In my Hancock, Michigan home, I have a unicorn and rodeo room. Both testify to living an artist’s life. I’m a literary artist, catching stories, mastering craft, and playing with words. To me, it’s the serious business of imagination, the pursuit of unicorns across the wild West.
I painted the unicorn room shell pink, and encircled the walls with purple vinyl script—Read, Write, Dream, Breathe, Play. On the wall facing my meditation pillow, I hung a giant story board for structuring novels, and a massive collage I created to tell the visual story of my work in progress. Watercolor unicorns, a unicorn quilt a friend made, a blackboard with cut-out unicorn poetry, and a German masterpiece of a rainbow unicorn-horned tyrannosaurus rex chasing Jersey cows in a pastoral scene fill the walls.
Art is my expression. It’s part of my being, my chosen profession. Art gives me purpose.
While the unicorn room feeds my inner life, the rodeo room represents its outward illustration. Not only is it space to reclaim my cultural heritage in healthy ways, but it’s also a place to honor the lost voices of women from the frontiers and fringes of life. My professional genre is women’s fiction, and I breathe new life into women who were overlooked, forgotten, or remain invisible. The art I selected for this room can best be described as feminist cowgirls. No cowboys allowed. Except for my husband, who has his desk in this room. (It’s all about balance.)
So, what does art have to do with anti-racism?
Everything! Art manifests on the outside all that we feed on the inside. Sometimes artistic expression draws out the dark to let in the light, and other times it pulls in the light to chase out the dark. It’s a dance with shadows that can exhilarate the artist. No matter what it compels, the point is, art speaks to us and moves us. One piece of art can give voice to millions. Art is powerful.
When we suppress or segregate art in our homes, we mimic the paths of systemic racism. For generations, the women in my family decorated their homes with the art of the West – men on horseback, men in the mountains, men with guns on the frontier. Have you ever thought about why you choose the art you do? If it moves you, good. But ask why, and be willing to feel vulnerable in exploring your answer. Discomfort signals that we’re holding unseen bias that can be systemic and generational. When I declared my writing genre, it floored me that I had surrounded myself with masculine art. Discrimination can feel familiar and iconic.
We can take a step further in the visual clues we choose to decorate our walls, journals, and desks. In my ongoing journey as an anti-racist, I took a Seven Day Bias Cleanse developed for young people through MTV and research partners. While the event is no longer active, MTV has evolved it into a more in-depth discussion called Look Different. During the cleanse, one activity asked participants to print and display a photograph of a Black woman working in a science lab. The lesson explained how we believe unstated biases (such as, there are no Black female scientists) because we can’t imagine the opposite reality. Art can transform what we believe through what we see.
That’s when I realized how fun it could be to use art to visualize anti-racism. It put me on a mission to find a unique piece for my rodeo room – a Black cowgirl. I found one on Etsy. I saved up money over several months to afford the largest print from the artist. She’ll join a diverse group of women, including a brown-skinned cowgirl tattooed with words such as “I’m enough” and an older cowgirl declaring, “Don’t call me ma’am.” The art in the rodeo room becomes an artist’s statement for what I write. These visual pieces bridge my artistic expression and the affirmations I choose to activate as I work and create. The simple act of art can amplify both artists and the reality of anti-racism.
When the 2021 inauguration team announced twenty-two-year-old Black poet Amanda Gorman as inauguration poet, I felt in my bones that the desire for unity could become a reality in America. An artist was asked to empower the message of coming together across vitriolic divides. A nation asked art to initiate healing. The artist used words to move hearts. What we hear, what we see, we can achieve.
Consider the spaces around you.
Art does not need to be big, but you want to have visual cues to influence your work as an anti-racist. Ask local art galleries to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists, and buy their work even if all you can afford are note cards or bookmarks. Give art as gifts. Cut out images from magazines or digital printouts to decorate your daily journal, a vision board, or altar space.
As an anti-racist, unleash your creativity. Let art show you the way.
Charli Mills grew up out west where she once won a rodeo trophy for goat-tying. Now she wrangles words from the Keweenaw as a literary artist, writing about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history. She makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com.
MTV. Look Different. 2021. https://www.mtvact.com/features/Look-Different
Armenti, Peter. “Amanda Gorman Selected as President-Elect Joe Biden’s Inaugural Poet.” Library of Congress. 14 January 2021. https://blogs.loc.gov/catbird/2021/01/amanda-gorman-selected-as-president-elect-joe-bidens-inaugural-poet/
Excerpted with permission from the Spring 2021 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2021, Empowering Lightworks, LLC. All rights reserved.