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The art of hope: Exhibit brings artists together to examine past, future of Greenwood
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The art of hope: Exhibit brings artists together to examine past, future of Greenwood

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Tulsa artist Yusef Etudaiye was talking about working with clay, but it just as easily could have been applied to the situation Sunday afternoon at the Church of the Restoration.

“You can be working on a piece for a long time, and thinking that it looks all right,” he said. “But then it put it in the oven, and you really don’t know what you are going to end up with until it clears the fire.”

Etudaiye is one of several artists involved in “Lives on the Line,” a collaborative effort among local artists that was selected to be part of the Greenwood Art Project.

The group, organized by Yielbonzie Charles Johnson, is made of up six Tulsa artists of various ages and artistic disciplines who came together to create a collective show dealing with ideas of identity, history, legacy, resilience and hope.

Sunday was supposed to be a “soft opening” for a display of the group’s works at the Church of the Restoration, 1314 N. Greenwood Ave.

Unfortunately, whatever celebratory activities that had been planned had to be postponed.

“As they say,” said Marsha Francine Campbell, who signs her paintings “faida,” “we make plans and God laughs.”

A series of medical emergencies afflicting members of the group forced Sunday’s planned activity to be canceled, including a commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed on April 4, 1968. Instead, those who were able to come spent the afternoon hanging new works around the church’s interior.

The Greenwood Art Project is an initiative of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission, which seeks not only to raise awareness of the destruction and loss of life associated with the massacre, but also to celebrate the resilience, healing and recovery of the community, in ways that resonate in today’s world.

Led by nationally known artists Rick Lowe and William Cordova with local assistance from Jerica Wortham, Marlon Hall, Jeff Van Hanken and Kode Ransom, the Greenwood Art Program is funded in part by a $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Art Challenge and a $200,000 grant from the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Artists for the project were selected in 2020, and completed works — from installations of visual art to site-specific performances — will continue to open to the public in the coming weeks.

That includes “Lives on the Line,” which Campbell said should have its public opening May 21.

The first official Greenwood Art Project, Katherine Mitchell’s “Greenwood ... A Trilogy in Reflection,” when on display at the Vernon AME Church Wednesday. “Lives on the Line” is the second show in the project

The “Lives on the Line” title refers in part to the “section line,” the demarcation of the Greenwood neighborhood. But, as the artists said and portray in their work, it can refer to a sense of urgency, at both trying to understand the past, and facing the future with some sense of hope.

In addition to Etudaiye, Campbell and Johnson, the group includes Janell Hartwell, Joyce Smith-Williams and Awesome Jeremy Collier.

“And there is Brenda Terry Bridges, who is our genealogist,” Campbell said. “It’s important to know who you are as you walk through this life.”

Genealogy is especially important for Campbell, a self-described “folk artist” whose work in the show includes portraits of Black Tulsans from the early 20th century, whose histories and family connections are as much a part of the images she paints as the line of a face or the color of a dress.

“I want to know where these people came from, and what happened to them after the massacre,” she said. “It’s like this painting I did of the baobab tree. A tree can’t stand without its roots. And that’s what I think this exhibit is all about. It’s about strengthening our roots, in our community, in our history, so this community can continue to grow.”

For Etudaiye, whose works in the show include a series of masks of female faces, their hair rising up to a point that looks like the flame atop a candle, it was the resilience of Black people in the face of overwhelming hardships.

“I cannot begin to imagine what our forefathers went through when they were brought to this country,” he said. “What they had to survive, and yet they did survive. The struggles they faced, and the resilience they showed — it gives me hope. I know we have come a long way, and we still have a long, long way to go for unity, for equality. But I see hope.”

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The installations are the first in a series of public art works supported by the $1 million award from Bloomberg Philanthropies' Public Art Challenge.

Tulsa Race Massacre: This is what happened in Tulsa in 1921

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