The Columbus Crossing Borders Project Examines Refugee Experience via the Arts

There are 65 million displaced people in this world fleeing war, terror and persecution.  These are families being forced from their homes:   mothers, fathers, students,, lawyers, working class, middle class, store clerks and physicians — all walks of life seeking  the same safety that we all want and deserve.

Yet, what are the chances today’s refugees will be welcomed  into any new country with open arms?

In the US, we hear anti-immigration sentiments becoming more vocal. We see misunderstanding, intolerance, discrimination and racism dividing our communities.  Indeed, even before the recent travel bans and executive orders, targeting refugees and promoting fear of them, served to benefit a key political platform.

On the morning of November 9, last year, as I was watching TV, trying to process the results of the election, I received word that my father had died.   The void felt too complete — crushing —  with the helpless sense that I had lost my dad and my country at the same time.   But then something inside of me said don’t give in.

The Columbus Crossing Borders Project was born that day.

I am an artist.  So my instinct was to gather fellow artists, including a film crew, to utilize art as a means of instigating critical thinking, understanding and compassion for the refugees in our world.  In this way, The Columbus Crossing Borders Project became a travelling art exhibit and a documentary film.

To strengthen our mission, a partnership was formed with the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) of Columbus, Ohio.  Through this partnership we met with refugees who were willing to share their stories on film — these being the stories to inspire the Columbus Crossing Borders artists.   Responding to these stories, the artists created paintings as tributes.  Then as the exhibit moves from left to right, each painting contains an element that reaches into the painting that follows it.  In other words, these artists were asked  to ‘cross borders’ into each other’s paintings.  They were asked not to be territorial with their work, needing to cooperate in order to resolve challenges that might arise when crossing into someone else’s space.  Perhaps a hand reaches from one painting into another.  Maybe a figure is running from one painting into the next.  In some cases, the connecting factor might be an adjacent sky or a patch of grass.

Regardless of how these artists cross each other’s borders, they have ultimately created spaces that allow their works to overlap and integrate harmoniously.  And throughout the exhibit, as paintings and diversities flow in combined efforts, what emerges is a bigger more beautiful outcome resulting in a cooperative community.

 The Columbus Crossing Borders travelling art exhibit opened in May 2017 at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center to a reception of 400 people.  It will now travel until the end of 2018.  The documentary film, titled “Breathe Free”,  directed by Doug Swift, premieres at The Drexel Theatre in Bexley, Ohio on Thursday, August 10.  This film spotlights the refugees’ stories against the backdrop of the art project inspired by those stories.

Taking this project on the road to a diverse range of demographics and communities supports our goal to get past the toxic discourse that divides people.  We invite those who may not be educated about the plight of refugees, or those who may be unsure about their feelings toward refugees, or those who may harbor suspicion or ill will toward refugees. By providing an up-close,  intimate look into personal human struggle and strength, our audience has the opportunity to observe, integrate and hopefully make a connection.

So we must ask ourselves:  “Will our project be transformative?  Will it make a positive social impact that can help move the public toward compassionate action? ”   When we consider the tremendous amount of work going into it,   we certainly hope so.   However, if even just a fraction of our communities are inspired to let go of personal fear, misunderstanding and intolerance, the effort is worth it.

For more information:

Columbus Crossing Borders website:  www.columbuscrossingbordersproject.com 

Columbus Crossing Borders Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/ColumbusCrossingBordersProject/

Laurie VanBalen is a visual artist from central Ohio. Her career in the arts spans 35 years of commissioned paintings and works in private collections, exhibits, book illustration and graphic design. She is the founder and director of Art Soup Studio, providing creative workshops and programs for schools, libraries and community centers, in addition to classes for all ages in her home studio.

 

 

Finding Art & Peace

Finding Art & Peace

I believe art has the power to save people. I believe this because it saved me.

I am an artist. I am a poet. I am a peacebuilder. I am recovering.

Funny enough, art was not always something I believed in. At least not this strongly. I was a musician in high school. I did some journaling. And I even tried my hand at poetry when the season for poetry submissions came along in English class. I never saw art as something that changed anybody, even though I loved music.

Finally, I found my home in writing and poetry with a hint of music when I have the right instrumentation. Let’s be honest, trombones just don’t play parties alone.

