“I Was Here:” art installation challenges community to acknowledge, reflect and heal

23 portraits seek to help bridge divides of race, class and culture to move forward as a community

Winchester will soon be home to a public art exhibit that seeks to bridge divides of race, class and culture. “I Was Here” features 23 “Ancestral Spirit Portraits” in an effort to bring healing to the community by honoring the past and planting a vision of the future. Funding for the civic art project is provided by a partnership between The Greater Clark Foundation (GCF), Clark County Community Foundation (CCCF), and Wells Fargo.

“We hope the community sees ‘I Was Here’ for what it is – a living memorial to enslaved Africans who built our communities and made us who we are today,” said Jen Algire, president and CEO of GCF. “The wounds of slavery are real. Healing these wounds requires naming and acknowledging those things that have kept us from truly fulfilling the vision of an America in which all are created equal. This project – along with other opportunities to commit ourselves to diversity, equity and inclusion this year – call us to active reflection to be the change we want to see in our world. I am so proud our first collaboration with CCCF will be so impactful.”

“I Was Here” is an artistic collaboration between artist Marjorie Guyon and photographer Patrick J. Mitchell, as well as poet Nikky Finney. The project debuted in Lexington in October surrounding Cheapside Park, once one of the largest slave auction sites in the country.

Winchester is the first community to welcome the traveling exhibit of the Ancestor Spirit Portraits. They will be installed in Downtown windows in mid-March.

“These portraits will spark reflection and conversations among community members,” said Alex Rowady, Chairman of the CCCF Advisory Board. “It may be difficult, but dialogue about these tough subjects often leads to understanding and acknowledgement. This is what will help propel our community forward to be more inclusive.”

An opening reception and artist talk is planned for Friday, March 15 at 7 p.m. at the Leeds Center for the Arts. It is free to attend, but registration is required through LeedsCenter.org.

On Saturday, March 16, Guyon and Mitchell will lead an “on-the-street museum walk” at 9:30 a.m. beginning at the Clark County Courthouse and culminating in a community conversation at the Leeds Center for the Arts. The event is free, but registration is required through LeedsCenter.org.

Part of the conversation will be discussion of a second phase of the project planned for later in the year. The artists will work with Clark County residents and utilize iconic locations throughout the community to create a true “identity of place” that bridges the divides of race, economic status and geography.

The project caught the attention of Wells Fargo Advisors and the Wells Fargo Foundation because it fits the company’s vision, values and goals including a shared commitment to diversity and inclusion, corporate citizenship, and team member engagement. The company funded the creation of the original art in Lexington and is also supporting the Winchester installation.

“‘I Was Here’ is a new way for all of us to see each other,” said Vincent Hill, Sr., advocate coach, Wells Fargo Advisors. “It’s not designed to evoke pride or guilt, but provide another vehicle for us to move forward together, and gives us another opportunity at Wells Fargo to provide courage and leadership to show the inherent humanity of us all.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion
GCF and CCCF are also hosting events in March aimed at further opening the conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion in the community.

GCF, in partnership with the Clark County Health Department, Clark Regional Medical Center (CRMC), and Better Together Winchester, is hosting a four-part series of free training sessions throughout the year. The first topic, implicit bias, is being offered March 8 and 9. Each high-energy, interactive session will include a presentation and group discussion.

CCCF’s “On the Table” conversation is planned for March 27 at 5:30 p.m. at Winchester Opera House. The event offers a chance to gather around a table with friends, neighbors, and colleagues to share a meal and have a real conversation about how to foster belonging within our community. From this meeting, CCCF will begin its work to create a more welcoming and inclusive community.

Real Divides and Moving Forward
The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation 2017 report for GCF, “Waving the Community’s Flag: Winchester and Clark County’s Moment,” explored underlying feelings, as well as current and historic wounds that impact the community. The report presents the themes that emerged from conversations with more than 150 community members. They included a lack of trust; divides that separate people such as race and culture, where people live, old versus new, and church denominations; and that people don’t feel seen or heard.

Algire hopes neighbors will come together to write a new chapter in Clark County’s rich history. “2019 provides Clark County and Winchester an opportunity to take a leap forward in becoming a more inclusive community.”