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 is a visceral response to their humanity.
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. I’ve been well reviewed in shows 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 a 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, toys, cloth, 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.
In Part One (2019), the figures travel by land. Part Two (2020) is travel by sea. Hand made “rafts” are built on “logs” simulated by burlap that is roped around foam rolls. These rough crafts have “sails” made of the same canvas as in the rest of this series. On the “sails” the refugees are drawn in the same charcoal style as the walkers in Part One. The effect of these individuals and crowded vessels rowed by barefoot men is somewhat ghostly. Viewers might wonder if they made it across.
Remnants of ordinary life, such as a clothes hanger and scraps of clothing in the raft titled “Grandma Tried to Dry Our Clothes” makes these lives immediate. The ordinary is coupled with the courageous in the raft characters as it is in all of “Sanctuary.”
The free-standing rafts, each around 4 to 5 feet in height, width and depth are set on pedestals of varying heights that fan out across the gallery floor. Behind them is a 36-foot mural that I am currently painting to create a sense of the devastation they are escaping. It is an abstracted landscape, mostly black and red, whereas the rafts have the same earthy monochromatic tones as in Part One, and the faces echo the same sensitivity.
Part Two will be complete by summer and is already scheduled for a solo exhibit at TAG Gallery in July 2020. The installation will be around the same size as Part One, which is 60 feet. Unlike Part One, though, visitors will walk among the rafts, in contrast to the first iteration that was on walls.
Part Three in 2021 will culminate the journey as the refugees arrive in hand-built shelters. I plan to craft fabric-draped structures, some wall-hung, others free standing. (None will be commercial tents.) These will be similar sizes as the rafts. The charcoal figures drawn in the same styles as in Parts One and Two will appear on the canvas shelter walls. As with the rafts, the images suggest a ghostly presence and question whether these people will survive.
Around them are artifacts of daily lives, as we saw in the rafts. This time pieces of pottery and cookware will add to the shoes and clothes.
Part Three will be approximately the same size as Parts One and Two, so the campsite would take another 60 feet, or so.
When all three parts are assembled the total gallery space might theoretically encompass around 100 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 become effective in a tighter venue towards the end of 2021.
Leaving all three parts of “Sanctuary,” visitors should sense they’ve experienced a world and gained empathy for the people in it while seeing a work of art.