Can public art make a difference in a town’s identity? I think I now believe it can play a part.
I certainly don’t think that painting a huge mural on an old building is going to solve anyone’s problems. However, perhaps living alongside inspiring words and images can help to create a climate favorable to positive change. Perhaps it can announce that there are those present who are willing to see change come, and even willing to do something to make it happen. Perhaps seeing a life-enhancing message every day may work on a person’s spirit, at least raising the possibility of new possibilities.
If there were ever a town that could use an identity change, Lake Providence, Louisiana, would be a good candidate. This town has gotten more than its share of bad press. Here is just a sampling of national and regional news stories singling out Lake Providence and the county where it is situated:
– In 1994, Time magazine designated Lake Providence the poorest place in America.
– In 1996, the Shreveport Times reported that East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, had the highest rate of child poverty in America.
– In 1998 George Magazine named LP as one of the most corrupt cities in America.
– In 2013 CNN called East Carroll Parish “the most unequal county in America.”
This northern Louisiana town of under 4000 people is a Mississippi River town, situated around a lake. 80% of the population is black. Traditionally there has been a white side, and a black side of the Lake, (although this is beginning to change.) There is a public school with no white students, and a private school with no, or few, black students. Though the town is filled with churches, they tend to be either black or white.
When I say these things to non-Southerners, they tend to be appalled, incredulous that such a situation would still exist in 21st century America. I admit that it’s taken me some time to wrap my head around the situation. I was born in 1960 in St. Louis, Missouri, and my siblings and I grew up assuming that racism was stupid and backward, despite having close relatives who sometimes made racial slurs. As a young parent, when my family lived in the inner city of Kansas City, my wife and I sent two of our boys to an all black charter school, partly because we thought it might be good for them to experience how it feels to be a minority. Especially before moving to Loveland, Colorado.
But despite the demographics in Lake Providence, it would be wrong to assume that LP and other towns like it are brimming over with racial hatred today. At this point it seems to be more a matter of ingrained patterns and inertia, especially with younger generations, who haven’t lived with the actual acts of hatred that the older generations have seen. Political power is no longer held by whites. For the past 20 years, LP has made great strides in pulling itself out of the ashes of a nasty history. There are concerned citizens working to turn the town around, and making improvements. I spoke at length with an older gentleman, who grew up in Lake Providence, and who is an agent of change. It’s interesting to hear him describe his upbringing:
“By way of background, segregation in the South meant there were two of everything. Two entrances to the only movie theater in town, for example, & two seating sections…Blacks sat upstairs in the balcony; whites sat downstairs. That’s the world I grew up in & I didn’t think much about it at the time. That’s just the way it was…In a small town like Lake Providence, we associated with blacks. Our family had a black maid and I grew up around black folks, played with blacks as a child. In the army I roomed with a black man. Once in TX, we were denied service at a diner because he was black. Though he “took” it, it was my first experience with bigotry and it made me angry on his behalf and helped me to understand a little of what he went through.
In the courthouse here, there were two drinking fountains – one for whites & one for coloreds. I drank out of the one labeled “white” and didn’t think anything about it. Three restrooms – one for white men, one for white women, one for coloreds (men & women). I went to the one labeled “whites”. That’s just what I did. No one made a “to-do” about the separateness of it…Of course, that’s all changed and you’d never know it even existed now. Everybody shops together at Walmart now.”
Today, I think people still tend to assume racism and hatred where it may not exist. One of my white Lake Providence friends told a story of going to the black section of the mall to have her hair done. She was totally well intentioned, trying to build bridges, and wanting to support a black business. She was met with cold stares, and was refused service. She insisted, saying, “but I want you to do my hair.” The hairdresser refused, saying she had never done a white person’s hair before. My friend insisted again, but the hairdresser said she didn’t have the right supplies, and told her to go the white salon. Is this racial hatred?
Not necessarily, though it probably felt like it to my friend. I don’t know the hairdresser, but I do know that black people hair is really different from white people hair. My wife had dreadlocks for ten years, and she definitely had to go to way more effort to make that happen than black do people. I once had a friend in Kansas City tell me that it was kind of a hassle for her to come to Colorado because the stores didn’t carry the right products for her hair and skin. These is not an insurmountable problem, but it illustrates the point that it’s just more work to accommodate differences. That is not to say it’s not worth the effort.
I can tell you from experience that it is way more work to racially integrate a church congregation than to remain separate. This is partly because integrating involves figuring out how to bring together different, sometimes very personal, cultural aspects such as dress, speech, music, and worship styles. Again, it’s just more work. It requires humility, forbearance, and cooperation from all sides. The multi-racial churches I’m familiar with specifically have a vision to be multi-racial, and are committed to making it work. Yet this is only fitting for any New Testament church that claims to believe the biblical call to love and unity under a universal Savior.
A Brief Word About Hate
Leaving the specific topic of racism for a moment, let’s consider the topic of hate-blaming-and-shaming in general.
