ONE RECENT WINTER day, Nora Howell stepped out of her house in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore and took a walk down the street. People in the predominantly black community did double takes as this white woman promenaded past them in a sundress made of saltine and oyster crackers. Some stared in disbelief. One man doubled over laughing. In the corner coffee shop, one of the regulars warned Howell not to walk by any homeless people because they might just eat her up.
Later Howell, a community artist and director of the neighborhood Jubilee Arts program, set the video footage taken during her walk to Mister Rogers’ classic refrain, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” The piece, which emerged out of Howell’s ponderings on what it means to be white living in a black neighborhood, became another part of her answer to a call: to use art to address systemic racism and bring about the kingdom of God.
From Race Riots to White Suburbia and Beyond
In 2001, Howell was an eighth grader living in a biracial community in urban Cincinnati. When race riots erupted after a young black man was shot fatally by a white police officer (sound familiar?), her family took to the streets on a prayer walk through the riots. Howell remembers being shocked and terrified, thinking, “Why do we still have race riots? Cincinnati is so far behind the times.”
In the aftermath, Howell talked with peers at school on the reality of racial tensions and observed with curiosity how white and black churches throughout the city responded. She realized race riots weren’t just a relic of the ’60s. “When you lived in a place where different racial groups interacted daily, [racial tensions] could no longer be denied or ignored,” she said.
Yet when Howell moved to suburban Chicago to attend Wheaton College, conversations on race were largely absent. “I found that very odd,” she said. She got involved in a campus group to promote awareness of racial injustice.
In college, Howell decided to study art, though she struggled to reconcile her decision with her Protestant-work-ethic-infused upbringing. “In addition to the lack of space for visual art in the Protestant worship tradition, the emphasis on missions, ministry, and professions that measurably change the world or win souls for Christ is another deterrent from fostering artists within the church,” she said.
Providentially, Howell landed a spot in a Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) community arts graduate program and moved into the Sandtown neighborhood as a way to truly engage her community. She also taught art in the local all-black public school.
As a way to process these dramatic shifts—from growing up in a biracial Cincinnati neighborhood, to attending college in white suburban Chicago, to living and working in black inner city Baltimore—Howell makes art.
Bathing in Racism
In her video piece “Racial Make-Up: More Than Skin Deep,” Howell appears with a layer of marshmallow goop on her face. She uses her fingers to try to scrape the white mess off, but no matter how desperately she tries, it remains stuck to her. The piece emerged from Howell’s attempts to get past her whiteness to connect with her black students in Baltimore schools, and her realization that she is stuck with it. “You get to see her as an individual over time struggling to reconcile this thing that has its own seeming life that doesn’t want to be removed,” said MICA professor Ken Krafchek on the development of Howell’s art.
In later pieces, Howell shifts from her individual struggles with whiteness to a confrontation of systemic racism. “Spotless,” her final show for her two-year fellowship with the Hamiltonian Gallery in Washington, D.C., unearthed the associations between whiteness and cleanliness. One piece featured models shouldering an oversized toothpaste tube and “cleaning” the streets with a gigantic toothbrush, provocatively probing the implications of gentrification on the gallery’s once-black surrounding neighborhood. “She tests the world. She makes the world rethink itself,” said Krafchek.
For the show’s centerpiece, three women of various races bathed in claw-foot tubs filled with marshmallows. Here, Howell played with metaphors of food and cleaning to reveal how whiteness is equated with cleanliness, purity, and flawlessness. On another level, Howell used the metaphor of bathing to unveil systemic racism. “I was thinking of how immersed we are in racism, in racial constructs. To the point that it’s really hard to see or acknowledge or even admit,” she said. “We’re bathing in it.”
Diane Lyday, one of Howell’s mentors and a consultant with Baltimore Racial Justice Action, is impressed with Howell’s self-awareness and ability to confront structural issues through art. Coming to terms with one’s own whiteness, Lyday said, is a lifelong process that every white person needs to do. White people want to do good, she continued, but unintentionally perpetuate injustice by not acknowledging their whiteness. “If we want to live our values, we need to do something active to dismantle the racism that is built into our system,” Lyday said.
The Artist as Prophet and Missionary
Not everyone relates to Howell’s attempts to dismantle systemic racism through art. People in fine art contexts have dismissed her work as propaganda, while some white people have reacted to her pieces by saying she is trying to make them feel guilty. Howell continues on, however, encouraged by responses from the communities where she works. In her pieces addressing gentrification of the D.C. neighborhood, for instance, she interviewed community leaders and created art as a response. While art critics responded negatively, people in the community loved her work. And that is enough. For Howell, art is a collaborative process and a tool for social change, not just something to be collected and displayed in galleries.
Howell’s view of art as action and collaboration, not just a product, makes her unbelievably vulnerable, said David Hooker, Howell’s former adviser at Wheaton. In her performance pieces, she embodies the ideas she wants to communicate, much in the way that Old Testament prophets embodied God’s messages to Israel. Performance artists, Hooker said, are “very vulnerable to different types of reactions. People don’t necessarily get it at first.” Eat the scroll of God’s word like honey (Ezekiel 3)? Wear a dress of crackers? Huh? Performance art, said Hooker, gets audiences “to ask questions that they will actually ask for a long time about what they’ve seen. It doesn’t provide ready answers.”
Also, because the art is done in public, it is unpredictable. “It invites other people into the creative process,” Hooker said. “Every time you do it, it’s different.” Since Howell deals with weighty topics in her performance pieces, she tries to keep the invitation lighthearted, as with the cracker dress performances. “I can still make it fun and silly,” she said. She is always asking herself, “How can I disarm my audience?”
Hooker also likens community artists to missionaries. “You have to be there, be present, be part of the community, in order to work with the community. That takes a ton of time, dedication, and presence,” he said.
Howell sees her work to confront racial injustice through art as deeply connected to the work of her local church in the Sandtown community. Racial justice and the church’s mission to preach the gospel and love the poor are intertwined. “While we may not say it all the time, all these social ills in our neighborhood are based in racism, based in how our neighborhood has been under-resourced systematically by the government [because of] the population being predominantly African American,” she said. “When you peel back the layers, addressing racism and talking about privilege are at the foundation of the mission of the church, what the church believes in and what it preaches.”
Marrying Art and Justice
In her current role as director of Jubilee Arts, Howell hopes to continue using art as a powerful resource for social change. In the mental health program or in the new-homebuyers program, “we could use art as a tool to build community, as a tool for justice, as an outreach tool, as a healing tool,” she said. C.W. Harris, founder of Newborn Holistic Ministries, the umbrella organization of which Jubilee Arts is a part, agrees: “Art is bringing community together so we can talk about our issues. We all together resurrect what has been destroyed.”
Doing art that confronts systemic racism isn’t just relevant to urban contexts such as Sandtown. “If anything, the most important place to incorporate art and justice in the church is predominantly white suburban areas, where racism is so coded, hidden, and subconscious,” Howell said. She encourages those who live in such areas not to feel as if they must run to urban areas to seek justice.
Indeed, more Christian artists everywhere are exploring the connections between art and justice these days, according to Hooker. The church, he said, is recognizing its responsibility to seek justice while also reclaiming the role of visual art in helping to understand its identity and role in the world. “I’m sensing changes that already suggest new opportunities for seeing who our neighbors are and reaching out to them in new ways,” he said. “Art like Howell’s is a beautiful example of how to do that.”