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.