Last week (Oct. 19-22, 2020), I had the amazing opportunity to work on a smaller version of the Mending Walls RVA project. What is Mending Walls RVA? From their website:
America faced "another brutal killing of a black man at the hands of the police, which set off an uprising that has filled our streets with voices of objection, to the systemic racism here in America. With some of our feelings and demands now physically on Richmond City walls through tags, these expressions mark a space for questions and conversations to happen. These actions inspired the artist Hamilton Glass to start the Mending Walls project. Richmond, Virginia, has one of the largest collections of public art in the United States. We now have the unique opportunity to use public art as a tool to bring empathy and to connect at a time when we need it the most. Mending Walls was derived from a Robert Frost poem published in 1914 about two neighbors working on a wall between their two farms. As the men worked, the narrator questions the purpose of a wall “where it is we do not need the wall” but as the story goes on his neighbor replies twice with the proverb: “Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s these hard conversations that the Mending Walls project hopes to facilitate through public art."
I partnered with Carrie Cheatham of Cheatham Snail Mail. She is an artist also from Virginia who paints greeting cards. Instead of a wall, we painted our piece on a particle board that businesses used to board their windows during the protests. Within our first conversation, Carrie shared with me her experience working for several months with International Neighbors (an organization that provides resources for refugees and special immigrant visa holders to to help them adjust to their new life in Charlottesville, Virginia, including items for the home, acquiring healthcare, clothing, technology, accessing community programs, employment assistance, and language programs.)
We discussed the idea that refugees have not been apart of the broad conversation of racism and injustices in America. Some of the questions that came to mind were: How are refugees of color treated by others who don't know their background? How do they feel about a country they escaped to once they learn of the atrocities happening here? Do they feel safe or comfortable in America? And how do we, as Americans, include them in the conversation?
Carrie shared with Unicia a photograph taken by International Neighbors of a young Somali refugee looking out of a window. They both immediately thought she and her reflection would be the perfect subject of their piece. They decided to include in the reflection representations of the Blue Ridge mountains of Charlottesville with stars of the American flag, the single star in her hijab for the Somali flag, the water she had to cross from East Africa to arrive in America and people who have helped and will continue to help her on her journey for a better tomorrow. Black and brown people in America can relate to this turbulent journey and know the difficult path she must now face.
We hope that this painting will inspire conversations about people fleeing war torn countries and immeasurable hardships looking toward America as a beacon of hope and prosperity for all.
A special thank you to Hamilton Glass and Jowarnise for spearheading this project to give artists of different backgrounds the opportunity to come together and have those difficult conversations about race and injustices. Check Mending Walls RVA to see what other artists did throughout this week.