LYNN — The art display in the windowsill of Raw Art Works may look like just a wooden table and chairs, but it serves a bigger purpose.
A “Seat at the Table” is an idea that came from the mind of Jason Cruz, RAW’s clinical supervisor and master’s level expressive art therapist, but was visualized by the art center’s students. The traveling art display is a multi-faceted representation of women of color who have struggled to have their voice heard in American history, said Cruz.
“For me, it feels like it’s been a lifelong process of trying to get to the table,” he said. “If you’re made to sit in a corner behind people, then you’re not really at the table being heard.”
There were at least 40 students who worked on the display for four weeks last summer, led by student artists and RAW chiefs Michaiah Fernandes, a KIPP Academy freshman, Penelope Gravelle, a Lynn English junior, and Carlos Alas, a Lynn English freshman.
“I am so proud of us,” said Alas. “It was a lot of work and it took a lot of time.”
The idea comes from the Shirley Chisholm quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Cruz said he was inspired by the quote, Chisholm’s position as the country’s first African-American woman in Congress, and stories told by the women in his life, as well as the staff and faculty at RAW.
The project was displayed at the ninth annual Flying Horse Outdoor Sculpture Exhibit on the campus of Pingree School in South Hamilton last September. Cruz said they are looking for another school or organization that is interested in displaying the conversation-starting art piece.
“I really enjoy being able to educate people while talking about this project because not everyone is well informed about the things that are going on in our society,” said Gravelle. “There are also a lot of social issues that people shy away from talking about.”
The art piece had minor details with deeper meanings. There were mirrors with questions on them that forced spectators to look at themselves and think about how they can contribute to a better world, said Fernandes.
The patterns on the table itself, according to Alas, were smooth on one side and had holes on the other. He said the purposeful details represented America’s history and how people look at it, either starting from the smooth and organized side and ending with the rough edges, or vice versa.
No matter how one looked at the table’s details, it held a different perspective for each person, said Alas.
Each of the chairs represents a person, selected by Cruz and the three leading artists, whom they felt helped them “get to the table,” said Cruz. The designs on the chairs showed the positions of each of these women, with clenched fists that illustrated the feeling of being uncomfortable.
“I chose Harriet Tubman because I consider her a superhero,” said Cruz. “She was a five foot woman who was hit with a brick and physically beaten. For her to come back from everything she went through and do what she did, it’s inspiring.”
Tubman’s chair had a broken leg, which represented how she was broken down and dismissed before her voice was even heard, said Cruz. That is the kind of effort it takes for some women to have a seat at the table, he said.
Also represented within the chairs was Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and leading figure of the suffragette (women’s voting) movement, and Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist who employed a style of art that explored questions of identity.
“As a dancer myself, I felt connected to Misty,” said Fernandes. “She was a prima ballerina who took a step towards more diversity and more representation of people of color.”
Gravelle said she was inspired by Stanton because she made a significant impact on American history and gave women a voice. Alas said he wanted to include Kahlo because, while she is most known for her art, most people don’t take the time to learn about her history and her struggles.
“RAW is a space where, if you have an idea that is inclusive, we do what we can to nurture it,” said Cruz. “It’s awesome to see young people who step up into leadership roles and to see older students help make space for that. This art piece is not only a teaching tool, it’s a representation of these students who have helped our kids think in a different way.”