Arts & Culture

Protest as an art form. Cortez woman is teaming up with others ‘against children in cages’

It’s a democracy that prides itself on “justice for all.”

But injustice is what Cortez resident Susan Curry encounters so often when she tunes in to the news and hears about what is happening in her town, her state, her U.S. of A.

While political injustice might inspire some to make an angry comment or two on Facebook and call it a day, Curry, a self-taught artist, deals with her frustrations differently.

Emotions are poured into paints, inks, malleable metal, flexible plant fibers — any medium works, really.

Her self-therapy sessions turn out pieces of art that refuse to shy away from subject matter, whether it’s the last Florida panthers getting battered by cars and left to bleed out on roadways or children torn from their parents and held in inhumane conditions at U.S. detention centers.

Sometimes, she plants the results on the front lawn of her Cortez home for the world to see.

That’s when things get interesting, Curry says.

provided_cortez protest artist_03
Plant materials collected in Susan Curry’s neighborhood in Cortez were transformed into a life-size Florida panther. The artist was inspired to make the piece after learning that plans for a new Florida toll road project passed by the state legislature in the 2019 could further imperil the endangered cats. Provided Photo/Susan Curry

Making a statement

Using a residential lawn as a gallery is bound to attract attention — especially when the featured art makes bold political statements.

Recent pieces have included a tearful Planet Earth, a portrait of youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and a likeness of the Statue of Liberty with hands tossed skyward (she’s struggling with the hypocrisy of her nation, but still reaching out in hope, the artist explains).

Surprisingly, complaints are rare.

“They just give me dirty looks,” the artist said of neighbors and passersby who don’t like her messages.

Occasionally, though, a passionate critic does stop to talk. Or yell.

Curry says she attempts a civil conversation with people who are provoked by her art, but admits that a few exchanges have turned to shouting matches.

Democracy has always been messy, after all — and the controversy just seems to make Curry try harder.

provided_cortez protest artist_01
People crafted from palm fronds spring up around a depiction of the Statue of Liberty in one of the latest installations in artist Susan Curry’s front yard in Cortez. A sign reads: “Welcome All! Where did you come from?” Susan Curry Provided Photo

Last election season, campaign signs for then-Florida-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum were ripped out of Curry’s yard.

She replaced them with oil paintings.

“I don’t know why more artists aren’t doing protest art,” Curry said. “I think it’s an artist’s duty to do what they can and speak up.”

On occasion, Curry has spent afternoons chatting with folks who stopped by to admire her work.

Others leave notes of support on her doorstep.

Yard art is just one of the ways that Curry promotes political discussion and debate.

Another passion project led her to create a series of hand-printed, brightly colored T-shirts bearing the president’s silhouette and messages such as “Impeach Trump.”

The shirts sparked some less-than-friendly encounters on trips to the gym and grocery store, but some people saw them and asked for one of their own.

rb_protest art_01.jpg
Susan Curry translates her political frustrations into works of protest art. The art gallery: the front yard of her Cortez home. Ryan Ballogg

Curry’s experimental approach fits the bill of “outsider art,” a genre defined as self-taught and outside of the establishment of the fine art world.

“I don’t plan anything out,” Curry said of her creative process. “I just go until it’s done.”

As for tone, she describes her work as “emotional, heartfelt and dark.”

Politics have always been an influence.

The artist’s childhood memories include standing on a street corner holding a sign for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. The first musician she saw in concert was part-folk artist, part-activist Pete Seeger.

These days, Curry is an avid listener to news programming on Tampa Bay community radio station WMNF. On days when the news reports get too depressing, she’ll stop and do yoga.

“I was raised like that,” Curry said of her political bent.

rb_cortez protest artist_04.jpg
Susan Curry’s Cortez home doubles as her art studio, and she uses the front yard like a gallery. Ryan Ballogg

But she says President Donald Trump’s election, and his administration’s policies, have taken her political concerns to new heights.

“It was really the immigrant children that got me going,” Curry said. “Using them as pawns. He uses fear, so that’s his fear tactic. If you come here, he’s going to put you in a cage.”

On a political level, Curry calls the recent influx of immigration from Central America “blowback” from decades of U.S. interference in Latin American countries, a theory at least partially supported by historians and experts on the region.

On a human level, Curry says she has a major issue with someone’s child being held in a cage.

Between reading reports about poor conditions at detention centers and witnessing what she said were Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents patrolling at the Red Barn Flea Market, she said she knew she had to do something.

A linocut of Donald Trump, handmade by local artist Susan Curry, was used to create protest shirts with slogans like “Impeach Trump.” Ryan Ballogg

As it turns out, hurling angry comments isn’t the only good use for social media.

Curry had been making art in reaction to the Trump administration and its policies for some time when she met another politically frustrated artist over Instagram. The other creative had recently formed a group called Artists Against Children in Cages.

The Facebook group was established to collect pieces of art for a fundraiser show in Philadelphia.

Making art work

A mixed media piece by Boston artist Erin Burley is oil pastel, charcoal and collage on wood. Provided Photo/Erin Burley

Erin Burley is a mixed media artist who lives in Boston.

Her consciousness-exploring works are often created on a large scale that she describes as a “window to another world.”

For Burley, art has been a balm through tough times of her own, including mental-health struggles.

“I got my life together in 2016, and this is what I came out to,” Burley said of the political climate in the U.S.

Burley said she wanted to find a way to help others that she felt were suffering.

“I felt like a bystander that wasn’t doing anything,” Burley said. “And I thought, what could I possibly do that could have a direct affect in helping people? I don’t want history to look back at me as one of those people who did nothing to stop totalitarian leaders coming into power.”

In July, Burley formed Artists Against Children in Cages to brainstorm ideas for raising money to bail detained immigrants out of ICE custody.

In the following weeks, the collective of far-flung artists started to form a plan.

tattooed mom provided
The upstairs space at Tattooed Mom, an offbeat bar in Philadelphia, will be the site of an art sale organized by a group of creatives benefiting a bond fund for detained immigrants on Decemeber 5, 2019. Provided Photo

Set for Dec. 5 at Tattooed Mom, a bar on Philadelphia’s South Street, an art show will raise funds for Burley’s cause.

So far, Burley has received work from more than 20 artists around the country, as well as artists based in France and Australia.

“I was amazed at the interest,” Burley said.

An entry for the Artists Against Children in Cages art show, planned for December 5, 2019 in Philadelphia, by Wisconsin-based artist Megan Melonas. Provided photo/Megan Melonas

There is no required subject matter for submissions.

Some are abstract; some are portraits or sculptures. Others take a direct or satirical blow at U.S. immigration policies.

With less than a month until the show, Burley is still receiving donations of art.

“Artists, when they band together, they get stuff done sometimes,” Burley said. “People need to be shocked out of their apathy.”

provided_cortez protest artist_02
Susan Curry created invitations for for an art show benefiting the Freedom for Immigrants National Bond Fund that will be held in Philadelphia on Dec. 5, 2019. They feature block-printed images on handmade paper. Susan Curry Provided Photo

On the border

Many of the artists involved in the project have only heard about the plight of immigrant families through news reports.

Not Caridad Sarabia Ramos Cisneros.

Cisneros lives in Laredo, Texas, near the Laredo Detention Center along the U.S.-Mexico border. Also nearby are several religious shelters that serve as temporary resting places for asylum-seeking immigrants who make it through processing and are admitted into the U.S.

Cisneros, a teacher by trade and a painter by passion, decided to show her care by making bags of toys and activities to give to children of families at the shelters.

Bags for children of traveling immigrant families made up by Caridad Sarabia Ramos Cisneros included homemade activity books, coloring supplies and small toys. Provided Photo

That required gaining the trust of shelter staff before she was allowed to meet with immigrant families.

Cisneros says she was able to interview several families before they began their journeys; some were traveling as many as two or three days by bus to reach their destinations with little money to spare. Most were headed to stay with a family member, or sponsor, until an immigration court date arrived.

Through her conversations, Cisneros learned that experiences at detention centers varied greatly depending on the time and place of detainment.

Loredo resident Caridad Sarabia Ramos Cisneros, second from left, created activity books for children of immigrant families temporarily staying at shelters before going to reside with sponsors in the U.S. Provided Photo

“They didn’t want to talk about it at first; the conditions,” Cisneros said. “But some told me that they had a very difficult time there. They were treating them badly. It was always freezing and they wouldn’t give them anything warm.”

Some tried to double-layer clothes as a protection against the cold, Cisneros said, but detention center staff prohibited it.

“It’s not everybody that treats them like that. It’s only certain people there that think that they have to have control. But these people are at the mercy of whoever is there running the show,” Cisneros said.

provided_cortez protest art_06
Teacher and artist Caridad Sarabia Ramos Cisneros, top left, met with families from Guatemala at a shelter in Texas last July to give the children activity books and toys. She also taught them important words and “survival phrases” in English. Provided Photo

Cisneros describes the refugees she met as quiet, humble and respectful; a far cry from the Trump rally rhetoric of an “invading force.”

Many Central American immigrants who wind up at the Laredo Detention Center, and other detention centers across the U.S., leave everything to escape extreme unrest in their home countries, which rank among the most violent in the world each year.

In Laredo, Cisneros spoke with natives of Guatemala and Honduras who were trying to escape gang violence. The gangs were targeting young girls for kidnapping, according to Cisneros.

Leaving was not an easy choice to make, but one of necessity.

“These people had something. They had homes. They left everything. And now they have a bag, and that’s it,” Cisneros said.

Last summer, Cisneros tried to make up for families’ losses in a small way.

Care packages that Cisneros made for the children included handmade decorated books with blank pages for writing and coloring.

“I’ve been making them for kids at school for many years,” Cisneros said.

Children of immigrant families at a shelter in Texas pick out activity books made by Loredo resident Caridad Sarabia Ramos Cisneros. Provided Photo

She wound up making hundreds of the books for migrant children; now, they are all over the country.

Also included were coloring book pages, story books purchased used from the public library and small playthings bought at a dollar store.

“Anything for them to play with while they made the trip to the different places in the U.S. that they were going to,” Cisneros said. “Whatever I could fit in a bag.”

Cisneros said that she previously witnessed busloads of 50 to 200 people getting dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol at the shelters.

Now, the buses have stopped coming.

“They’re holding everyone at the border, about three miles away,” Cisneros said. “It’s an ongoing cycle over years. There are times when they get to come over here and times when they don’t. It happened under (President Barack) Obama too.”

On a visit to one of the shelters, Cisneros overheard one woman saying that it was her second time attempting to get legal residence in the U.S., and that she would try again if need be.

“They are going to keep trying,” Cisneros said. “And the trip is so horrendous.”

Cisneros recently donated winter supplies for asylum seekers who are waiting for a chance to be processed near Brownsville, Texas. She is also coordinating a collection of musical instruments for the children with members of humanitarian group Team Brownsville.

Cisneros discovered the collective of artists organizing the auction in Philadelphia while perusing Facebook. She has since played a formative role in the event by keeping the artists in the group informed of the latest news surrounding immigration — and exposing them to the reality at the border through stories of her personal experiences.

Cisneros is quick to remind others that the pain of immigrants is not only being felt at the border.

Every state in the U.S. has these detention centers,” Cisneros said.

A helping hand

Immigrants who are eligible to stay in the U.S. can get out of detention centers and begin fighting their cases much faster if they are able to post bond.

However, costs for doing so can range dramatically, and a price tag of $1,500 to $10,000 or more is beyond the means of most destitute refugees.

Burley and the others behind Artists Against Children in Cages have selected a bond fund as the recipient of all the money raised at the December show in Philadelphia.

