Recently someone who is helping me find new directions for RootsTo Resistance and they asked me to write up a brief History of the project. Here it is.
The Story Of Roots2Resistance
I suppose the seeds of the Roots To Resistance project were planted in the Summer of 2009. That was the Summer that I learned about Natalia Estemirova. That was the Summer that Natalia was abducted from her home in Chechnya. She was abducted from her home and murdered because she raised her voice to speak truths and because she refused to be silent. I had never heard of Natalia Estemirova before, I didn’t know that she was a Human Rights Journalist who had tirelessly served as a voice for the silenced, war torn and poor Communities of Chechnya. Yet I was profoundly moved by her story, her life, her work and the sadness of her violent passing. Sometimes a person’s story enters into you and connects with your heart. That is most definitely what happened to me when I heard the story of Natalia Estemirova and that is what convinced me to try to paint Natalia back to life.
I should interject here to say that I am a Painter who has been making Art for 25 years. I was trained as a Painter and a Printmaker in my early 20 s but after I left college painting became my main focus. I stumbled into Art School by accident, not really understanding how I ended up there and not really having the natural born talents that some of my classmates seemed to be able to pluck out on demand. I wasn’t really interested in painting the nude models or the contrived still lives. Then I made a miraculous discovery. I could paint from the inside. I could paint stories, unseen, imagined things and most importantly I could paint feelings. From that moment on I never stopped.
This is the place I was in when I learned of Natalia. I had spent 25 years exploring, learning and growing by making Art and so many new directions and discoveries were also making their way into my work at this time. Social Justice issues and a deep connection to the woods, hiking and the entire natural World had become central to all of the Art that I was creating. Still my specialty was finding unique ways of illustrating the vibrating, explosive nature of feelings, particularly my own. I set about painting Natalia Estemirova’s Portrait in that same way. I did not want to paint a purely reverent and accurate rendition of Natalia, I wanted to paint the Joy, anger, sadness, frustration, love and devastation that must have accompanied her during all of the days of her work. I wanted to paint her wrapped up with the Natural World as a gift which would keep her alive. I wanted People to know who she was and I wanted them to have chance to be moved by her life and her work.
When the Portrait was completed I decided to create a postcard which would bring attention to the life of Natalia and would be Pre-addressed to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin, demanding justice and an end to targeting of Human Rights Journalists. The postcards would be mailed across the World and People would be able to learn of Natalia and immediately raise their voices in support by mailing the postcard to its destination. I contacted an Organization in Russia called Youth Human Rights which had done work on Natalia’s case and other abducted Journalists. They translated the postcard text for me and received 1000 postcards which they would put into the hands of Chechen and Russian Community Members. The seeds were planted.
Painting Natalia led me to wonder about the other Women that were alive and doing profoundly risky, Earthshaking work on the Planet. I began to search for them with friends, colleagues and through International and Community Organizations. There were hundreds of Women to learn about and consider. In the end I chose 12 Women and I chose them on the basis of the diversity of where they did their work and on the kinds of work they were doing. I wanted to represent all of the issues: Environmental Rights, Food, Land and Seed Justice, Reproductive Justice, Labor Rights, Sexual Violence in the DR Congo, Indigenous Rights. I wanted to make sure I had Women from all continents and from across the Globe. Natalia was the first Portrait I painted and now there would be 11 others.
This project officially started in 2010 and I left my three cooking jobs to put my full attention to this enormous adventure. This was a terrifying step and I was very grateful to get support from my mentor and friend Tuti Scott, who helped me to formulate a plan for beginning to fund this work. In April of 2010 I was given a $5000 grant from the Giant Steps Foundation to help me on my way. I simplified my life and put all of my funds and attention on this new project which would be called Roots To Resistance.
In these past three years I have painted Afghan Activist Malalai Joya who came and spoke in front of her Roots Portrait at Smith College in 2012. With her help we created a postcard campaign demanding an end to the occupation of her Country and pre-addressed all postcards to President Obama at the White House. Next the Portrait of the amazing Chouchou Namegabe, a Journalist going to the most dangerous places in DR Congo to record the voices, stories and testimonies of Women and Girls. The postcard Campaign created for Chouchou and the DR Congo are meant to open People’s eyes, with stories and information and to raise money for Chouchou and her grass roots Organization AFEM. Also painted were Reproductive Rights Activist Rebecca Gomperts of the Netherlands, The Zapatista Women of Chiapas Mexico, Treeplanter Wangari Maathai of Kenya and Democracy Activist Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma.
All have been depicted in eight foot high Portraits, in ways that are meant to translate their stories, their profoundly important work and the vast array of emotions that have accompanied them on their journeys. The Portraits are meant to be portals through these Women and into their Communities, Resistance Movements and to all of their colleagues and fellow Activists doing work along side of them. Postcard Campaigns have been created for each one of these Portraits.The postcards are sent through a network of over 75 Roots To Resistance Partner Organizations from around the World, everyone from the Greenbelt Movement and AWID to the tiny Fiji Women’s Rights Group have participated to spread this work. These Organizations receive all materials free and help us to bring them into the hands of Community members across the Globe. The campaigns we create are meant to inform the World Community about these Women and are meant to address the issues that the Women and their Communities are fighting for and against. The postcards are meant to inform, inspire and even enrage. The goal is not so much about changing policies or systems, the goal and my hope is that they give People a voice and a small step toward action as the postcard is mailed to it’s destination. They arrive at real destinations, they are not shared in a virtual web space but sent physically into the hands of another and this small step can be a very powerful act.
In these last three years the project has grown so much. Roots To Resistance has begun creating street posters for all 12 Activists so that we can create avenues of resistance, inspiration and information in Public spaces. We send them out free with our postcards and People put them up on the streets and in their Communities. The call for postcards and street posters has grown far larger and faster than the Funds we raise to create these campaigns. Roots To Resistance has been honored to receive past funds from so many generous contributors, we have received funds from the Valley Vagina Monologue performances, an enormously successful Kickstarter campaign, house parties and many personal donations. We are profoundly grateful and still there is a recognition that our outreach and fundraising must now expand and grow as well. It is a time of new partnerships and new and exciting directions. Our Fiscal Partner, local Art Organization A.P.E has provided a space for performances and outreach and countless others have helped to promote this work. With four Portraits and campaigns left to create, the time has come to shift some attention toward bringing this work more fully to international Communities and to my own Community here in Western Massachusetts. This will mean more public performances, parades and displays in all facets of the Community. It is a way of gearing up for the adventure which will arrive when the Portraits are complete. A six month cross country Public Art Tour with all 12 Portraits and many thousands of postcards and street posters displayed on board the converted Roots To Resistance Bus!
For now my near future will be filled with the amazing faces, stories and histories of Syrian Journalist Razan Ghazzawi, Maria Gunnoe, Marina Silva, and the unforgettable Vandana Shiva!