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Savannah's Beloved Community
Art, advocacy and activism merge at the Jepson

“This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

For all save the most hard–hearted among us, it’s an inarguable ideal:

An inclusive society where discriminations surrounding race, class, gender, ability and sexuality dissolve in the bright, clear light of common human decency. A global culture where poverty and hunger are unacceptable.

Not a utopia devoid of conflict or problems, but a reality in which all citizens care for each other and are in turn, cared for by each other.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often referred to this as The Beloved Community, a term first coined by theologian Josiah Royce to describe a Platonic abstraction of truth and justice. But for Dr. King, the Beloved Community remained an obtainable goal on earth, the end result of practicing nonviolence and reconciliation.

Almost 45 years after his assassination, some might argue that we aren’t any closer to achieving his quixotic vision, mired as we are in seemingly insurmountable economic woes and moral degradation.

Yet a tender goodwill—Dr. King called it “agape” love—continues to flow between fellow humans, proving we are still on the path. The proof is right there in Journey to the Beloved Community, a three–month long series of events that begins with an exhibit opening at the Jepson Center for the Arts Thursday, July 19.

Central to the Jepson show are the dynamic story quilts of Beth Mount, a pioneer in person–centered planning for those living with physical and mental disabilities. A colleague of Savannah–Chatham Citizens Advocacy director Tom Kohler and a speaker at Creative Coast’s TEDx event last spring, Mount bases her vibrant quilts on the lives of her clients, many of whom have made massive transitions from complete dependence to working and living on their own.

“I use the artistic process not just as a pragmatic tool but also as a metaphor for the design of a meaningful life,” writes Mount in her artist statement, but stresses that she does not want to “gloss over the difficulty that invisible and marginalized people and their families face.”

Though Mount’s quilts are significant in the way they have engaged vulnerable people in a creative process, exhibit curator Tania Sammons validates their aesthetic value.

“One of the most interesting things about Beth’s work is that it was presented as a vehicle for social change,” marvels Sammons. “But her quilts stand on their own as art.”

Mount’s premier piece is a jewel–toned representation of Waddie Welcome and the Beloved Community, the award–winning book written by Kohler and Susan Earl about adored Savannah citizen and disabled rights activist Waddie Welcome. (Kohler and Earl will host a reading of their book as part of Journey at the Jepson on Sept. 27.)

In the quilt, Welcome and his dear friend Addie Reeves are raised to angelic status for their examples of faith, good humor and compassion. They are surrounded by Welcome’s other advocates, including civic leaders W.W. Law and Regina Thomas, as well as Savannah’s garden squares.

“There are so many layers to it,” muses Sammons. “There is the whole story of Waddie Welcome, but by including the squares and so many Savannah people, she’s telling the community’s story.”

Since it requires many hands to complete one piece of work, quilting itself represents community, affirms Sammons. With the help of Owens–Thomas house administrative assistance Cyndi Sommers, she has chosen several quilts from the Telfair’s permanent collection, from 1800 to 1980, to display in the preceding gallery.

Addie Reeves’ cutout phone book also rounds out the exhibit, next to a similarly executed multimedia piece by Savannah artist Marcus Kenney titled “Letter to Addie Reeves.”

A curator with the Telfair Academy for almost 18 years, Sammons says she approached this exhibit with extra sensitivity since she has been a Citizens Advocate for almost as long. Her friendship with Heather Mullis began in 1999 and is chronicled in another part of the Journey exhibit, a series of photographs taken by Lyn Bonham.

First introduced to Kohler by Savannah icon Jack Leigh, fine art photographer Bonham has been capturing Citizen Advocacy relationships for over a decade. In the stark beauty of her black–and–white portraits, the intimacy between people is revealed, as in the scene of Sammons and Mullis holding their babies.

“This project first spoke to me because of the partnerships. I want to capture the essence of a person, especially the essence of a relationship,” says Bonham.

In order to evoke such candidness, she usually spends at least an hour with her subjects.

“It takes a little while, but then everyone has dropped their guard and the love or the commitment between these people appears. That’s the connection I’m interested in capturing.”

Says Kohler: “Lyn’s work has traveled with me around the world to conferences and workshops, and it always surprises the crowd. Here are people who have known each other for 20, 25 years and you can see that it one single image,.”

In addition to Bonham’s portraits and Mount’s quilts, Journey to the Beloved Community extends its arch to include the children of the West Broad YMCA and Boys and Girls Club and the senior citizens of the Hudson Hill Golden Age Center. The two groups, on opposite ends of the age spectrum, collaborated on a series of their own story quilts, which will hang in the Jepson’s second floor gallery beginning Aug. 10.

“We broke everyone up into groups and they came up with themes: Food and where it comes from, hard times, good times, toys, things that are important,” recounts Molly Lieberman, the director of Loop It Up Savannah, a youth project of the West Broad YMCA. “Each quilt became a collage of each group’s experiences.”

Towards the tail end of September, Journey to the Beloved Community moves east to Indigo Sky Gallery, where sculptor and activist Jerome Meadows has invited five other local artists to create works based on citizen advocacy relationships.

These works of art serve as examples of how we’re moving towards cultural change, “which is different than political change,” reminds Kohler.

“If you think about where we are in the world, faith in our institutions, in our traditional venues, is at an all–time low,” he says.

“The more we can connect, cooperate and create at the grassroots level, that’s what’s going to lead us forward.”

‘Journey to the Beloved Community’ Reception

When: July 19, 6 pm

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Reception free and open to the public