Following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, many feared that protests would turn into riots. Some people stoked those fears even further. Certainly, people were angry, but many channeled their rage and grief into positive, creative, artistic expression.
One example of this can be found at the Art Works Studio School, located in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Barbara Johnson, an artist, art teacher and the founder and executive director of Arts Works Studio School, explained to me in an e-mail that as soon as the verdict was announced, she and the program coordinator started texting each other: “We were both so upset. And we knew right away that we had to do something through Art Works to support the community. I said that we needed to do something. She suggested ‘painting it out’ and I knew that it should be silent painting.”
So, on Monday evening, around 30 people, ranging in age from 20 to 60, went to Art Works to express their pain through painting and drawing.
Johnson recalls: “I greeted people Monday evening and assured them that they didn’t have to ‘know how to paint’ and that they could paint in silence in our studio or sit in discussion in our gallery. Every single person came into the studio and painted. At times different people would stop painting and walk into the gallery to cry.”
For many, the experience was cathartic: “So many people said, ‘I feel better’,” recalls Johnson.
Yet fear remained: “A lot of the emotion was based on the sadness of this unjust death but there was a much deeper experience happening for everyone I think. I heard over and over how this verdict feels like a statement on how far we still need to go for racial equality to become a reality. There was a lot of conversation about feeling like the clock had been turned back. The discussion was very powerful. The constant emotion related was worry for our children.”
For Johnson and the Art Works Studio School, art is a tool for social justice. The blog post announcing the silent painting read:
We are deeply saddened by the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. As many of you know us for our commitment to arts education, you may not know that at the root of that commitment is our deep commitment to justice. Our curriculum for every program is designed to create change in order to make this world better for all of us. We are promising a better and more just world for our children. We encourage their dreams and creative visions through art. WE have a lot of work to do to make sure that the young black children in OUR community can one day feel safe on the streets of this country.
Here are some of the works of art created on Monday night, some of which include commentary from Johnson.
“This person does not consider herself an artist. She came mostly for the discussion but joined in the artmaking with some gentle coaxing that it was okay to not be a trained artist. In the discussion afterward she spoke a great deal about prayer and how she is leaning heavily on prayer to bring herself to a place of peace.”
“Under all this paint, it says ‘Lost Innocence’ written in painted skittles.”
“I did this piece. It is a ‘dance’ if you will between white and black. It was my meditation on race and the in-between.”
“This is called Avinu Malkeinu. I did this also after the one above as the earlier piece brought up intense emotion for me around the symbolism of white and black. The text which has red paint over it says: ‘I was painting white and black and I couldn’t figure out if white was light and goodness and life or oppression, denial and hatred.’
Here is an excellent explanation of the phrase:
Avinu Malkeinu is a penitential litany. That means that it uses the (now problematic) refrain, ‘Our Father, our King,’ repeatedly to invoke the gracious favor of a God who is conceived of as both distant and approachable, both stern and merciful; whose powerful nature can be portrayed as both Ruler and Parent toward the people Israel, who view themselves during the High Holy Day season as both dependent and unworthy of favor — ‘Deal with us graciously for Your own sake, since we can plead little merit before You.’ Encapsulated here are the ambivalent feelings of we mortals toward the power in the world outside us over which we have uncertain or little control.
Photo Credit: Art Works Studio School