicated to Social Justice

‘Everything we do adds to our community; everything we do adds to our wellbeing’

By Barbara Pierce

Social justice has always been a big part of my life. And I’m interested in art. It’s a beautiful blending for me,” said Donna Muhs-Mccarten, explaining why she volunteers at the ArtRage Gallery.

Located in the Hawley-Green Neighborhood of Syracuse, ArtRage is no ordinary gallery. “Art for peace and social justice,” the tagline of ArtRage, expresses it perfectly.

“Our mission is to organize and mount visual art exhibitions with social justice and environmental themes,” said Rose Vivian, director of the nonprofit art gallery. “We believe the arts play a central role in creating social and environmental change.”

This blends beautifully with Muhs-Mccarten’s values. The retired high school social studies teacher is passionate about creating social and environmental change, ardent in her support of all things relating to social justice.

“To me personally, social justice is a blending of compassion, action and doing what is right for, and with, others and the self,” she said. “It involves treating and working for fairness and equality for all in a world that’s often unjust.”

She is especially drawn to the current exhibit at ArtRage. “Deadlocked and Loaded, Disarming America.” The exhibit, featuring works in diverse media by 24 artists, explores the role of guns in our society, emphasizing the impact of gun-related violence on children and women. A photo of tiny bulletproof vests for toddlers, small sneakers hanging from the ceiling to visually represent the number of children who die from gun violence each week in the U.S., a quilt with the outline of a gun surrounded by rainbow colors — these are some of the works displayed.

“This exhibit gets to me—as a mother and grandmother, and one who has worked in education,” she said. “These multiple shootings have torn me apart. Murdering children, putting children at risk; it’s so senseless.”

One piece especially disturbing to Muhs-Mccarten is Lisa Freeman’s assemblage of a little red schoolhouse that is empty inside. “It looks innocent, until you look closer and see the blood spatters on the desks and walls,” she said.

Visual art can have so much more of an impact than words alone, she added.

Her favorite day of the week is Saturday, as that’s the day she volunteers at ArtRage, opening the doors, welcoming guests.

“We have so many wonderful exhibits. I get a chance to see them, think about them and be challenged by what they present. It’s so rewarding to me,” she said.

The lively, enthusiastic educator, in her early 70s, has been a volunteer at ArtRage off and on for years, since they opened their doors in 2008. She’s raised funds, helped with receptions, whatever they have needed.

“It’s been a joy. I really enjoy doing it. I love it and it’s a way to give back to the community,” she explained.

Advocating for social justice has been a part of her upbringing and an important part of her entire life for this Kirkville resident. In addition to volunteering at ArtRage, she does many things that reflect her values: she serves on the boards of non-profits, volunteers at nursing homes, is involved with Native Americans, and is active on the Syracuse Peace Council.

“Founded in the 1930s, it’s the oldest Peace Council in the country,” she said. “We work on issues like food insecurity, prison reform, immigration and fair taxes.”

Growing up in Rochester, she attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh for her undergraduate degree and SUNY Cortland and Syracuse University for her post graduate degree.

After studying at Syracuse University, she was offered a teaching position in Syracuse, and has lived here since.

Married, with three children, all with careers in education, she proudly claims. And four grandchildren.

Though Muhs-Mccarten doesn’t claim to be an artist, she does enjoy writing and “dabbles” in poetry.

Travel is another of her passions: “I’ve traveled all over the world—on a teacher’s pension,” she said. “I’ve seen so many wonderful places.”

Keeping fit is significant to her, being in her 70s. She works out regularly, walks, runs and does yoga.

“Everything we do adds to our well-being,” she sums up her life now. “Keep finding things that inspire you. It’s so good to be around people as we get older. Everything we do adds to our community; everything we do adds to our wellbeing.”

“Do whatever you can to make this world a better place,” she urged. “Come to ArtRage. It’s a great place, with friendly people, a great director, and diverse audiences.”

“We organize five exhibitions a season,” added Director Rose Vivian. Climate change, Cuba, and the refugee experience in Syracuse have been featured in past exhibits.

The current exhibit, Deadlocked and Loaded, ended April 18. The next exhibit, beginning May 13, features Leslie Feinberg: “Screened in, looking out: A disabilities photo exhibit.” The gallery is closed between exhibits.

“Each exhibit is accompanied by community events, discussions, artist talks, film screenings and workshops,” Vivian said. “We heavily depend on community volunteers like Donna in every aspect of our work. We couldn’t do it without them.”

For more information on ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Avenue, see or call 315-218-5711.

Photo: Donna Muhs-Mccarten in her home office. As a volunteer at ArtRage Gallery, she incorporates her love of art with her passion for social justice.