The A drift, a dream exhibition began with an intersection in a courtyard at my high school reunion with Stacy Zitek, who was a person I started talking with about my further interest in working and engaging International visiting artists with young people in Cleveland Public Schools. Stacy teaches at Thomas Jefferson Newcomers Academy  (TJNA) and continued to tell me about the wonderful, unique CMSD school and students that go there from all around the world.  

I reached out and visited almost three years ago when I was the director of  Zygote Press , a nonprofit printmaking studio that I co-founded. We were hooked.  We had a consistent roster of International visiting artists coming to work at Zygote and connecting them to the students,  particularly those students that didn’t have art in their schedules was paramount. We have had artists now who have worked in sustained ways at TJNA -from A-Z-   Albania to Zimbabwe. Artists have been role models and inspired and attracted other creative thinkers who work at TJNA in sustained ways. The success of the Zygote’s experience and its impact introduced other arts organizations to the school like the Apollo Outreach Initiative who teaches students stop motion animation and a sundry of different artistic expressions. Cleveland Public Art had already been working with students in the telling of their stories through performance, writing and spoken word.

My connection to this experience led me to a panel organized by the Refugee Service Collaborative where I was able to hear about the wonderful work that is happening to help and celebrate the newcomers to the Cleveland area. At this panel discussion, I expressed my many stories of students who saw other artists who looked like them telling their own stories mediated through art. This was powerful and I was humbly asked to put together an exhibition that would be the first of many. It was important to show the stages in creative development with students, emerging artists, professional artists who work with refugee communities and artists who were refugees and have been here in Cleveland for many years. The feelings of loss, chaos, transition, and belonging are all themes explored and lifted up in this exhibition.

The students of TJNA sparked this exhibition.  Their courage, grace and wisdom (beyond their years) are guided by the tireless and committed teachers Felicia Bode, Jamie Lindahl and Caleb Garcia. The entire TJNA staff has been heroic and been accepting for more creative resources and engagement from Cleveland’s collective spaces, non-profit arts and culture organizations and artists.  Creating a pipeline of growth, professional development, and modeling where the student’s ideas can be confidently built and developed through the skills and modes of communication by way of creative problem-solving and true grit is what my own vision is for this community.

Stories of challenge are displayed in their Struggle Stories where students wrote about the barriers they have with speaking English. These became accordion books where print-based media like relief, screenprinting and intaglio were used in the process of telling their own stories.    The stop-motion animations are brought to life through the student’s writings about their favorite places in the world. Oberlin students from Apollo’s Outreach program became mentors and also got first-hand experience teaching, facilitating and developing their skills as leaders in these creative programs.

Most importantly, the on-going support of these exhibitions, programs and projects needs to continue. It needs to build on these tenants and grow networks of newcomer artists to resources here in Cleveland starting at TJNA. We need to ensure that the support of these creative avenues for refugee creatives, (including The Community West Foundation who supported this exhibition) continue to support these efforts. Our aim is to introduce students to resources like artists,  studios, theaters, music halls, and workshops so they can be the cultural collect and community that reflects the open and welcoming city of Cleveland.

Finally, what was most humbling was the students coming to see their own work and celebrate it in their own reception at 78th Street Studios. They got to see their work in a professional space where thousands of people have seen it. They met artists like Halim Ina, a refugee from Lebanon,  who came here over 30 years ago and has continued to work with photographic portraiture of refugees from around the world. They visited Eric Rippert’s painting studio, Susie Frazier’s Showroom, OWOW radio station with Ravenna Miceli, Hedge Gallery with artist Hilary Gent and Matthew Gallagher’s work, and arts conservators Jamye Jamison and Heather Galloway

Thank you Refugee Services Collaborative for the once in a lifetime experience to put together this exhibition and work with the wonderful artists from everywhere in this exhibition. I am so grateful to you for your strength and resiliency and this is what motivates me and so many. My hopes for the future of this moment are:

  • An annual exhibition of multi-disciplinary arts reflecting the refugee experience
  • Creation of a Refugee artists registry and resources available locally to direct newcomer creatives to resources like the Cleveland artist registry and the Collective Arts Network
  •  A refugee artist curating the show in collaboration with a Cleveland-based curator      Continued field trips to artist studios and cultural venues embedded with the  exhibitions/presentation
  •  Refugee-friendly companies supporting and promoting the programs/projects/events to their    employees and staff
  •  Local refugee writers responding and writing about the exhibition