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The art of social change 

The journey continues for Savannah’s Beloved Community

Call them “the usual suspects” of Savannah’s cultural change movement.

Around a table at the Sentient Bean are Molly Lieberman, the director of Loop It Up at the West Broad YMCA, Citizens Advocacy director Tom Kohler, and artist/activist Jerome Meadows. And though none of them would wear a sash denoting them as such, they are all indeed part of a recurring cabal that relentlessly works to cross boundaries and demolish old perceptions.

Specifically, along with many others, these three have helped organize Journey to the Beloved Community, a series of art shows and events inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of an all–inclusive, compassionate society. The journey began in July with Beth Mount’s vibrant story quilts and Lyn Bonham’s provocative photographs at the Jepson Center for the Arts; the show’s opening reception was a joyous affair that brought together people from all corners of the community. Mount returns next week with the three–day Art of Social Change conference, featuring a gallery talk with Bonham.

The end of September also brings forth the work of the folks now sitting at the table.

On Thursday, Sept. 27, the kids of Loop It Up take center stage at the reception of  I Am the Beloved Community: Story Quilts of Our Savannah, an unlikely fibers collaboration between Lieberman’s young charges from the YMCA and the Kayton Homes Boys & Girls Club, seniors at the Hudson Hill Golden Age Center and a group of English as a Second Language (ESL) SCAD students. Considering the disparate ages and backgrounds of the participants, the project’s quilting format was at once a practical technique and a telling metaphor.

“With quilting, you have all of these pieces, and you never know how they’re going to appear, just a hunch that they’ll work well together,” says Lieberman.  “As we were getting everyone together from these different places, it seemed like a clear artistic reference to the Beloved Community.”

While the intent behind the project was to provide a space to explore the differences in the participants’ lives, she was surprised how their similarities quickly became the focus.

“It was especially a big deal when we brought in the international students. Most of them had just come to Savannah the week before for their first quarter at SCAD from China and Mexico and Bosnia. And our Savannah is not the Savannah that someone who moves here for SCAD sees right away,” confides Lieberman, referring to the housing projects surrounding the West Broad YMCA.

“Initially, their role was to just come document and take photos, but the kids were talking, the seniors were talking, and they wanted to tell how they related to this stuff, too.”

The result of many afternoons of drawing and cutting and storytelling are 11 dynamic, multi–hued quilts, as well as several framed drawings depicting the brainstorming sessions. The ESL students also kept a blog of photos and writings throughout the process, compiled into a book that will be available at the reception. The quilts will hang until Dec. 16.

For Lieberman, the showing of the quilts at the Jepson—a place where many of the project’s artists have never set foot—validates the uniting effect of programs like Loop It Up on Savannah’s cultural landscape. Back in 2008, as a fiber studies student at SCAD, she had no idea she’d become so invested in fostering change when she heard about what was then a volunteer opportunity to keep little hands busy after school at the West Broad YMCA.

“It sounded like something I wanted to do,” says the native Northeasterner.  “It turned out to be exactly what I wanted to do.”

After the 5 p.m. reception at the Jepson, authors Tom Kohler and Susan Earl will stage a reading of their paean to social change, Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community. The story of Waddie Welcome, an adored Savannah citizen who made grand strides as a disabled rights activist despite being confined to a wheelchair his entire life, exemplifies what a person can achieve when support, non–judgment and everyday love abound. Welcome’s legacy lives on in the pairs of people put together by Kohler through Citizens Advocacy as well as what Kohler calls “the continuing conversation about the art of social change.”

The celebration of Beloved Community continues the following evening, Friday, Sept. 28, at Indigo Sky Gallery on the east end of the city. Eye to Eye: The Making of We marshals the work of five heralded local artists, each who spent time observing a Citizen Advocacy relationship and interpreted their impressions through a variety of media.

“This is not your standard works on the wall–type of show,” says Indigo Sky director and collage artist Jerome Meadows, who has steadfastly advocated for the revitalization of Waters Avenue.

“This is an installation of a mixture of artistic methods—in some cases things will be suspended from the ceiling, some will be audio/visual, there’s a slideshow—it’s going to give a holistic sense of what the artists have discovered about the dynamics between these teams of advocates and proteges.”

Included in Eye to Eye are works by encaustic painter Christine Sajecki, photographer Jerry Harris, poet and painter Suzanne Jackson, sculptor Veronica Cabrera and Meadows’ own mixed media. While the nature of the artistic process is to create alone in a studio, Meadows admits that emotional attachments were formed as the artists spent time with their subjects.

“This was all very hands–on and intimate, we ate lunches together, putt–putt golf… it was in–depth, involved,” he says. “We as artists became so connected to a team, and in some cases the team so enthralled by the artist. It’s gotten personal as we’ve observed the connections within the beloved community that make it beloved.”

Meadows alludes a possible “separation anxiety” now that the project is almost over.

“We’re about to go through the eye of the needle. The teams for the most part have not seen what the artists have been creating. Once we’re in the gallery together, that’s a rite of passage. This is the culmination. We’ll be standing there wondering, how do we move forward?”

That’s the big question for these movers and shakers of community activism. Lieberman will continue her work with Loop It Up, allying with other community centers and inviting others to go through the collaborative art process, and Meadows and Kohler will keep on with their partnerships and projects.

All three agree that the advancement of a local and global Beloved Community must be “organic, spontaneous and natural,” a balm for the political divisiveness that’s raging in the atmosphere these days.

“Cultural change doesn’t happen at that level anyway,” declares Kohler. “Most of it happens inside people’s hearts. If you can get something happening inside people’s hearts, then you begin to see it in people’s minds and actions.”

As that happens, expect to see many more join the line–up of Savannah’s “usual suspects.”

“I Am The Beloved Community: Story Quilts of Our Savannah” and the reading of Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community by Tom Kohler and Susan Earl

When: Thursday, Sept. 27, 5 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. reading

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 York St.

Cost: Free

Eye–to–Eye: The Making of We artists’ reception

When: Friday, Sept. 28, 7 p.m.

Where: Indigo Sky Gallery, 915 Waters Ave.

Cost: Free 

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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Bio:
Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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