Local artists come together to promote awareness and spark conversations about the refugee crisis
by Katie Milligan
A group of artists in Columbus host a traveling exhibit to raise awareness of the refugee crisis in the U.S. The Columbus Crossing Borders Project consists of 34 paintings, each by a different artist, and a documentary; each piece of art serves to shed a light on the difficulties refugees face.
The project’s paintings serve as a metaphor for the integration of refugees into America. Each artist had to ‘cross the border’ of their painting into the paintings on either side of them so that as one moves through the exhibit, the paintings overlap through a creative element, such as a consistent color, pattern or style.
According to the Columbus Crossing Borders official website, “the artists are creating spaces that allow their works to integrate harmoniously. Throughout the exhibit, as paintings and diversities flow in combined efforts, what emerges is a bigger, more beautiful outcome resulting from a cooperative community.”
The exhibit travels to schools, universities, churches and other charitable institutions to display the artwork, lead panel discussions and screen the documentary. It has received invitations from coast to coast, and is currently working on trips to Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Louisville and San Francisco.
Columbus Crossing Borders is a non-profit organization. Though it often receives donations for a documentary viewing and bids for its artwork, all funds it acquires are either put back into the project’s traveling expenses or benefits refugees through the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS).
Laurie VanBalen, an artist from Pataskala, Ohio, founded the project out of a passion to enact social change. She was inspired to start the project during the 2016 presidential election when the immigration and refugee issue was transformed into a political platform. As she observed the spreading controversy and hatred in America, she felt the need to take action.
“I became concerned, because I knew very good people who were misinformed about immigration, who were being manipulated by fear [and] the media,” VanBalen said. “What I wanted to do was contribute, even just in some small way through my artwork, to create an exhibit that promoted critical thinking and compassion for people.”
Though the project began because of a concerning political climate, VanBalen stresses that it was not meant to be a political statement, but an effort to promote humanitarian rights across the globe.
After President Trump was elected, VanBalen saw a need to advocate for refugees. She began contacting 33 other artists in Central Ohio to join the project. She had become familiar with other artists through teaching at schools, libraries, community centers and her home art studio Art Soup for over 35 years.
“At first I considered just inviting a few of my peers, but once that momentum got going, I envisioned a project that would be a gathering, an artistic UN,” VanBalen said.
As she searched, she had only three criteria for the group: a diversity in approach and style, a significant following to attract people to the exhibits and the ability to work under tight deadlines. Though VanBalen held the first meeting with all 33 artists present in January 2017, they had to return their finished painting to VanBalen by that April.
The artists found inspiration for their paintings through meeting refugees, seeing photographs of them or doing research on their own. Then, based on the aspect of the refugee crises that particularly moved them, they created original works that combine to form a cohesive exhibit.
For example, Paula Colman’s painting “One Child of Millions” was inspired by a photograph of a child behind a barbed wire fence which is commonly used around immigrant and refugee housing.
“I connected my own feelings of helplessness from seeing her and watching this continuing, escalating humanitarian crisis, with this little girl’s despair — and the millions of children suffering, unable to get to the light,” Colman wrote on the Columbus Crossing Borders website.
Another central aspect of the project is the full-length documentary titled “Breathe Free,” created by filmmaker Doug Swift, owner and creative director of Wild Iris Video. When VanBalen approached him with her idea, Swift was thrilled for the opportunity to capture the refugees’ story.
“I’m a storyteller at heart,” Swift said. “No matter what subject, if anybody is being stereotyped, the antidote is always to tell their story.”
In addition to documenting the artists’ progress on their paintings and covering the project’s first exhibit, Swift contributed the idea of including real-life refugees and their stories in the film. He worked closely with CRIS to locate and interview several Syrian and Bhutanese refugees living in Columbus.
“We want to allow refugees to have their voice, so we really have to get refugees to tell their stories,” Swift said.
A touching scene in the film features a family of six Syrian refugees: mother Manal, her husband and four children. This family was welcomed into the country by a welcome team of seven American families from Bexley, Ohio. The hosts helped the refugees integrate into American society in practical ways, such as taking them to doctor’s appointments, giving the eldest son driving lessons, and financially providing groceries for them.
However, Swift noticed that despite the language barrier, the refugees impacted their American hosts just as much as they were being impacted.
“It was so cool because [it was] a two-way integration that is so nourishing both ways,” Swift said. “The Syrian family [is] integrating into American society, and this American family [is] benefiting by this story of strength with such poise and endurance.”
Swift said that the most powerful moment of the project for him came when he had finished filming and was saying goodbye to Manal. He asked her why she wanted to tell her story, since many other refugees had refused to be interviewed for fear of negative repercussions.
“And she looked me in the eye, with more human strength than I think I’ve ever seen from anybody, and she just told me, ‘You can’t be afraid,’” Swift said. “That was a precious experience for me.”
According to Swift, Manal and her husband are now employed, their children are enrolled in schools and their language skills are rapidly improving.
Swift hopes that through viewing his documentary, people gain perspective as they see the spirit of hope and resilience in the refugees.
“I tried not to make a preachy film,” Swift said, “[but] we’re kind of spoiled as Americans. These people have so much to give us because of what they go through. What I would like people to take away is a capacity to open our hearts and be compassionate.”
Since the completion of the Columbus Crossing Borders Project, its roaring success has been a shock even to VanBalen. Its debut event in May 2017 was attended by more than 400 people.
“It’s gaining momentum, as though the project has grown legs of its own and taken off, and we’re just trying to keep up with it,” VanBalen said. “I never thought that it would leave Ohio, but we’ve already been traveling from city to city.”
VanBalen said one of the most important aspects of the project is spreading knowledge through conversation at the exhibits.
“The conversations that we have often are in regard to what we all deserve: the cornerstones of respect, caring, and putting love into action,” she said. “If we could focus on that, it would heal so much in our world right now.”
When the exhibit concludes all planned touring at the close of 2018, all artwork will be auctioned and the proceeds will benefit refugees. Though the project does not generate many funds, VanBalen still feels that refugees have been encouraged by their activism.
“Maybe it doesn’t change people in a dramatic way, but it brings smiles to their hearts knowing that somebody cares about them,” she said.
Additionally, VanBalen said she realizes that young people represent an opportunity for culture-wide change within the United States.
“Through our advocacy, we’re really trying to reach out to a wide demographic, and one of the most uplifting experiences we’ve been having is with younger people,” she said. “What better way to change hearts and minds than to start with young people?”
VanBalen is unsure of where her brainchild will go in the future, but she is confident that it will leave a lasting legacy.
“If even a small fraction of the community becomes aware, and starts to understand what’s happening, then it’s worth it,” she said. “I’m aiming big because I feel this is urgent. It’s essential work, and we have to do it for each other.”
One of the artists, Dasa Harris, is a refugee from communist east Europe and came to the United States in 1993. Because of her heritage, the project’s meaning resonates for her. Her painting features a woman and child staring out over a stormy sea.
“I am hopeful this project can, in some small way, shine a spotlight on their plight,” Harris wrote on the Columbus Crossing Borders website, “and encourage governments around the globe to tear down their walls and fences and recognize, with compassion, our common humanity.”
The Columbus Crossing Borders Project is coming to the Cultural Arts Center in Columbus on May 21; the exhibit will be open from 2-7 p.m., and admission is free. Additionally, the documentary “Breathe Free” can be purchased on Vimeo for $5.
Katie Milligan is a freshman English major. She enjoys taking Polaroid photos, eating pasta, and watching Disney movies.