I assume everyone has noticed by now the political left’s current tactic of assigning hateful motives to those who hold views it doesn’t like. This is not helpful. Assuming hatred where it doesn’t exist has a polarizing effect on the culture – it promotes a false picture of a society consisting of people who are politically liberal versus people who are motivated by hate. As if the picture is that simple. It’s a lame political tool used to manipulate and shame those with “incorrect” opinions into getting in line. This tactic is being used to shut down honest dialogue, so desperately needed between those whose opinions differ. But accusation is much easier than dialogue. It promotes sucking up to popular opinion over actually thinking about the issues. It’s also blindly arrogant: “If you disagree with my viewpoint, it is because you hate.” End of discussion.
And, by the way, if you’re a liberal hate-shamer, this business of broad-brushing people’s motives isn’t ultimately going to work. Those relative few who actually are haters don’t care what you think (because they hate you,) while the majority of us whose views differ from yours resent having our motives maligned by you. We know we’re not motivated by hatred, we’re not ashamed of our beliefs, and we’re not going to be manipulated or forced into silence.
Racial hatred, homophobia, misogyny and other types of irrational prejudice exist, but probably not to the extent that the ankle-deep news media would have us believe. For example, if you think the millions of people who oppose gay marriage are necessarily motivated by hate, I am thrilled to inform you that you are simply wrong. We’re actually motivated by truth, love, and tolerance. If you think opposition to abortion-on-demand and to Planned Parenthood constitutes a “war on women,” you should be relieved to know that we’re actually motivated by a desire to create a culture that upholds the innate value of all human life; in other words, truth, love, and tolerance. Disagreement does not equal hate.
Attempting to shame people into conformity ultimately won’t work because it doesn’t change people’s hearts. Government force does not change people’s hearts. There is simply no easy substitute for the hard work of building relationships.
The Humongous Lake Providence Mural
Resurrection Fellowship, whose pastor was once a worship leader at a church in Lake Providence years ago, has committed to building a long-term relationship with the town of Lake Providence. This Loveland church sponsored the LP mural project. A local black business owner in LP agreed to let a bunch of (mostly) white people from Colorado paint on his building. The team consisted of 9 adult artists and their families. Most considered themselves to be amateurs or non-artists. As the only full-time professional artist, I headed the project along with my wife and our leader, Eric Holmlund. Our team had one week to paint a very complex design on a huge, already primed, old building. I had my doubts that it could be done in a week.
The design, which Eric had named “Destiny Words,” consisted of a crossword puzzle-like grid with interlocking words. In the spaces between we were to paint images reflective of the town and region, based on input from local citizens. Eric created the basic design for this using photos .
I felt that giving inexperienced artists photographs to paint from on such an ambitious project would probably not have ended well. So Mollie and I translated the photos into basic flat shapes, with gradated color, and incorporated heavy line work. We used the design approach of poster artists David Lance Goines, and Michael Schwab as inspiration. We felt that this would unify the overall look of the mural despite the large number of people involved, (some of whom were children.) I also felt that the simplicity of the shapes and flat color would give us a chance of actually finishing in one week.
This was uncomfortable, but good for me. When it comes to art, I don’t see myself as a person who is naturally great at collaborating with other people, but for this project I determined to do the upfront design work and then “let it go.”
We arrived in Lake Providence at night in a freaking downpour, but for the rest of the week we had great weather. Our first morning there, Mr. Brock, an LP local took us on a bus tour of the town and impressed on us how different Lake Providence, LA was from Loveland, CO:
Population: LP – 3,991, Loveland – 66,859
Median hh income: LP – $16,900, Loveland – $47,119
Poverty rate: LP – 55%, Loveland – 4%
Race demographics: LP – 16% white, 80% black; Loveland – 91% white (2010)
Then, we were off and running, working hard from morning ‘til night. The LP locals were very generous hosts and fed us extremely well all week. Even strangers fed us: one night, a black lady, dressed all in white and wearing a big white hat, was on her way home from a revival meeting. After stopping to talk with us, she went home and brought back the remains of a cheesecake for me! Really?!
The whole week was a big, crazy, colorful party with people stopping by throughout each day, many of whom joined in to paint. We were on the corner of a very busy, very close intersection, so we painted to a serenade of honking horns and encouraging shouts.
In the end, we went right down to the wire and got the mural done with the help of many hands and much support. (Well, there is this one little area that didn’t get painted, but I’m not going to point it out.) On the very last night Eric and I went up and painted the url to a website that Eric had set up that day, so that passers by can look up the meaning and inspiration behind Lake Providence’s newest downtown public art addition. You can read about it here: www.LPmural.com.
Title: “Destiny Words”
Artists: Sandy Beegle, Mollie Walker Freeman, Scott Freeman, Aubrey Grieser, Margie Gray, Eric Holmlund, Sabrina Peterson, Rene Prinsloo, Marcus Robinson
Opinions expressed here are not necessarily the views of the other artists or Resurrection Fellowship.