In my hands I held a small blue school copybook, a gift I felt was too extraordinary to own. The pages revealed a remarkable glimpse into the horrors of war from the memory, words and drawings of a child. While the images are dark and tragic, the mysterious beauty they hold comes from a transparent, honest voice and the inherent need to express life’s journey through mark making. I felt unworthy of this gift when I received it many years ago. I did not know what to do with it, but I knew someday it needed a place in the world.
As a young college graduate, I traveled to Liberia, West Africa for a two-year assignment working as an artist for a publishing house in the capital city, Monrovia. The rhythms, flavors, colors and community instantly hypnotized me. Nine-year-old Faith Lackay and her playmates danced for me. The children wrapped themselves around my heart with their spirited flailing arms and wiggling hips. Those two years changed me forever. One week before leaving, a small rebel invasion occurred in the northern part of Liberia. No one thought anything would come of it. I returned to the states and within six months Faith, her family, my friends and thousands of other Liberians faced a brutal civil war that lasted fourteen years. The fortunate found ways to escape to Europe or the United States. Many fled to refugee camps in surrounding African countries. Others could only relocate to internal displacement camps where misery was unending. Faith created this book two years into the war after her family fled to safety, but long before her memories and nightmares were over.
I battled my own nightmares. News footage depicted rebel soldiers with evil in their eyes and reports of atrocities such as throwing babies in the air while shooting them, and cutting the fetuses out of pregnant women. Bombs destroyed the airfields and power structures, cutting all means of communication. Faith’s story was manifested in my nightmares. Night after night, I restlessly dreamed that I was with my friends, running, ducking and covering from the dropping shells and changing lines. News of anyone reaching neighboring Sierra Leone or Côte d'Ivoire brought much rejoicing, but all too often, tragically painful news filled the headlines.
No child should ever experience hunger, cruelty, mutilated bodies, ethnic hatred, paralyzing fear or other consequences of war. I wrestled with the idea of a conversation between Faith’s drawings and my own experiences. With Faith’s willingness to collaborate, months of troublesome struggles ensued. Digging up buried emotions and memories, reliving them and seeing war through the eyes of a child required me remember healing can come from giving pain a visual voice.
I returned in 2001 with a Liberian led team beginning efforts to rebuild schools. The landscape, wounded by bullets and bombs, still reflected a country’s struggles with corruption and political upheaval, however many Liberian friends demonstrated unbroken spirits and unwavering hope. Their resilience fuels my pledge to stand for peace, fight against injustice and reclaim hope that even one child; one voice can make a difference.
Reclaiming Hope is a collaboration inspired by and including the drawings of Faith Lackay, an 11-year-old survivor of the Liberia Civil War, and the my paintings. My work about the war includes conceptually layered paintings informed by issues relating to memory, loss, reclamation and hope. The book of drawings is a visual diary or Lackay’s experiences during the first two years of the war, which she later presented to me as a gift. Giving a visual voice to pain created a process of healing as well as a path to hope.
Currently, I serve as a clinical professor of Art Education at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX.