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Through clay and conversation, artists reckon with race 

  • Kathleen Dustin in front of her piece for ‘Truth Be Told,’€™ an exhibit of seven black and seven white women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Contoocook starting this Saturday and running through November 13th. Dustin called her piece ‘€˜Repair.’ GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Artists Donna Greenberg (right) and Kathleen Dustin in front of the ‘€˜Truth Be Told,’€™ an exhibit of seven black and seven white women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Contoocook starting this Saturday and running through November 13th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Artists Donna Greenberg (left) and Kathleen Dustin in front of the “˜Truth Be Told,” ™ an exhibit of seven Black and seven White women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Hopkinton starting Saturday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Kathleen Dustin in front of the exhibits for the ‘€˜Truth Be Told,€™ an exhibit of seven black and seven white women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Contoocook starting this Saturday and running through November 13th. Dustin called her piece ‘Repair.’ GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the pieces for the ‘Truth Be Told,’€™ and exhibit of seven black and seven white women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Contoocook starting this Saturday and running through November 13th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the pieces shows all the artists for the ‘Truth Be Told,’€™ an exhibit of seven black and seven white women using artistic expression to confront the issue of race at the 2 Villages Art Society on Main Street in Contoocook starting this Saturday and running through November 13th. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Debbie Jackson, a polymer artist based in Ohio, participated in the show at Two Villages Art Society in Hopkinton, opening October 23, 2021. Cassidy Jensen—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2021 4:24:20 PM

On a wall at a Hopkinton art gallery, a dandelion bursts from cement, a grid of multicolored Zoom faces gaze out, and Band-Aids reach across deep wounds. 

Repair, despair, awaken, rise – these are some of the words a multiracial group of polymer artists have chosen to represent a year and a half of grappling with the thorny issues of racial justice in the United States. 

Fourteen women artists, seven Black and seven White, will present a new art show called Truth Be Told: An Artful Gathering of Women. Beginning on Saturday at Hopkinton’s Two Villages Art Society, the exhibit communicates some of the ideas and questions about race that have emerged in the group’s regular meetings beginning after George Floyd’s death last summer.  

All of the artists work primarily with a material called polymer, a man-made sculpting clay that hardens in an oven at 275 degrees. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a wall of 10x10 inch mixed media squares that each depict a word related to racial justice, chosen by each woman. Also arranged around the intimate gallery are pieces of oversized jewelry, installations that pop off the wall, and combinations of art and poetry. 

After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May 2020, a white Texas artist named Joey Barnes asked Debbie Jackson why polymer artists weren’t yet wading into the waters of racial discussion – like knitters already were. 

Jackson, who is Black, and White artist Cynthia Tinapple, began inviting Black and White polymer artists to participate in conversations about race, held over Zoom because of the pandemic and geographical distance. The women live all over the country, from the South to the Midwest. 

Jackson, an artist based in Columbus, Ohio, was attracted to polymer’s versatility as a material. It can imitate leather, wood or even stones like turquoise. 

Her style is heavily influenced by African aesthetics. A trip to Ghana in 2010, where Jackson can trace some of her heritage, tapped into a well of creativity and brought a sense of homecoming. 

Five years ago, she noticed that many retreats and groups of polymer artists were dominated by White people, and when she asked Black artists why, they told her they didn’t feel welcome or included. In response, she founded Sistahs of the Clay, which has since grown to a group of 35 Black women. “They say if you can’t be invited to the party, have one yourself!” she said. 

One of her pieces in the show is a huge necklace mounted on a wall, adorned with beads and shells, called “I Do See Color.”

“’I do see color,’ it’s really okay to say that, it doesn’t mean that you’re a racist,” Jackson said. “When I walk into these conferences, I look for people who look like me. I draw towards them – its like a kindred connection.” 

The period following Floyd’s murder last summer, which saw protests across the country, was a difficult one for Jackson.  

 “I was almost numb, by the time George Floyd got the knee in the neck, I was almost numb with all the police brutality,” she said. “There were so many feelings inside of me. I couldn't even explain all of them at the time.”

“The group was born out of trauma, at least on her part and the part of the other Black women,” said Kathleen Dustin, a White Hopkinton artist who sits on the board of Two Villages Art Society, which was founded in 2019 after a group of artists asked the select board not to sell the the Coontoocook building that had housed the city clerk’s office.

On the other hand, the White artists, including those who remembered the 1970s Black Power movement, were feeling guilt.

“I was gobsmacked when George Floyd died and we saw all of this happened, like where have I been?” said Donna Greenberg, a White New Jersey artist. “There was stuff happening but it just wasn’t registering.”

As protests and marches took place around the country, the group of artists sought to bring the national conversation into their art form and their lives. Since then, the women have met every other week on Zoom. 

The first few meetings were polite, surface-level conversations among strangers. The White women were scared to offend, while the Black women were waiting to see signs of real engagement. “We’ve come a long way since the walking on eggs days,” said Greenberg. 

Together, they read about racial issues, planned discussions on particular themes, and chatted about everything from their hair to the definition of Black art. 

“We would get together and discuss who we were and what race was like coming up in our areas when we were kids,” Jackson said. Black and White members interviewed each other one-on-one, telling each other’s stories to the group.

 As they tried to better understand each other’s experiences and their own, they have found tangible results. 

“I’m noticing that the White women, I’ve finding from this group, they’re really getting it,” Jackson said.

Tinapple has started featuring Black artists on her popular polymer blog. Other White women, including Dustin and Greenberg, plan to ask schools they visit how many teachers of color they hire. 

These conversations can be challenging and uncomfortable. During the year it took to put together the show, the members of the gathering have witnessed tears, swearing and even a meeting where multiple participants virtually stormed off in anger.  

Jackson was surprised to learn that one White woman had literally no Black friends. But she also learned how to use the term "systemic racism" to describe events in her own life.

She observed that the Black women in the group were not a monolith, and that they held different views on the role of white supremacy in everyday life. That idea stood out to Dustin too. “Not all Black people think alike,” she said. 

Choosing which word to highlight on the main wall of square pieces was hard, and many artists changed their minds and retooled their concept again and again. 

“It was a challenge for all of us, because we don’t generally do art with such a strong message,” said Dustin.

The artwork doesn’t shy away from the tangled history of American democracy and slavery. One of the squares, based on the word “awaken,” uses cotton imagery to show the enduring legacy of a White artist’s slave-owning ancestors. A piece shaped like a necklace features images of slave ship cabins, with an American flag resting over each “bead.” 

“We’re not proselytizing, we’re just trying to show that we’re trying,” Greenberg said. “We’re trying to take something we’ve learned from each other and put it into something more important, our art.”

The artists hope that the show, which opens Saturday at noon and runs through November 13, will spark questions about race and social justice for visitors, even prompting them to ask themselves what they can do about racial injustice.

Next year, the show may head to Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The artists hope it sparks conversations

“Last summer, it was marching everyday, all over the country,” Greenberg said. “Where do you go after marching? That’s where we’re all at right now.”


Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.



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