Vessels Carry Message


Painted Bride art exhibit examines the 331 killings of 2012

(Left): “One Year” is an exhibit consisting of wire vessels at the Painted Bride Art Center. It commemorates the victims of homicides in Philadelphia in 2012. Above, a January First Friday crowd looks at the exhibit. Sarah J. Glover/photographer

Each wire vessel installed on the wall of the Painted Bride Art Center represents a person murdered in Philadelphia in 2012. In patterns that twist, swirl or knot into a mass of chaos, they seek to say something about the 331 lives lost last year.

Too many, is what I take away from this exhibit—the many vessels cannot all fit in the gallery and instead spill out onto the lobby wall and stretch up toward the ceiling.

“It’s kind of a wakeup call,” says artist Brenda Howell, one of the five members of MamaCITA—also called Mother’s Cooperative in the Arts—which created the exhibit.

“I can’t picture what 331 looks like in my head,” says artist Kimberly Mehler. 

One person who attended the exhibit’s recent First Friday reception was well-known anti-violence advocate Dorothy Johnson-Speight, who helped found Mothers in Charge, a violence-prevention group, after her son Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson was murdered in 2001 in a dispute over a parking space, and whose work inspired the exhibit.

She was swamped by hugs and pleas like, “Dorothy, we have to do something about the gun problem.” Then she disappeared before I could reach her.

Ten minutes later, a re-emerged Johnson-Speight explained, “Coming in here and seeing this, and seeing the vessels representing each life lost, I had to walk away for a minute. I think of all the families [Mothers in Charge has] seen in the last 12 months. It’s very, very sad.”

Whether this sadness is something that we all feel is the point of the exhibit, titled “One Year.” It examines “the numbing of society toward what has become an epidemic,” a MamaCITA press statement explains.

I read an article online about a workshop the artists hosted last March to guide others through the making of some of the vessels. In the comments section following the article, a reader complained: “There is no good reason to validate the death of a drug dealer gunned down by another drug dealer. These women may have spent hours making their ‘art,’ but that doesn’t make it worthwhile.”

Another reader wrote, “Last year, a young woman who was so, so dear to my family was snatched off of her bicycle and raped and murdered in Philadelphia. She was 20 years old, full of the life and the love of her family and many friends, full of potential. She was a daughter, friend, cousin, a dancer and a beauty. She was a FULL VESSEL, overflowing with life. Now, she is gone and the emptiness that is left is profound—skeletal. . . . This project touches me deeply.”

Art heals. I asked Johnson-Speight if she found anything uplifting about the exhibit. She responded with talk of increased awareness on the issue, but with a lingering sense of anger, pain and frustration in her voice.

I asked her what advice she would give to Philadelphians working on this issue, and I was sobered by her response: “Work harder.”


Vessels Carry Message
Sheila Simmons - Contributor

Sheila Simmons brings many years of writing and communications experience to her work for Liberty City Press. She began her professional writing career at the Philadelphia Daily News, where she covered Business, City Hall and Education.


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