DAI exhibit 'targets' tensions, solutions
One of the central pieces of Carla Hamilton's art exhibition is a life-sized portrait of the artist, hands raised, as captured on a police officer's body camera.
Her form is covered with words and images that make a collage representing the thoughts that were going through her mind nearly two years ago when she was stopped by officers from the Duluth Police Department while walking on Superior Street.
"Full-blown panic attack," Hamilton said of the experience, standing in front of the portrait earlier this week.
Parts of Hamilton's exhibition "Gezielt (Targeted)," which opens Feb. 23 and runs through April 9 at the Duluth Art Institute, respond to the experience she refers to as "walking while black." It's a mix of abstract paintings, collage, poetry, quotes from James Baldwin and Fred Rogers, and 3-D pieces that speak to race and community.
While the encounter with the officers lasted about eight minutes, the experience lingered — and had a powerful outcome. Hamilton ended up meeting with Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken and the officers who stopped her that night. She said she left with an awareness that both of the officers were someone's son — humans with families, like her.
Tusken said everyone was affected by the meeting.
"There was a much better understanding afterward," Tusken agreed. "I'm a believer that mediation helps mend disagreements and sometimes allows (people) to understand perspective and heals relationships that are damaged."
On a March night in 2015, Hamilton and two white friends were leaving Pizza Luce en route to RT Quinlan's. Hamilton had fallen behind and was digging in her bag, she said, when she was stopped by police officers who asked if she was bothering these people — indicating her friends.
Hamilton said she was scared. She put her hands on her head. She wondered whether she would chip her teeth on the concrete if she was forced to the ground.
Tusken said she was stopped because the officers saw her and her friends yelling back and forth.
"It looked like it was going to be a disturbance or conflict," he said.
At the time, she wasn't able to measure how long she stood like that while the situation was sorted out between her and the police officers, but suddenly "It all just ended," she said.
"What just happened," she remembered thinking. She said she felt like she had been mugged.
That fear lasted a while after the officers left, Hamilton said. Then she got mad. She felt bullied, targeted. She was bothered that her son, then-14, had to see her so upset when she got home.
In the following days, she requested the police report and body camera footage — which she couldn't bring herself to include in the art exhibition.
"I don't like it. It makes me uncomfortable," she said. "I saw someone who was really scared and a situation that was escalating."
About three weeks later, she and a friend met with Tusken and the officers involved to talk about what happened from both perspectives.
"I didn't want to have it fester," Hamilton said. "A lot of things happen when they fester."
The art that followed
Hamilton, 43, is a Wrenshall-raised mixed media artist who paints, repurposes and creates grand collages using spray painted words, paper and childrens' shoes.
While her subject matter is political, she said it sometimes has a light touch — "approaching serious topics with humor." She finds meaning in poetry and considers writer James Baldwin her spirit animal.
When she was younger, she left the United States with $20 and a pack of cigarettes, she said. She spent 18 years, off and on, in Germany, where she studied art, got married, raised her son. Hamilton moved back to Duluth a few years ago — she wanted the best place to raise her son — but said she still sometimes thinks in German. Some of her work employs German words, including the title of the exhibition, and phrases incorporated in two other mid-sized paintings.
"Gezielt (Targeted)" includes the portrait of Hamilton and a bin full of handouts on what to do if ever stopped by the police. There are pieces about community and helping each other, a New Yorker who was falsely accused of robbery when he was a teenager, spent three years in prison — including a long stint in solitary confinement — and killed himself after he was released. Hamilton incorporates slave ships, currency and mirrors. There are two references to the 1920s lynchings in Duluth. (Hamilton went rope shopping at Home Depot. She was tying nooses in an aisle when an employee approached her and asked "Are you OK?")
Hamilton asked Tusken to be a part of the exhibition a few months ago, and they met for a photo shoot at Portland Square Park. Tusken said he went down the slide, Hamilton pushed him on the swing, he held a smiley face balloon. Photographs from the meetup are part of the show, and it's safe to say they two have built a relationship.
"He just friended me on Facebook," she said.
"When I see Carla now, we embrace each other with a hug," Tusken said. "I have an affinity for her and I think, likewise. That's the goal, to have a trusting and transparent and close relationship with the public we serve."
Crawford, the human rights officer, said that not a lot of people would come forward and share this kind of experience. It's a brave step for the artist and the police chief, he said.
"I think it's a great piece that's going to cause us all to think and look inward as well as outward about how the world sees us and how we see the world," Crawford said. "There's a lot of emotion — especially when you look at the pieces that look at slavery and injustice."
Amber White, DAI artist services director, finished installing the exhibition earlier this week and spent a lot of time sitting with Hamilton's work.
"I think it's a huge opportunity for people to take a look at themselves and talk about topics that are uncomfortable," White said. "The art itself reflects playfulness and lightness that will make the issues more accessible for people who steer away from social commentary."
As of Tuesday, Tusken hadn't yet seen the exhibition. While an art fan, he never expected he would see his face on the gallery wall at the Duluth Art Institute.
"If this helps us have a better relationship with our community and certainly with Carla, it was all worth it," he said. "So much of our work is about enhancing relationships."
A few weeks after mediation, Hamilton was again stopped by a police officer — this time while driving. The officer approached her car, she said, and immediately assured her that everything was OK.
He might have noticed how nervous she looked when he approached, Hamilton said.
"You have a taillight out, and I want you to get home safely," she said he told her.
She called the exchange "good policing."
As White put the final touches on the show earlier this week, Hamilton said she feels accomplished. Putting "Gezielt (Targeted)" together was heavy, she said, a feeling she balanced by watching lots of "The Golden Girls" and "Cagney & Lacey" on Hulu.
"This is a moving-forward moment," she said.
If you go
What: Exhibition opening for Carla Hamilton's "Gezielt (Targeted)," Elizabeth Kuth's "Rooted Expression" and "Emerging Photographers," work by students from the University of Minnesota Duluth
When: 5-7 p.m. Feb. 23-April 9
Where: Duluth Art Institute, 506 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: Free, open to the public
Also: As part of the exhibition, there will be an artist talk and community forum at 5:30 p.m. March 8 at The Underground. The panelists include Hamilton, Tusken, human rights officer Carl Crawford and Stephan Witherspoon of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.