Trena McNabb welcoming everyone to the exhibit.

February 1, 2006
Blurring Racial Barriers
...and the Healing Power of Art

By Laura Moritz and Kelly Riddle

To some, a bunch of people getting together to view and discuss art may not seem a likely way to break down racial barriers. Yet, step inside Diggs Gallery of Winston-Salem State University, the first home of an unprecedented traveling art exhibit featuring more than 40 local and regional artists with diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, and the message is clear: Art can heal. Art can bring people together, spark new dialogues and, yes, blur racial barriers.

The goal of the exhibition, born out of an idea of local artist Trena McNabb, is just that: to encourage people of all races and cultures to meet, build new relationships and spur communication.

“People do not like to talk about race and racial issues,” said Belinda Tate, curator of Diggs Gallery. “The exhibit resulted from many people asking each other hard questions… The result shows the tremendous willingness of community members to come together in an effort to blur racial barriers.”

McNabb’s idea started after a friend and fellow artist suggested she read a book about using art to heal. She was touched by the book, which opened her up to the possibility of meeting other artists. “I thought it would be neat to meet all the artists in the area,” said McNabb, “Wouldn’t it be great to do a show together, work together and get to know each other.”

Finding a sponsor was the first step in exploring the possibility of an exhibition. McNabb was familiar with the Crossing 52 Initiative and felt an exhibit of this magnitude was a perfect match with their efforts to improve race relations in the community. She was right. When McNabb approached them two years ago, they encouraged her to speak with area galleries.

McNabb contacted Kim Varnadoe, curator of the Salem College Fine Arts Center. A brainstorming session ensued and soon McNabb was meeting with three other local galleries, Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Diggs Gallery and The Delta Arts Center.

In a fund-raising effort, McNabb wrote a grant application for the ECHO (Everyone Can Help Out) fund through the Winston-Salem Foundation, which had committed more than $2.5 million over a five-year period beginning in 1999 to be used for grants to organizations that increase the community’s stock of social capital. McNabb’s idea fit the bill and in June, Blurring Racial Barriers was awarded ECHO’s final grant.

The result is a citywide exhibition capturing the cultural and racial diversity of the region. Curators, Vicki Kopf, Dianne Caesar, Tate and Varnadoe, felt no one institution could capture the essence of the project. In addition, if the same artwork traveled to each gallery patrons would visit the gallery where they felt most comfortable. This would defeat the core purpose of the exhibition. Thus, a different version of the exhibition is planned for the four institutions.

Four themes include justice, truth, integrity and courage. At each exhibition, one theme is represented on a legacy ring, large circles where visitors are encouraged to write a personal quote. Joti Sekhon, professor of sociology and international studies at Greensboro College wrote, “The best way to know yourself is to know those who are different from you in any way.” As the exhibit moves each ring will be joined with the next.

In addition to cultural diversity, the exhibit features artists from the well-known to students, said DeComa Love-Lane, Crossing 52 member. “It allows artists who haven’t had their own show to introduce themselves to the community,” added Caesar, executive director of The Delta Arts Center.

The founder of the Crossing 52 Initiative, Robert Elliot, addressed a crowd Jan. 17th during the opening of the exhibit at the Diggs Gallery. His explanation of Crossing 52’s creation mirrored the intention and purpose of the exhibition. It began in the early 1990s with a group discussing local racial issues at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. “There was a real racial divide in this community that we all felt,” said Elliot. “We wanted to take it to the next do more than talk.”

Today groups throughout Winston-Salem work together to fulfill the organization’s goals through art forums, speaking forums, contest sponsorship, supper groups and other activities dealing with race relations. “The goals of Crossing 52 are to improve racial relations, combat racism, identify the causes of racism and come up with specific solutions,” said Crossing 52 President Jean Williams.

The day was an example of everything the organization stands for, said member, Mary Dickinson. “What I see here is people of different races, ages and walks of life coming together to share the experience of art, which is non-limiting and open to interpretation,” said Dickinson.

The experience of the exhibit impacted viewer Cheryl Harris of Winston-Salem much like organizers had hoped. “I have felt a disconnectedness and sort have been out of touch with things dealing with racial issues,” said Harris. The exhibit has encouraged her to further her own efforts to break down racial barriers by creating more opportunities to bring people together.

“We haven’t Crossed 52 yet,” said Elliot. “As I look back and I look forward I feel there has been progress, but we still have a lot to do. What concerns me is people who believe, but won’t act.”

The opening of the Blurring Racial Barriers exhibit was a group of people who did act. They met one another, shook hands, shared smiles and conversations, and in the meantime, were a part of exactly what needs to be done to blur racial barriers.

Written by Laura Moritz ( and Kelly Riddle (

Published: February 1, 2006
Reprinted from Latitude Magazine
© 2006 Latitude Magazine


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