Exhibition aims to create awareness of issues facing refugees

Within a span of 24 hours, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and Laurie VanBalen's father died. The artist decided at that point that she could no longer keep her political views hidden, revealing them only to those closest to her.

“It was a milestone in my life,” VanBalen said. “I couldn't grasp what I was seeing. That morning, after the results of the election were known, my father died. I remember feeling overwhelmed with grief that was compounded [because] I felt like I lost my country at the same time as I lost my father. I've typically been one of those people who only talks about politics with close friends and family, but I felt there was a danger in the silence now.”

VanBalen's emotions coalesced around the refugee/immigration issue, because, she said, she saw it as “an issue of, ‘When did we stop caring about each other?'” She began with an idea to have an exhibition featuring her work, as well as contributions from a handful of her artist friends, which would then interact.

“As I was thinking of how to make the largest impact, I felt like I needed some diversity [among the artists], so I started reaching out, contacting some younger artists I was following,” VanBalen said. “As people would say yes, I guess it was sort of a high for me, and I just kept going. I ended up with 34 artists and a documentary.”

And thus did VanBalen create the Columbus Crossing Borders Project. Along the way, VanBalen also partnered with Community Refugee and Immigration Services. A local nonprofit organization working on behalf of refugees, CRIS proved an ideal partner in many respects.

“I have been working to get stories out there of people in our community who are dealing with immigration issues and who may be separated from family,” said CRIS Executive Director Angie Plummer. “Artists have the ability to reach people, to encourage empathy [and] to create a much broader understanding.”

Douglas Swift directs the documentary, a piece that both informs and is informed by the art in the exhibition. Working with CRIS, Swift began assembling stories that could be used as inspiration for the artists. Swift then filmed the artists creating the work.

“We hope it invites critical thinking, compassion and interaction with what's going on and instigates support for refugees and finds those people who are on the fence or don't understand the situation these people are in,” VanBalen said.

The collected artwork, which will be unveiled at the Cultural Arts Center on Sunday, May 21, and will subsequently travel to other places around Central Ohio, hews closely to VanBalen's original concept, the pieces “crossing borders” into each other. The artists collaborated across mediums and styles to make connections of theme, construct and, in some cases, representation — a hand reaching from one painting into another, for example.

“I've always understood what art can do, how one song or one painting can stir sentiment,” VanBalen said. “So here we can create an emotional connection, inviting people in to see some really good art and really make a difference.”