Echoes of the Heart

Title:  Echoes of the Heart

Site:  Traveling exhibition displayed in Chicago area churches and community centers

Artists:  Olivia Gude

Community Participants:  Community residents of Chicago’s Southwest side

Sponsors:  Chicago Public Art Group and Southwest Catholic Cluster Project

Year:  1993

Scale:  10 banners, each 72 x 42 inches

Materials:  Acrylic paint on canvas

Information:  In the fall and summer of 1992, a group of black, white, and Hispanic Southwest-side residents devoted several evenings to discussions of race, culture, and the prospects for diverse neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southwest side. Selections from the recorded and transcribed conversations became the text for the series of banners entitled Echoes of the Heart. The banners are, in a sense, portraits of a community in flux and in conversation.

Keenly aware that this area surrounding Marquette Park is nationally infamous as the neighborhood where rocks were thrown at Martin Luther King during an open housing march, the multi-racial discussion group agreed to come together to try to speak frankly about their experiences of race and the neighborhood.

This unexpected use of a familiar form—the decorative church banner—made it possible to create a text piece on race that would be seen and read by many people who might otherwise not participate in such a conversation across racial lines. Participants in the ongoing discussion group shared stories of anger, grief, fear, and embarrassment. They also analyzed structures of language and politics that framed their personal experiences, even as they struggled to find a personal, practical basis for fulfilling spiritual commitments to reach out across the constructed barriers of racial difference.

The gender and race of those quoted in the banners are often quite apparent, despite lack of identifying information with each quote. Although collectively the banners are clearly an anti-racist project, the collection of quotations points, not to an overriding truth about race and racism, but to how subjectivity arises out of particular experience. The act of sharing and examining private thoughts with others creates the possibility of forging new collective experience.

Apparent within the dialogic structure of the text is the way in which subjectivity changes over time. People present themselves, not as standard historical types, but as individual human beings whose thoughts and reactions shift according to accumulated experience.

As part of the project, Southwest Catholic Cluster Project organizer Leesa Albert and Gude conducted discussion group/art workshops with elementary school and high school students. One banner incorporates the conversation of St. Rita Elementary School children talking about differences and race as they have experienced them in their young lives. Another banner incorporates comments by Maria High School and St. Rita High School students about things that they perceive to be true that they like about people of other races.

The final banner, whose design references a patchwork quilt and stained glass, was deliberately left almost empty of words and images providing a space for a continued conversation. At discussion groups, in workshops, and at unveiling events held for the banners, new participants are asked to contribute their thoughts and images about race.

It’s important that this piece was made in conjunction with the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project, an anti-racism group in the area. This meant that the project arose from the community and that there was a structure in place through which the work could be shown a various community sites and thus become a part of an ongoing dialogue.

Gude comments, “ If we believe that as creators of culture, we have the potential to be shapers of society, we must develop effective and respectful aesthetic practices in which communities are seen as multi-vocal communities of discourse, rooted in their histories, open in their possibilities, and rich in complexity and contradiction.”