Twelve students in Dan Jian’s Drawing II class collaborated this semester on “We Can, Together,” an art installation for TCU’s Race and Reconciliation Initiative (RRI), which will be on display for Reconciliation Day, April 21.
Dr. Frederick W. Gooding, Jr., chair of the RRI taskforce, asked Jian, assistant professor in the School of Art, to create a visual art piece to support the initiative. Jian decided she wanted to further explore the topics examined by RRI and involved her students, from a variety of majors, in the process.
“RRI is doing important work, revealing TCU’s history, and I didn’t want to just be an initiator of this activity,” said Jian. “It was a process that the students and I took together. This class is openminded, fresh, energetic and was willing to commit to the process.”
Jian said it was important for her students to learn directly from RRI task force representatives and participate in the larger conversation happening across the TCU campus. In February, the Drawing II class hosted guest speaker Dr. Sylviane Greensword, director of the RRI Oral History Project, to deliver a talk and Q&A session on the university’s relationship with slavery, racism, the Confederacy, segregation and integration.
“We learned the history of TCU, how people of different races interacted on campus, and what RRI means for the future of the university,” said Romane “Ro” Mays, a business information systems major. “The presentation gave us all an opportunity to reflect on how we want to contribute to TCU’s values and what imagery we wanted to create to express equality, community and unity,”
The session kickstarted the creative process for “We Can, Together,” which is described as “a visual exploration in communication, collaboration and reconciliation.”
The class conducted a comparative study on two artists, Henry Matisse, a white man, and Romare Bearden, an African American man, looking at their work of the same medium.
“Both artists worked with cut-outs, and we narrowed it down to their subtle differences,” said Jian. “We looked at their work under a lens of identity, authorship, and history and discussed how one’s background informs one’s work as an artist. In the end, we are aware that history can be selective, depending on the author.”
The study informed the cut-out installation that the class created for RRI, drawing inspiration from Bearden’s work, “A Black Odyssey.” In this Homeric tale, Bearden renewed the theme to be a black traveler’s search for a way home. “We Can, Together” includes “imagery motifs that speak to a positive relationship with our racial dynamic, real-world and history.”
Students worked in two groups to create separate pieces that were then combined into one. The original cut-out work is on display in the Mary Couts Burnett Library while a larger reproduction of it is available to view on the concrete blocks behind the Founders Statue in the Intellectual Commons between the library and Winton-Scott Hall.
“Some conversations we had when developing this piece were what we wanted others to not just see, but to take away with them,” said Adelynn Strong, a studio art major. “My group really wanted to focus on the fact that we are all human, and no matter our differences, specifics, and individuality, it is our duty to be kind.”
Jian purposefully intended the creative process to be collaborative because “the classroom is a micro-ecosystem of our society.”
“Collaboration is much easier said than done,” said Jian. “It requires us to get uncomfortable, but we need dialogue, not a monologue. The very spirit of this process was to give and take, listen and speak, and understand the meaning that comes from exchange.”
While some of the Drawing II students had been following updates from RRI since it was announced in July 2020, engaging and collaborating on the art installation presented the opportunity for further learning and reflection.
“While collaborating on the RRI piece, I had a bit of a revelation,” said Mays. “All the students working on the piece were from different cities, different families and different walks of life. Despite us all being from different backgrounds and representing unique world views and ideologies, we came together to make one piece that personified our unity. The imagery and work it took to create [“We Can, Together”] embodies unity, compassion, cooperation and love for one another.”
“I learned a lot about TCU’s history from RRI, and I was very shocked to realize the atrocities that have occurred on campus. I believe it’s important to bring past events to light, recognize them, and to continue trailblazing the way to equality and inclusivity for all students, faculty and staff,” said Strong. “I am very proud to be a TCU student, and I am even more proud to see TCU take actions to make our campus welcoming and a home to all.”