As an artist I was educated to believe that any piece of artwork should be created to “speak” to the viewer in every visual sense of the word! The people, places and events of the Civil Rights Movement, the non-violent nature of the 1950’s and 1960’s, all led me to believe that there was a “holy spirit”, a sacred dimension to this movement. In a period of horrific racism in this country, the people demonstrating for their constitutional rights remained non-violent. Their faith and courage in the face of terrorism, lynchings, assassinations and humiliation was extraordinary. Somehow these ordinary people knew that they were the beloved and precious children of God despite a segregated world that was telling them otherwise!
In the fall of 2007, I took a traditional gold leaf workshop in New Hampshire. I took this course intending to create a series of “Icons of the Civil Rights Movement”. My original idea had been to use canvas as I had with a previous series “Icons of 9/11”. However, wood was used in the workshop as the material on which the gold leaf was applied. And so, I decided to use wooden panels to build each icon. The wood and found objects became the materials that spoke to me. The durability of wood, the sacredness of the gold leaf, the vast possibilities of using ‘found’ objects, were chosen to symbolically enhance the meaning of each icon. Even the shape of each icon was designed and cut to give the feel of a holy tablet, a monument, a bridge, a cross, maybe even a headstone.
Once I designed an icon on paper, my husband and I traced the design and cut sheets of ¾ inch plywood. I used plywood because it does not warp. From there I used a coping saw to cut all the smaller pieces of molding and wood, drilled small holes, glued, and using small brads, attached the found objects to the icons.
I used a base coat of red paint, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, fire and blood. I placed the gold leaf, with broken spaces left between, exposing the red, to represent the pervasive “spirit” behind the Movement. Look carefully and you will see some of my oil painted collage papers cut into unfurled crowns of thorns, shapes of children playing, descending doves, or the footsteps of those who “walked the walk.” You will also notice wooden objects, pieces of broken frames, hinged doors, broken stained glass, wooden birds taken from an old carved jewelry box. You will see yard sticks cut off at number 14, the age that Emmett Till’s life was taken. You will see pieces of a children’s chess set, used to imply the handles of a Torah. You will see alphabet beads strung together to spell “The Children’s Campaign, Birmingham Alabama, over 1000 children jailed.” You will find broken metal chains and locks, signs of freedom and release. You will see verses from Scripture. The leaders of the Movement, many of them preachers, quoted from the Bible. One of Dr. King’s favorite passages was from the prophet Amos (5:24) “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” My husband, a minister, helped me apply scriptural verses to each icon.
I began the first icon of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Oct. 1, 2007. After doing two more, Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, I was so pleased I decided that the project was a “go”. My aim was to have a dozen icons completed by MLK Day 2008, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
As this the exhibit has traveled, I continue to create more icons of incredible people! There are now 30 and counting!