About two months after the 2016 election, artist Ellyn Weiss saw a meme on Facebook of an elderly woman holding up a sign that said, “I can’t believe we have to protest this (stuff) again.”
Weiss forwarded the meme to her friends, and artist Jackie Hoysted wrote back asking, “Should we do something about it?” Shortly thereafter, the two held a meeting of area artists interested in using their visual arts skills to “resist all these efforts to create ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Weiss said.
Hoysted came to the United States from Ireland in 1996; her husband is from Guyana in South America. She started the group because she was concerned about the growing rhetoric in the country. “We came here because America would be the most fair place to come in terms of equality and fairness for people, and that is what we want to work toward and ensure we guarantee a future for everybody for the same reasons,” she said.
With some 80 to 100 active members, the group they created, called the ArtWatch Collective, focuses on democratic values including inclusion, tolerance, equality under the law and environmental stewardship. Since its January 2017 launch, members have organized and curated a Nasty Women exhibition and auction to benefit Planned Parenthood and supported the gun control March for Our Lives protest.
One of their largest collaborations is on display through Dec. 15 at BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown. Known as the “One House Project,” nearly 300 artists were given a wood panel measuring 12-inches square and told to tell the story of how they came to live in the United States. Some are descended from Native Americans or those who sailed on the Mayflower. Others told stories of ancestors fleeing persecution and poverty. Some had ancestors who were brought here involuntarily in chains or as indentured servants. Each panel, featuring a variety of different mediums such as photography and painting, is attached to the outside walls of a large house constructed inside the gallery.
“The house is a powerful visual representation of the strength that this country has from its people who come from everywhere,” Weiss said. “We hold each other up. That’s what it is all about. It is a reminder of where we all come from — from the beginning to yesterday. It is a very moving experience. …It puts where we are today (as a country) into historical perspective.”
According to a study by WalletHub released in February, Montgomery County is home to four of the top 10 most diverse cities in the country. Citing the study, gallery director Anne Burton noted “as an arts center, we are a gathering place. We want people to come together and share ideas.
This (project) seemed like a great combination of having artists telling stories about their own personal immigration to this country or telling the stories of their ancestors and how they came to be here. I think it is a great way to bring people together. …It is a nice reflection of what our country is.”
Some of the artists in the exhibit have displayed at BlackRock before, while others have not. This is one of the largest number of artists the gallery has showcased in one exhibit. “We rarely have anywhere near 300 artists, so that has been really exciting for us to welcome that many artists and have the opportunity for the community to connect with that many people in our space is a big deal for us,” Burton said.
The exhibit, which was first shown at the Touchstone Gallery in Washington, D.C. in November 2017, then featuring 220 panels, is “needed more than ever now,” Weiss said. “Has there been a time that we lived through where things were so fraught where people were creating divisions internationally, where we have political leaders who chose to create hate and fear among groups as a way of elevating themselves in power? It just keeps getting worse and worse.”
Weiss came up with the idea for the project while thinking about resistance projects that utilized the visual arts particularly well. She thought of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that celebrated the lives of those who passed away from the disease and Faces of the Fallen honoring the lives of military men and women who died during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I think (the ‘One House Project’) represents what is great about America,” Hoysted said. “We are a country of diversity. We have all different types of race and religion and that is what makes it so fantastic.” Getting artists to participate was easy, according to Weiss. “That was one of the amazing parts about the project — everybody that we told about it said they wanted to be part of it.”
Independent curator Laura Roulet spent eight hours meticulously placing each panel in roughly chronological order and writing a catalog essay for the exhibit’s online presence. Weiss noted that the essay was important because while the house structure is beautiful, the project is about the stories. “It’s about the community that was created in making this house,” she said. “It has a meaning beyond what it looks like. It was important to put it all into perspective. We knew we wanted to do that from the beginning.”
Hoysted’s panel features a digital image outline of Ireland and Guyana along with a silhouette of a couple with the American flag.
Weiss created a panel on her grandfather, Abraham Miller, who immigrated from Romania around 1900. Since he owned a wholesale china business in Philadelphia, Weiss incorporated abstract tea cups into her design, which also featured text and a photograph. “He represents the American dream,” she said. “He made it and his children all went to college. …My family is just one part of this huge river of immigrants.”
Hoysted notes the group’s goal would be for other communities to replicate the project. “It’s a wonderful way of people sharing their stories and coming together as one,” she said. “If we can have people do that in their communities, that would be helping us reach our goal.”
The ArtWatch Collective’s “One House Project” is on view through Dec. 15 in the Kay Gallery at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 301-528-2260 or visit www.blackrockcenter.org.