We are in a startling time hearing the cries of children torn from their parents at the American border. Beyond this country, refugees are seeking sanctuary around the world. The multi-year Sanctuary project began as a visceral response to their humanity and has grown into a metaphor for all of us adrift at home in the winds of change.
For decades I created individual paintings and assemblages ranging from abstract through figurative in a variety of mediums and I’ve been in many exhibitions including the California African American Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And my work was featured at the Los Angeles Art Show at the Convention Center in 2019.
Now Sanctuary is an immersive environment, a multi-year three-part installation that embodies everything I’ve gained from previous work in service to its importance. The spirit of Sanctuary echoes work by Ai Weiwei, JR and some contemporary artists such as Narsiso Martinez with whom I’ve enjoyed exhibiting.
Entering Sanctuary Part One a visitor is immersed in life-size drawings with sculptural elements draped ceiling to floor behind a chain link fence. These walking figures are parents seeking refuge and children caged behind ropes. The 60-foot installation makes the viewer a witness to the refugee journey.
Throughout all three parts of Sanctuary battered coffee bean bags serve as a texture and as a metaphor: These seekers are being treated as commodities rejected at borders.
I choose a limited palette – charcoal and chalk on natural linen and tan burlap — to focus on the struggle and the beauty of the faces. The monochromatic “quote” also suggests newspaper imagery at a time when immigration is in the news, though none of these figures are actually from newspapers. The faces are original. I use no models and no photos, though I reference situations of migrants for the poses. All of these are drawn from the heart.
Materials include: raw canvas, charcoal, chalk, clay, rope, twine, sticks, acrylic, paper, toys, cloth, tree bark, plant parts, rusted wires, a chain link fence, and the ubiquitous coffee bean bags.
On the floor, on a pile of those bags, shoes are strewn — men’s, women’s, and shiny pink ones from a little girl who we might imagine dressed as nicely as she could to arrive at her new home. The shoes left behind echo the European Holocaust and those who tried to escape on the Underground Railroad and the many walking to what they believed would be their salvation throughout history.
Part Two (2020) is travel by sea. I built hand-made rafts from simulated logs and tree bark. These 12 rough crafts – some afloat, some capsized — each 4 to 5 feet high, fly canvas “sails” where I drew their passengers lovingly in charcoal. Behind the rafts that fan out across the gallery floor a 36-foot wide abstract painting suggests the devastation they are escaping.
Unlike Part One, though, visitors can walk among the rafts, in contrast to the first iteration that was on walls.
In many cultures the raft is a symbol. The Buddha compared his teachings to a raft that helps us cross over to the other shore – the shore of peace, freedom, and well-being. Of course, rafts were entirely real for refugees from Cuba in the 20th century, and recently they’ve been a grim memorial for families trying to navigate the Mediterranean Sea fleeing climate disasters and wars.
Remnants of daily life such as a clothes hanger in “Grandma Tried to Dry Our Clothes” make these lives immediate. In “Almost There” a mother cradles her sleeping baby’s foot. In “Prayer for Safe Passage” a lone girl draped in a coffee bean bag conveys hope. The ordinary is coupled with the courageous in the raft characters as it is in all of Sanctuary.
Part Three in 2021 will culminate the journey as the refugees arrive in hand-built shelters. I am currently crafting fabric-draped free-standing structures, similar in size to the rafts. The charcoal figures drawn in the same styles as in Parts One and Two will inhabit those shelters. Around them are artifacts of daily lives, as we saw in the rafts. The installation will also include a one-room school, a laundry area and a symbolic clinic that will honor Doctors Without Borders.
When all three parts are assembled the total space would encompass thousands of feet. However, the installation can also be scaled to choose portions of each part – the walkers, the ones on rafts, and those in tents – and could be effective in tighter venues if necessary in 2022 and beyond.
Leaving all three parts of Sanctuary, visitors should sense they’ve experienced a profound world and gained empathy for the people in it while being immersed in a work of art.