The Day – From statues to diptychs: a group promotes racial justice through art

Statues, murals, and traveling exhibitions: what if works of art like these could be used on the streets and in schools to shape vibrant stories that have been forgotten for too long?

This is the question that came to David Good, minister emeritus of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, as he participated in marches and teachings in the area after a Minneapolis policeman killed George Floyd in the Spring 2020. And that’s what led him to form Public Art for Racial Justice Education later that year.

He recalled that the marches and teachings took place at the same time the statues of Confederate generals were forcibly brought down or by official action from Virginia to Alabama.

“It occurred to me that now is the right time to raise champions of racial justice,” Good said. “And to remember the painful stories of our past through public art, but also to celebrate those people who have been forgotten for too long.”

After a year and a half, Good’s ruminations on public art began to be carried out behind the Market Street Garage in Norwich, on a diptych making its way to schools, churches and galleries across the region. , and at community events as children color black and white pictures for a series of mini murals.

It’s the start of an initiative that now includes New London, Old Lyme, Norwich, East Lyme, as well as a growing list of interested communities in places like Old Saybrook and Groton.

“We didn’t want to just create murals and public art for themselves,” Good said. “We wanted to take this opportunity to bring together what Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘beloved community.’ Too many of our communities are too divided and we don’t know each other as well as we should.”

Prior to the public art initiative, Good did not know Norwich Branch NAACP President Shiela Hayes. Now the two are close collaborators as she sits on the steering committee and oversees a subgroup of around 20 Norwich residents focused on the Market Street Garage mural to be unveiled on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day in January.

She said the concept for the mural started with around 70 people, places and events before it was reduced to the faces and silhouettes that now gaze out from the once gray concrete. They include African-American soldiers, abolitionists, former slaves and human rights activists of various colors.

The mural is created under the direction of artists Emida Roller and Samson Tonton, which Hayes says exemplifies the group’s commitment to bringing the community together. They work with volunteer painters and take the time to explain to curious passers-by what the project is all about.

“They were great at welcoming people,” she said.

Next is Old Lyme, where a fresco is to be painted in college on the theme of a “welcome table”. The concept commemorates a story of welcoming refugees into the community, where a family of seven from Afghanistan currently live in a house near Rogers Lake purchased by three Old Lyme churches.

He said the group hopes to select a lead artist for the project by mid-January.

Another piece of community art circulating as part of the initiative takes the form of two panels hinged together in what is called a diptych.

Painted on one side by Nancy Gladwell, an art professor at New Haven University, the scene shows “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. It was then that about 600 protesters protesting the murder of an activist by an Alabama state soldier were prevented by state police from crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They refused to turn around, which led to a police response that resulted in the dispersion of tear gas, beatings and the hospitalization of more than 50 people.

On the other side, Jas Oyola-Blumenthal, a Lyme Academy of Fine Arts alumnus, created what she described on the public art group’s website as an approach rooted in the “whole. “. The impressionist painting shows a young artist at a desk finding inspiration in the historical event as she is flanked by a colorful group of freedom fighters waving blank signs.

Good has said he likes to stress that this is not a “before and after” diptych – because society has not yet arrived at the “after”.

“This raises the question, hopefully creates a conversation, about what is needed to finally cross this bridge,” he said.

The diptych has been shared at various educational and cultural institutions in the area and has been displayed at the NAACP Connecticut convention at Foxwoods Casino and at Juneteenth gatherings in New London, Norwich and Hartford, according to Good.

Hayes stressed that education is the third pillar that supports the group’s public art mission.

She highlighted a series of virtual presentations on community building and advocacy funded by a grant from Connecticut Humanities, the local affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of the sessions covered topics such as political art, black artists, and how to use graphic design for community building.

She described an intergenerational approach as the key to successful racial justice conversations – one that welcomes children through retirees and strives to include all of their voices.

Good agreed that art alone will not solve the problem.

“We have to have conversations across all kinds of lines about how we can make this union more perfect, how can we build this beloved community, how can we break the systemic racism that troubles us all, or should trouble all of us, ”he said.

Elna M. Lemons