By Meredith Radford
In a small school on a small island last year, all a young girl wanted to do was paint with the biggest brush in the brightest orange color, spreading the paint as widely as she could across the canvas. Sarah Cornette just kept trying to hand her smaller brushes.
“She wasn’t meaning to be mischievous, or even cover up other people’s work. She just had never painted before and it was so exciting,” Cornette said.
Cornette came to Samos Island, Greece, to give the children seeking refuge there a chance to create.
Cornette wanted these children to be part of a mural project she’d started with her art club students, many of whom were migrants and refugees as well, at Mary Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill months before.
With each group that Cornette worked with, she always asked them to paint what was important to their community. Each time she wanted to add a piece to the mural, she rolled up the heavy canvas and carried it to the next location.
Her students’ mural showed the landscape of North Carolina, with mountains filled with children’s faces on one end, the beach on the other and their school in the middle.
The beginnings of Cornette’s mural project
Cornette received a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grant to make her project, Same Difference The Mural, happen. Her plan was to have one panel painted by students in Chapel Hill, and one panel done by students, including refugees, in Greece to see how art could bridge the gap between cultures and experiences.
After working with students in Chapel Hill, she traveled to Greece to work with students in the 3rd Middle School/High School of Thessaloniki.
The students of Thessaloniki made their mural panel as a sort of complementary piece to the Scroggs students’. Where the other panel had the sun, they put a moon, and they had the sea meet the ocean of the other students’ panel.
But there weren’t any refugee children in the Thessaloniki school as Cornette had expected. So she sewed on another panel and planned a trip to Samos.
Refugees on Samos traveled the Mediterranean Sea on overcrowded rafts from Turkey with the hope of gaining asylum in Europe. But for now, they were kept in an overflowing camp full of makeshift shelters, separated from the impoverished town down the hill.
Cornette’s daughter, Eliza Cornette Cook, traveled to Samos with her. Cornette Cook said places like Samos still show signs that they were once popular tourist destinations.
“They’re very strange, surreal places to be,” she said.
The children would come down the hill from their camp to the school, Mazí, meaning “together,” to paint the mural. They painted the stark difference between their camp and the town below.
They used grays, blacks and browns for the camp, but colored the town with bright yellows, blues and pinks. They included a raft headed toward shore filled with people saying “mama,” “papa” and “family.”
The spontaneous final piece
When Cornette returned to the U.S. to show the mural, she was immediately hounded with daily news and conversation about the immigration crisis at her own border.
“It was just impossible for me not to see the parallels with what was happening on Samos, and to feel pretty shocked by that, as a person from a country that was founded on offering people shelter from persecution,” Cornette said.
She decided then that it wasn’t finished.
This time, she’d have to fund the trip and this part of the mural herself, with the help of her friend Laura Streitfeld.
Streitfeld said that Cornette’s project was important because it showed humanity and told the story of people who were faceless in the news.
Within a few months, Cornette was on her way to El Paso, Texas to add another panel to the mural, this time with her good friend Kerry James.
They weren’t allowed in the shelters on the U.S. side of the border, so they crossed into Ciudad Juárez every day to work with people at Casa Del Migrante, a shelter run by the Catholic Diocese in Ciudad Juárez.
What was intended to be a project involving around 10 kids, ended up including as many kids, adults and whole families as could fit in the shelter’s small dining hall to draw and paint.
After the families finished planning their sketches, Cornette showed them the rest of the mural.
“That was kind of important to me that the kids unroll what the other children had done,” Cornette said. “It’s almost like a narrative scroll.”
But Cornette noticed that after the first day, the girls who had expressed interest in working on the mural had stopped showing up. Cornette and James found out that the girls weren’t allowed to come work on the art; there were too many boys present and their fathers were worried for their safety.
“That has a lot to do with what happens on the journeys from their home countries through these very dangerous situations,” Cornette said.
So, they decided to organize a girls-only hour.
“Whatever they’ve experienced or whatever they were worried about, I can’t really appreciate as a white woman from a completely different culture,” Cornette said.
James said Cornette had the participants be the ones to make decisions about what went on the mural.
“I was super impressed with how she gave up the expectation of what the outcome would be,” James said. “And she really let the kids do the art.”
Cornette said the Juárez mural showed things that they longed for, like school, peace and a place to practice their religion safely.
“It was things that we just don’t even think about, that we just assume,” Cornette said.
What Cornette learned
On all of these projects, Cornette said it having a community partner was vital.
“You can’t just walk into another culture like this and expect people to trust you,” Cornette said. “You need to have someone who has been there, who knows the people, who know their names, who can explain both what you’re trying to do, but also explain to you what the problem is.”
Cornette said everyone was grateful to be working with color and creating art together.
“It really just built my belief in the power of the arts to connect people,” she said.
Streitfeld said the mural shares a story that few folks get to hear.
“It tells us so much about children whose voices haven’t been heard, but who have been referred to as nameless numbers in the news,” she said.
Cornette showed the mural at her new school, The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw, NC after she returned. She said it facilitated conversations about refugees and the border crisis.
“I hope that through talking about it, some kids from rural North Carolina were able to gain some empathy,” Cornette said.
She wants to find the mural a permanent home, but it’s been difficult. Cornette said part of the problem is that although the problems at the border haven’t gone away, they are discussed less.
“The indignation over that faded,” Cornette said. “It became something that wasn’t part of the news cycle anymore, and people weren’t as interested in it.”
For now, the 34-foot mural sits rolled up underneath her bed.
Edited by Annelise Collins