In a solo march, former Tucsonan Cassandra Kehoe walked down the streets of her Oregon neighborhood dressed as a weeping Statue of Liberty, holding a sign with the number "545"—the number, at the time, of known missing children separated from their families at the border.
This is not the first or the last time Kehoe—an attorney and artist and the daughter of an Argentinian immigrant—used art as activism, but this act inspired her to bring together artists from across the country to support their art and a cause close to her heart.
Kehoe curated THIRST 2021: Artists for Humanitarian Aid, a virtual event and shop that gathered more than 80 artists to create art to raise awareness and funds for Tucson-based humanitarian-aid nonprofits.
"Just knowing the power of art as activism, I just thought I'm going to continue to do this," said Kehoe, "and then it became, 'one person doing something is great but if we have a collective of it, it's amazing.'"
While living in Tucson, Kehoe learned about the work of No Más Muertes, the nonprofit organization which has left water jugs throughout the desert on migrant paths in the Southern Arizona desert since 2004. She also closely followed the 2017 trial of Dr. Scott Warren, who was charged with a felony for providing humanitarian aid. (A jury deadlocked on his 2017 trial; when prosecutors retried Warren in 2019, the jury acquitted him.)
"It's a combination of kind of their spirit, of just this, 'I care for you as a human and I'm doing this work on behalf of humanity and it doesn't matter which side of the border you come from, right, it's that you're human, that you have blood in your veins and you have a heart.' And these really brave amazing volunteers going out into the desert and dropping water. It's such powerful work that they do," said Kehoe.
Before the pandemic, Kehoe also volunteered at Casa Alitas, which provides a temporary shelter for people seeking asylum. Since the pandemic limited the opportunities to volunteer, Kehoe created this event to connect many to support their efforts.
Kehoe chose No Más Muertes and Casa Alitas because of their commitment to not only humanity through active humanitarianism, but also the embodiment of transformation.
"It's one thing to continue to try to change something that is in its way or fund supportive ways of being, but I think it's something else to say, there's a different future that we can have and there's a different way of being that we could have, a different way of treating each other. It's possible," said Kehoe. "Both of the organizations are transformative in the vision that they see and it's a vision that I share with them too."
In a grassroots effort, Kehoe reached out through Instagram and personal letters to find artists that would share the same vision.
"It was definitely an invitation for those who are called to really serve and help and be part of the movement of being humanitarian, what it means to be human and to not destroy humanitarian aid at our borders and those who are not comfortable and not OK with the idea of family separation policies and just wanting to make a difference in their way," said Kehoe.
Through others' Instagram stories, Tucson-based artist Nadia Anais de Stefano found the call for artists and decided to join.
Stefano has always been tied to the border and Mexico through her family's own experiences. Her great-grandfather came to the U.S. through the Bracero Program, created from a bi-lateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico during WWII that allowed Mexican men to work on short-term agricultural contracts. Her grandfather, now a citizen, came to the U.S. illegally.
"These generations that have progressively started to lose an understanding of where we came from and a lot of people don't know about the complexities behind the issue now. Now it's not necessarily so much about people just trying to find a new life, but lots of people in many Latin American countries are fleeing violence," said Stefano. "I just became so interested in wanting to learn where I came from and the history. It's also taboo to talk about, and shameful to talk about that we came from more poverty or some relatives of ours may have crossed illegally."
Because of her family's history, Stefano felt the need to learn and volunteer for humanitarian aid efforts.
In her early teens, Stefano completed No More Deaths training with her mother and dropped off water jugs in the desert. In high school she volunteered at a comedor in Nogales, and recently volunteered with Tucson Samaritans placing crosses in the desert to commemorate those who have died.
Stefano submitted four art pieces for the project, displaying different aspects of the humanitarian cause, with one set of earrings made to look like the water jugs she helped No Más Muertes leave in the desert. Like those gallons, Stefano wrote the words of hope "Si se puede," which translates to "Yes, it can be done."
Artists could create art based around the theme of water, a nod to the work of No More Deaths, but had no obligation to follow the theme. Stefano made all her art after finding out about THiRST 2021 and designed the pieces for the event.
Stefano also created earrings showcasing the monarch butterfly's wings, a common symbol for migration, and used turquoise beads above the wings to symbolize water as well as a "protective stone for travellers." Stefano has two different versions of her "Voyage Earrings," with one including the moon as migrants often travel at night.
On one of her last trips while leaving crosses in the desert, Stefano found a tortillero, a cloth used to wrap tortillas to keep them warm, emblazoned with the words: "Sin Ti No Puedo Vivir," or "without you I cannot live."
After learning about THIRST 2021, Stefano decided to create art out of tortillas to accompany the cloth she found. She covered three tortillas with multi-colored flowers, gold and silver lead in resin and wrote one stanza of poetry on each tortilla. Stefano was surprised the art sold in the show; she said she just wanted to create a piece that called back to the artifact she found and was happy her art resonated with someone.
"I'm hoping that with the little bit of symbolism in there that could bring more awareness to the common symbols and themes that are seen and maybe provide background into the symbols and then to what people experience who cross," said Stefano.
Unlike Stefano, Tucson-based fine artist and photographer Lacey Wolf is not intimately connected to the border, but has supported the work of No Más Muertes.
"I can't imagine going through what the migrants have to go through to get across the border. It's something that I've thought about a lot, especially through COVID and the pandemic," said Wolf. "Our desert is so, so hot, and so difficult to survive in that it's just a cause that has always had my heart. I believe that the right to live and the right to live happily and safely and with good health is something that everyone should be afforded."
Through her art, Wolf explores mortality, the transience of life, and the concept of "memento mori," (Latin for "remember you must die''), which expresses the inevitability of death. Wolf submitted two photographs from this series, one inspired from Tucson's All Souls Procession, a celebration of Dia de los Muertos.
