Art Speaks 

Giving artistic voice to the victims of injustice

Artist Tim Holmes’ bronze sculpture entitled I Shot an Angel by Mistake is no bigger than a shoebox. A soldier in a wide-brimmed hat and a shotgun in one hand leans over the body of an angel. One of its wings lies flat against its lifeless body, the other, vertical and slightly twisted with its feathers fanned out, points skyward. The man’s free hand gently strokes the angel’s head. Just the size of a shoebox, the sculpture speaks volumes about pain, hope and expectation extinguished by one momentary action, about things going from bad to worse. Like this small statue symbolizing the effect of the United States’ presence in Nicaragua, many of Holmes’ sculptures, as he explains, “provide no answers and remove no doubts. [His] interest, rather, is to ask tough questions—to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—to plunge the viewer into the wondrous process of dialogue…The value of any work of art is not its price or its history, but in its inherent energy, its ability to act as a catalyst of responses in the viewer.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu owns the original piece.

Holmes is one of four artists featured in the “Art Speaks” exhibition on view through July 19 at the UM University Center. Working in fiber, paint, photography, and sculpture, the four artists—Holmes, Teresa Cooper Jacobs, Katie Knight, and James Todd—speak to issues of justice, peace, sustainability, and the role of art in cultural change. Curated by Jacobs, the show was organized in conjunction with the recent Global Justice Action Summit. “The subject matter of the pieces in the show range from the large, global issue to the personal experience,” says Jacobs. “I felt strongly that art belonged as an integral part of GlobalJAS. Art, after all, allows us to use our right brain. It helps us to move away from the pitfalls of compartmentalization and to see solutions, the big picture, the synthesis, the whole. Without our often realizing it, art offers us the courage and vision to do something about the wrongs in the world.”

An artist, educator, and activist, Knight finds much of her inspiration from her children and grandchildren. Working primarily in prints and mixed media sculptures, she concentrates on “exploring cultural diversity, celebrating the wonder of life, and building solidarity in resistance to globalization.” In one silver gelatin print painted with inks entitled Plates of Sand, she gives us a window into the children of Landazuri, Colombia whose “tea party” consists of plates of hot sand instead of make-believe tea. On a more hopeful note, in Flight! she shows kindergartners in Katatura, Namibia. Soaring skyward on swings, the expressions on the children’s faces reveal a timeless, placeless mirth. To Tear and To Mend, a woodcut of a black man and a white woman embracing, fills us with both despair of what has been and hope for what might be.

Todd’s work ranges from an oil painting entitled Lithuanian Artist with False Hand—a Picasso-esque figure with unbalanced body proportions and small, hooded eyes that seem clouded, unseeing—to a pen-and-ink stacked triptych, The Doctor, The Patient, Parrot Torture, which shows a crazed-eyed patient, an indifferent, fleshy-faced doctor, and a patient who, like an animal, hangs naked and upside down, electrodes attached to its head, while a doctor watches from the shadows. The drawing about torture was part of a series done more than 20 years ago for Amnesty International. “A few years ago, questions were raised about the effectiveness of political and social art, which strikes me as a somewhat absurd question,” Todd says. “It’s like asking if voting or giving a political speech will change the world. Who knows? Isn’t that why we do these things? We do them because we believe they are right, and afterwards we can only hope for the best.”

For Jacobs, who works primarily in fabric, awareness is the richest fodder for art. “Art has been my greatest inspiration and teacher,” she says. “I really enjoy working with materials that have been discarded, and to witness their transformation. Art has taught me to hold onto a vision and to keep moving forward even when it appears all is chaos and futile…Art in all its forms helps humans to synthesize, to integrate, to function outside the box, to surprise ourselves.” Through the fabric, paper, acrylics, and threads that make up Scarcity, we see the open-mouthed face of a child as he leans into and away from many sets of hands and arms. The piece speaks about the fact that people feel that they don’t have enough or aren’t enough because of competition or war, situations that perpetuate the ongoing cycles of violence and scarcity. Like the many hues of light and dark, scarcity and abundance overlap and co-mingle so that sometimes all we can do is close our eyes and reopen them with the hope of new clarity.

Holmes’ Healing Hands, commissioned by the peace group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, an arm of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, is deceptively simple. The two bronze hands face each other, palms open, fingers pointing upward as if asking questions, as if offering an openness for new hope. Beautiful and majestic, the fingers of these hands also bespeak a certain sadness, a knowledge that once acquired cannot be forgotten. From the tip of each thumb emerges the delicate head of a dove. “The images that occur to me are imbued in mystery, a quality I seek to retain from preliminary sketches to sculptured form,” says Holmes. “My work revolves around the human condition, which is indeed mysterious. My intent is not to lead viewers through that labyrinth, but to engage them in it, to pitch them into the struggle with urgency. And wonder. And hope.”

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