I’ve always found solace in words, but I remember a time when I couldn’t even find words. Every time I started writing I spent more time scratching words out and doodling over them than I did creating anything. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready to start talking about what I knew. That is what the best writing is about – what you know – and what I knew was way too complicated to start talking about out loud. Just a few years ago, though, when I ran out of excuses to not deal with it and all other means of ignoring everything, I came face to face with a type of broken I can honestly say I hadn’t yet seen. Right when I should have been permanently, irreparably broken, I found my words.

It was finding my words that started to change the way I look at the world, healing, and eventually peace.

I started to see that art has a unique role in understanding pain, struggle, and conflict. That I could really uncover the causes of my own pain and conflict by exploring my art, and ultimately that exploring my experience through art could also help other people explore theirs at their own pace, in their own way.

My journey to seriously consider the role of art in peace began here. How can we do peace if we don’t take the time to understand the underlying, innermost causes of conflict – inner and interpersonal? And how can we possibly understand the underlying causes of conflict in a community if the people in the community haven’t had the chance to understand them themselves?

I didn’t understand what I was struggling with for a long time. Art helped me figure it out in a way that was comfortable for me. Sometimes sitting down with a traditional counselor isn’t enough, and often it’s not even an option. We have to find a way to better understand and identify the causes of conflict in individuals and communities, so that we all know better how to address them.

Art let’s you explore your life and experiences both directly and indirectly, and, for those who don’t do art, seeing and discussing art can help you uncover your own struggles.

What better way to promote agency in your own understanding and healing than art? Art helped me realize I was an agent in my own life, that I had the power to deal with my problems, and that I could do it through art, when so much else had failed. This was a pivotal moment in becoming the person I am today.

 The Theory Behind the Journey

Peace is both the ending of violent conflict and the removal of structures that promote violence. It is creating structures that contribute to sustainable, lasting peace. There are many opinions about how that happens, but most agree it has political, social, economic, security, and legal dimensions. My degree program broke it down into conflict analysis and resolution, human rights, and development and human security.

If you look at peace theory, it’s so clear that art has a place amongst those dimensions. The basis of conflict analysis and resolution is that to end violent conflict and create peace we have to figure out the causes of conflict. Art has the ability to uncover and explain the causes of conflict in new and more holistic ways.

Art can revitalize local economies and promote not only short-term relief, but long term, sustainable development. It can build up local artists and artisans while bringing in art lovers, collectors, philanthropists, and business people – thus boosting local, small business to meet the increased demand for housing, food, and transportation.

It has also helped record and remember lives lost to terrible human rights abuses. It’s often helped promote reconciliation. Things like storytelling are often used as traditional forms of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. Art is so often used for social recovery that art therapy is now a widely used tool for helping children, youth, and adults overcome horrible traumas and abuses.

 The Missing Link – Why Nairobi?

Art has a role to play in each and every aspect of peacebuilding. Peace is often seen as a systemic goal, and art has a role to play in that too, but what art really does is make an intentional connection between the creation of inner, personal peace and systemic peace.

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The youth I met in Kariobangi and Mathare believed so intrinsically that their everyday actions could contribute to personal and community peace. That they could build peace by saving money from their car washing business to teach children about social issues through football. That they could build peace by doing free concerts for community events and schools, so they could use their art to contribute to individual and community development, while also pushing for deeper conversations through the subject matter their art explores. That a couple of djs could contribute to peace and social awareness by creating a mixtape that also talks about social issues during traffic jams.

The coolest thing about youth in Nairobi is they’re already on a journey to connect inner peace to systemic, and they want to do it in new, innovative ways. So in some ways, they taught me, at the end of the day, that art just makes sense. If we ever want to take youth seriously, and we should if we really take peace seriously, then we have to start speaking through mechanisms that youth speak through. Youth are not only the backbone of society, but also the backbone of peace. And I know from the youth I’ve met here that I would be completely lost to try to create peace with youth without including the very voice they speak through.

For me, the lesson at the end of the day is this:

For all those without the privilege, resources, and opportunity to be heard, art is the voice. For all those too broken, marginalized, and disenfranchised to speak, art is the platform.

Jessica Ciccarelli, the Recovery Poet

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About the author: Jessica Ciccarelli is a recent graduate of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies with a Masters degree in Peace and Justice. She is currently living in Nairobi, Kenya collaborating with local partners to begin a leadership program that trains disadvantaged youth with a focus on art, peace, and conflict transformation. She runs a blog at www.therecoverypoet.com, in which she focuses on the healing power of art to create peace.