History is the retelling of events that occurred in the past. When the world was young, history was shared as a tribal story or an epic song. The stories of a nation or people were handed down from generation to generation. As the world developed, people began recording history, writing it down on rock, parchment, and paper. Now we watch global history being made in real time. We capture it in photographs and documentaries as well as the written word. There is, however, one form of history telling that spans all of recorded time, and that great communicator is art. From rudimentary sketches on cave walls to fantastic and surreal paintings of bloody battle scenes, art has done its part to tell the story of our past. Sometimes, it seems, art is the most compelling speaker.
Charlotta Janssen is a Brooklyn based artist who has allowed history to speak to her. She has translated what she “heard” into striking portraits. I came across her moving collection at the main branch of the Nashville Public Library. From the first moment I saw her work, I was drawn into the story she was telling – the story of the Freedom Riders. Charlotta has managed to marry skillful portrait painting and creative collage to communicate a powerful story. By capturing the essence of the individual riders – their personal stories and physical image at the time of their arrests, she tells the tale of the Freedom Riders person by person.
In 1961, a young and courageous band of civil rights activists road interstate buses into the South to challenge segregation. They intended to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional. The first buses left Washington, D.C. on May 4th,
1961. Initially, they had very little trouble, but as they went deeper south,
hostility rose. During the second week, some of them were beaten and a bus was
burned in Anniston, Alabama. Because of the violence, more groups of riders
were required to keep the movement going. A second group left from Nashville,
Tennessee about ten days later. These riders were attacked in Montgomery,
Alabama and eventually sent to Parchman Prison, the Mississippi state penitentiary. There was public outcry after the attack in Montgomery, but it took numerous busloads of black and white civil rights activists being imprisoned to force the country to respond. In all, over 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned during the struggle. True to their code, there was not one violent or retaliatory act committed by the Freedom Riders.
This story so moved Charlotta that she went to work painting the Freedom Riders. When I contacted her, she had this to say, “I really wanted you to get totally soaked in the subject and have your very own experience and conversation with the pieces. I do. I also became less and less ignorant and more and more sensitized – this is a great time to learn to understand – we have distance enough to know what’s wrong and right, but it’s not too far away to be able to ask someone who was there: how did all this wrong feel? That is what I appreciate so much about the subject matter.”
The work that Charlotta has done is important on so many levels. First, it honors true American heroes who have changed the course of history and made a significant difference in the world we live in. Second, it keeps this history and the story of the Freedom Riders in front of us so that we do not forget its impact or importance. It also invites us to see and feel what these people experienced. It calls us to look them in the “face” and grapple with what this was all about; to consider the changes their actions brought about and how it has altered the way we live now. Most importantly, I think, this collection promotes understanding.
Goodness requires us to see people. We must see who they are beneath the skin. We must be able to look at people at a heart level. I deeply appreciate the Goodness of Charlotta’s work. It promotes Beauty, Trueness, Love, and Life-Giving Things which are the four things that the Society for the Preservation of Goodness encourages you to seek every day. Charlotta closed her correspondence with me this way, “It is with understanding that we can heal and this is a perfect time for looking back and understanding, all the while realizing this is a timeless lesson.” I couldn’t agree more. Her art has been a history lesson AND a heart lesson for me.
I encourage you to watch the following video of Charlotta as she works. It is inspirational.
A “Good” Idea:
Take a few moments to study a little about the Freedom Riders for yourself. At the time
they participated in the rides, many people in the South called them agitators
and trouble makers though they did not break the law or use any kind of force.
Think about the role of Goodness. Goodness has a backbone doesn’t it? It must be brave and strong in the face of wrong. Niceness does not equal Goodness.