Imagine a public interest artist using the town square as a canvass. Now comes Gene Stilp, a 49-year-old lawyer with a keen advocacy sense, a nose for news and the creativity and skills to symbolically present a complicated public policy initiative with a prop guaranteed to generate media coverage and capture hearts and minds at the same time. Gene is more at home in the workshop than the court room. 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, Gene Stilp and his activist associates assembled the enormous ear of corn with fencing and 1,000 recycled milk cartons and twine. The prop was featured in The New York Times, U.S.A. Today and a myriad of electronic and print sources throughout the country.
- A 24-foot SUV. Stilp supplied the U.S. Public Interest Research Group with a 24-foot long, 14-foot high, 10-foot wide inflatable SUV to help the group dramatically 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 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-footlong, four-foot high pieces of blackened toast were popping out of the toaster. 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.”
Gene Stilp has been a an outspoken activist for over two decades from hunger issues to safety concerns about nuclear power, 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 for commercials or full page newspaper ads advance the public interest agenda. Most Stilp creations start with a creative impulse followed by a quick trip to the local hardware store or junk yard. 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 the daily newspapers and evening news shows. His props are as varied as the issues of the day.
To call attention to global warming Gene produced the first “global warming ground hog.” Capitalizing on the national attention generated every February by Ground Hog Day, Gene used February 2, 2000 to launch the first official Global Warming Forecasting Ground Hog. With the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, “Globbie,” a small but effective ground hog sculpture, predicted adverse climate changes for the coming year.
The corrupting influence special interest money on politics is an important matter. Stilp’s special 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 the 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 Lincoln Bed 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 from a citizen perspective. 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 life-long 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. Gene 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 Mr. Stilp at The Prop Shop, 1550 FVCR, Harrisburg, PA 17112.