Freedom for Immigrants is a non-profit based in California that advocates for immigrants before, during and after their journey to enter the U.S.

Established in June 2018, the organization’s National Immigration Detention Bond Fund has paid the bonds of 230 people.

It’s one of many of its kind that are springing up around the country to help detained immigrants.

More than simply posting bond, the Freedom for Immigrants fund also provides services that seek to ensure the success of each case with legal support and housing if necessary.

Luis Castro, a Bradenton immigration attorney who has represented previously detained immigrants, says that such bond funds have a lot of potential.

He usually has to recommend a private bond agency if a client is unable to pay bond and has no friends or family who are able to do so.

“In cases like that, I think it’s a great goal for (bond funds) to be able to help those kinds of people,” Castro said.

The Freedom for Immigrants bond fund prioritizes detainees who are primary caretakers or pregnant women, a demographic trend that Castro says is on the rise among immigrants.

“Generally, in the past, it was single males that were coming here. They would come to work and send money back to their families. And eventually some of them could gain some type of status through programs that were available at the time. But now you’re seeing a lot more families; a lot more women and children.

“Something has changed in those countries, Mexico and further south, whether it be the government or the economy. Families can no longer support themselves in their own county. That wasn’t a case 10 or 20 years ago. Civil unrest has a lot to do with it.”

At the same time, odds have turned against asylum-seeking immigrants under the Trump administration.

“Under President Obama, if you were escaping gang violence or domestic violence, you would still have a good chance of getting asylum,” Castro said. “Now, not so much.”

Given the complexity of immigration law, Castro recommends that those who have questions seek an attorney.

For a crash course on issues faced by immigrants, he recommends the Netflix series “Living Undocumented.”

Starting conversations

Few U.S. political topics have sustained decades of controversy like immigration.

Advocates for immigrants say that there is misinformation surrounding the process of immigration and the role that immigrants play in U.S. society and economy.

Luz Corcuera is the executive director of UnidosNow, a non-profit that seeks to help members of the Hispanic community in Manatee and Sarasota counties thrive through educational programs and outlets for civic engagement, and help integrate into U.S. society.

Corcuera says that the best way to heal the divide surrounding immigration is through community conversations.

Immigrants, authorized or not, contribute substantially to U.S. society and economy, Corcuera says, and stereotypes of immigrants as freeloaders overlook their contributions as workers and as entrepreneurs who create new jobs.

“It is within our power to be able to talk to each other,” Corcuera said. “The more awareness that there is about this issue, the more likely it is that compassionate and reasonable voices will be heard.”

Castro says that the actual process of immigration is also misunderstood.

“I think the general concept most people have is wrong,” Castro said. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why don’t people come in the right way?’ Well, there is no right way. It’s not like there’s some line that you can stand in, in whatever country you’re from, and get an immigration visa. Even if there was, it would be backed up for decades.”

Rather, Castro says, the law is set up so that illegal or temporary methods of entry can lead to permanent residence.

Stoking the conversation

In Cortez, Curry has figured out one way to begin a community conversation on the issue.

In September, a piece went up in her yard depicting children in cages.

The children, made of mosaic tile, are all shades of the rainbow.

“That’s what our children are,” Curry said.

rb_protest art_02.jpg
A mixed-use art piece created in September on the front lawn of Susan Cury’s Cortez home protested the treatment of immigrant children at U.S. detention centers. Ryan Ballogg

Their metal hands are inspired by Mexican folk art known as milagros — charms that signify good luck and protection. The word means “miracle.”

Quotes emblazoned on the piece point out what Curry sees as the hypocrisy of a country that treats those in need poorly.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,“ says one quote with origins at the Statue of Liberty.

In its direct approach, Curry’s work invites an emotional response. It’s up to the beholder to decide what they will do next.

Will they stop and stare? Pretend they didn’t see anything? Read up on the issue in question? Contact a representative?

Or, perhaps, make some protest art of their own?