The photograph, titled "From the Ethers," features her friend modeling the sugar skull makeup like Catrina, the goddess of death. Wolf also depicts skulls through her second submission, "Mundemala," shot at the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague. Known as the "Bone Church," the Sedlec Ossuary is decorated with the bones and skulls of people buried there.
"The decoration of the church is that essentially under God's eyes, we're all equal. We're all the same. Stripped down, our essence is all the same no matter who you are," said Wolf.
From reading on Hindu iconography, Wolf learned about Mundemala, a garland of skulls. The god Shiva is often portrayed wearing the mundemala and is representative of death and destruction, but also rebirth. Wolf saw echoes of that imagery in the iconography of Dia de los Muertos.
She said that "From the Ethers" represents "that death and destruction is something that is a natural part of the cycle of life and can also be a really important part of progress. In personal evolution, in politics and social issues, and in the issues of the world, certain structures need to sort of crumble and die first, in order for things to to be reborn. So, when I work with themes of death and the transience of life, while thinking about decay and those sorts of structures, I'm also thinking about how those processes leave room for something better to grow in its place."
The majority of the participating artists are Tucson-based, but other artists from coast to coast contributed their artwork for this cause and vision.
Massachusetts-based Yuko Okabe, while not personally connected to the crisis at the border, is a child of immigrant parents and has previously made social impact-focused work.
As a current art fellow collaborating with the community development organization in Salem, Okabe supports their public arts and community engagement programs. At the start of the pandemic, she helped create a call for local artists to support their work, but also create health posters that felt relevant to the communities they worked with. Her other work has also focused on mental health care for children and climate change.
"I've been kind of pursuing these types of social impact and arts projects or social impact and cultural projects, because I felt like those types of programs really resonated with me and it felt like art had a more impactful way of reaching out to people in different ways," said Okabe.
This cause also resonated with Okabe. In the '80s, her parents immigrated from Japan and "they came in with the idea of building a new life and building a family."
She has seen the photos of children in cages and news reports about people escaping from "horrible and disenfranchised situations," only to be sent back to those conditions by U.S. authorities.
"People are trying to find space all the time," Okabe said. "It doesn't go away when you don't see it. It is nearly always there somewhere in the world. So I think that's what I've been thinking a lot about from this project."
Okabe submitted seven works of art and tried to incorporate at least one that followed the theme. Her piece "Branching Into Life" depicts the story of two children who take hold of the water provided by a single water jug and each stream of water illustrates different phases of their lives, whether they go to school, learn a craft, fall in love or have a family.
"All these little streams of water go upwards, and the streams of water kind of act as pillars or even like steps or even like foundations for different parts of these two children's lives," said Okabe. "One thing kind of leads to another when you just do this one simple gesture."
In supporting this cause,
Kehoe also sought to create a platform to support artists who may have struggled during the pandemic but wanted to make a difference.
"(For) some of them it's like, 'I'm not able to financially contribute but I want my art to be part of this,' and so that was a cool way to say we can support artists and humanitarian aid efforts," said Kehoe.
At the start of the pandemic, Wolf could no longer travel to make photographs and had to cancel many projects in late spring and summer last year because of safety concerns with photographing people in person. She shifted to creating self-portraits and photographing a small group of people. Wolf also found more time to revisit her old work.
"I was able to sort of go through a lot of half finished projects and revisit the gems that had stayed buried there, and bring out new work out of some of those old things that I'd worked on," said Wolf. "For the first time I was able to dedicate myself in a more disciplined way to the practice of making sure that I sit down every single day and touch my art, and connect with it and learn more from it or let it reveal to me what needs to be done or more about about the meaning of it."
For others the pandemic allowed them to re-evaluate their art and themselves as an artist.
"I really took the time of the pandemic to really solidify and be able to call myself an artist because I've always created art and been producing art and selling art and whatnot, but I never really thought that was a primary way that I would define myself," said Stefano.
Around November of last year, Stefano began making jewelry and selling it in her Etsy shop and now she is embracing her identity as an artist.
Okabe has been contemplating eventually opening her own shop, as the pandemic exacerbated feelings of uncertainty while making her consider her autonomy as an artist in a sometimes gig-based industry.
"With a lot of things, the pandemic kind of exaggerated the feeling of wanting to explore more personally-led projects and more independently-led projects, not always being reliant on someone to hire me to do something," said Okabe.
The artists set the price for their artwork and the percent of profit that would be donated to No Más Muertes/No More Deaths and Casa Alitas. For each work, people are able to see how much will go to support the artist and their work and how much will be donated to either organization. At the end of the event, the donations will be split between the two nonprofits.
"It's just been a beautiful collective of people coming together with their hearts," said Kehoe. "It's my learned life experiences, and then also just wanting to have a way to really send out that good positive love and communication and raise funds for such an important cause."
On the project's Instagram account, Kehoe continues to share the art of participating artists. Stefano appreciates the community that was built amongst artists through this project.
"The artists who are participating have definitely been exploring each other's work, or sending messages to each other, commenting on people's posts," said Stefano. "Especially since it's not an in-person thing, it's extra special to still be able to make those meaningful connections, not only with local artists but artists who are in other parts of the country."
The exhibit has raised more than $7,000 and the majority of the art has been sold, but Kehoe continues to look for artists and hopes to continue adding new pieces and continue raising funds.
Kehoe says she tells artists: "Your art is saving lives in its own way." She add that she does "really, truly believe that artists are powerful and they can change and make movements happen."
The virtual shop will close on June 26. To purchase artwork and donate to these organizations visit thirstforhumanity.com.