NORTH ADAMS >> Though Black History Month is almost over, Frances Jones-Sneed is confident and determined that the conversation about people's lives, past and present, will and must continue.
This academic year, Jones-Sneed, a professor of history at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, partnered on a couple of eye-opening projects with Melanie Mowinski, founder of the PRESS gallery, which shares space with the college's Gallery 51 on Main Street. The two women have also collaborated on the summertime Lift Ev'ry Voice festival, which celebrates black heritage in the Berkshires.
First came the release of the 2016 Annual Monthly Mantra Calendar, created with the help of eight students in Jones-Sneed's class, "Women, Race and Society." The group included two African American men and six Caucasian women. Together with their teachers, they responded to a variety of readings and writings centered on the Black Lives Matter movement by creating their own calendars made up of quotes and images from notable figures from the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter movement, and other movements focused on equality and social justice.
Inspired by the outcomes from that project, Jones-Sneed and Mowinski put out a national call for artists to be a part of a juried mixed-media exhibition inspired by the same issues the class explored. The response was overwhelming.
"We had 300 something entries in response to that call," Jones-Sneed said.
The exhibit, "What Does #BlackLivesMatter Mean to You?" opened on Feb. 4 and closes on Sunday, Feb. 28. It features works curated from 33 artists representing 17 states, from Massachusetts to Georgia to California. The mission statement of the installation said it "strives to encourage and incite conversation about race relations, the importance of black lives, and proposals for what we each must do to make a difference in our society regardless of our gender, race or place in society."
The Black Lives movement first came to light, with social media as its vehicle, in 2012. That's when Trayvon Martin — characterized as young, unarmed, black male — was shot and killed. His accused killer has since been acquitted of murder. Similar cases have continued to sweep the nation, inciting both peaceful protests and vigils and violent clashes and riots.
"Our exhibit could have been controversial but more so we've found it's been very educational," Jones-Sneed said.
Indeed the art works depict violence, from shootings to hangings. But they also bring to light personal narratives. There's a striking series of photos of a black woman in a police uniform poised in yoga poses shot against a pink background by Kim Darling of Omaha, Neb. In the gallery the images hang above the work of local artist, Sally Sussman, of Williamstown.
Sussman last summer created a paper scroll about 20 feet long as a way to document her own life narrative. A portion of that scroll in the Black Lives exhibit details her relationship with her three adopted grandchildren, ages 18 months, 6 and 8 years. Sussman is white. Her grandchildren are black.
Sussman said she and her 8-year-old granddaughter often draw together. "We talk a lot about skin color," Sussman said.
The artist noted that she felt compelled to submit her work not only because it was a prestigious juried exhibit, but because "my grandkids are very important to me."
Jones-Sneed said the only contested issue with the exhibit was the fact that it was installed for Black History Month, and that MCLA students were concerned that the message of the exhibit would fade as the notable month waned. But she said she feels that this won't be the case.
"One student who came to the opening said he had never been to a place in the Berkshires where there was so many people of color in one place, and I think it made him feel kind of good to be a part of it," she said.
The professor said she hopes she and other campus colleagues can continue to collaborate together to create similar experiences and opportunities for dialogue and getting together. She said the MCLA Diversity Task Force, and ALANA and International Student coordinator Thomas Alexander are currently working to host a series called "Campus Conversation on Race," and other events through the colleges Multicultural Resource Center.
Said Jones-Sneed, "We need more of these collaborative kinds of things to get to know each other and share these kinds of things in classrooms instead of waiting for an exhibit of this type."