“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Martin Niemoller
These lines will be inscribed on a sign announcing a new art installation – Barrier Free – under production now in Memphis and slated to travel the country from the end of this month through July 2018. It’s a work that speaks to our collective human vulnerability, in a time of turmoil, and to our need to see past walls and reach to protect one another.
As the artist, Yancy Villa-Calvo, writes on her ioby campaign page (about a month left to help fundraise), the piece is about “the systematic attempts to divide individuals, families and communities.” Picture a long, winding wall covered in portraits of immigrants, refugees, Jews, LGBT individuals, Muslims, African Americans, Caucasians, Asians and all who represent Memphis’ diverse social tapestry. Then picture, nearby, life-size mirrored cutout silhouettes of various family units – a father playing with a child, or a parent pushing a child in a wheelchair, for example – each tableau with one critical person, usually the caregiver, dissolved to an outline. Gone missing. This, Villa-Calvo means to say, is what walls do to us.
An artist ready to speak out
Villa-Calvo hasn’t always been a full-time artist. Born in Mexico City and brought to the US for college, the mother of three for many years put her MBA to use in the business world, pushing herself to her limits, and pursuing her love of visual art on the side. Five years ago, though, she suffered two paralysis – a complication of a terrible head injury she’d had as a teen – and was brought face-to-face with life’s biggest questions. “My husband was very supportive,” Villa-Calvo remembers, “and he said hey, this is from stress – what is the next thing you’re going to do in your life? I’ll support you one hundred percent.”
She dove into a new career in painting, which led to deeper community engagement. “I was always a volunteer here and there,” she explains, “but as you grow older, you realize how much you have to give back. So I started engaging more and more and more. I just see that the more you are connected, and the more you try to give, then things work out. I believe that more young people should engage more, because the more you help, the more worth you feel.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, Villa-Calvo realized she was ready to speak out a little louder. She’d always volunteered with Latino Memphis, a wonderful local nonprofit, and approached them with her idea. “I decided to use my art to help somehow, and to use the power of art to get more communities to engage with what’s happening, come together, talk about this, have empathy, and then create an opportunity for people to help. A lot of people are coming together and they want to help, but they don’t know how.” Barrier Free was born.
A reflection of stories untold
“It’s very direct,” Villa-Calvo says of the installation’s message, which will include a fence where visitors may post messages, hopes, fears. “Whoever is standing in front of it is going to see themselves in the family silhouette, and then the caregiver is gone, so it definitely gets to you, as if ‘this can be me or my family, if I don’t do something’. I’m touching topics that are not comfortable to everybody.”
That potential for discomfort is something that her family has had to work through. “I’m a permanent resident,” Villa-Calvo explains. “I’m not a citizen yet. We’re still waiting for the interview. When I was becoming more active and vocal through my art and Latino Memphis, my daughter sat down with my husband and me, and she said ‘I’m afraid that something will happen to you, and we’ll be separated’.” Villa-Calvo’s voice breaks as she tells this part.
“We said that we have to do this,” she continues. “We have to do it because it’s our duty. We have been privileged to live this life, and we have so much responsibility to the ones who cannot speak out. She understands. As an artist, I’m exposing myself. There are so many stories that are not going to be shared, because these families are afraid of being targeted or exposed.”
Here’s to speaking up for one another. To courage, and to art. Here’s to a barrier-free world.
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