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God Delivered Me

Steve Prince

Steve Prince is the director of engagement and distinguished artist in residence at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at William and Mary University. Prince has shown his art internationally, and his artwork is in several museum collections across the United States. Prince’s art philosophy is steeped in the rich New Orleans Jazz tradition of the Dirge and the Second Line.

In keeping with the Directory for Worship, Kaela (not her real name) was presented for baptism with neither undue haste nor undue delay. She was thirteen years old, wearing her backpack and clinging to a stuffed animal as she walked to the baptismal font. Her mothers had been Presbyterian for a little over a year—they joined soon after visiting our church’s booth at the downtown Pride festival the year before. Kaela had lots to say about Dora the Explorer and Vampirina. She enjoyed playing with the play food and the baby dolls in the nursery, where she had spent the first part of the service. She sometimes found it hard to sit still through a church service, though she did occasionally, scribbling with crayons in a coloring book.

Rosa Sparks, linoleum cut on paper, 36″ x 50″, edition of 50, printed at Segura Art Center at Notre Dame, 2017

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (Matt. 18:10–14)

In 2017, I did a residency at the Segura Art Studio, housed at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Art and Culture on South Bend’s West Side. For ten days I worked in a small gymnasium that was converted into an art studio. The high windows that cascaded light into the room by day and parquet floors were the only remnants left from days past that hinted at what once filled the room. Halfway through my residency, a beautiful, majestic, sharply dressed elderly Black woman in a wheelchair visited the space partly pushed by memory, but also by a desire to meet me and see what I was conjuring with my art. With a smile in her eyes, I saw the spark of pride in seeing a Black man in her community doing something positive and uplifting for the people. She told me stories of the community I was planted in and said this was the gymnasium of her childhood where she played basketball with her friends. Across the street was the one community pool that Blacks could attend during those days. The heyday of the predominantly Black community had passed. It was a shell of itself, but there were flickers of hope expressed by many of the descendants I encountered who knew what once was there and were now working to preserve the history, restore the buildings, and envision what and how they could feed the coming generation.

I went to South Bend with an ambitious plan to create art. I endeavored to create two prints, one inspired by Rosa Parks and another about the Greensboro Four. Rosa Parks was immortalized on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. The events that ensued are forever etched into the annals of history as an act of civil disobedience, sparking a bus boycott that lasted for over a year and propelled a twenty-six-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight. Five years later, on February 1, 1960, four African American men named Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond devised a plan in Greensboro, North Carolina, in their North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University dorm rooms to wage a nonviolent war against segregation in a Woolworth store. The four gentlemen are affectionately known as the Greensboro Four, and they were the catalyst for over seventy thousand citizens across the United States staging sit-ins to challenge an unjust system.

Armed with a piece of linoleum and limestone, I painstakingly redrew images from my sketchbook and imagination onto the two substrates. I made marks with permanent markers and a greasy crayon on the linoleum and limestone into the wee hours each day. Prior to going to South Bend I had been asked by my hosts if I would consider conducting a hands-on workshop for elementary-aged students that would be shown on the local PBS station; I said yes. Towards the end of my residency, three teacher chaperones and twenty half-my-size human beings filled the room with wonder, inquisitiveness, and eagerness to create. I matched their energy by amplifying it through call and response songs and chants. I taught the children how to make watercolor monotypes, which is a fun, expressive, nontoxic art process that always yields surprise from participants and jovial responses full of “ooohhs and aaahhs!” One of the teacher chaperones stood out to me—a young woman with shoulder-length, curly brown hair, an infectious smile, and a spirit that matched the children’s excitement. She chuckled and laughed at all my corny jokes designed for the kids. We made a connection. When I do public speaking, I seek affirmation from the Holy Spirit in the eyes of the audience/congregation, where I find understanding and encouragement for me to keep teaching/preaching.

At the end of my workshop the PBS reporter interviewed me about my artwork creation in South Bend. I took the newsman on a journey through the art, explaining the symbolic, historical, and spiritual metaphors that I embedded into the piece. The work is constructed with iconography and carefully juxtaposed visual text hidden in plain view to conjure my audience to decode and read. On the right side of the composition Rosa Parks sits with her arms and legs crossed and her head turned, defiantly ignoring the bus driver’s orders for her to relinquish her seat. Paul, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, proposes that we must “put on the whole armor of God. . . . For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:11–12). Parks is adorned with a breastplate of righteousness and a shield with the letters “AOG” (armor of God); her feet are shod with readiness, and her head is crowned with a spiritual halo signifying the helmet of salvation. Parks will not be moved. Masses of people mobilize to boycott the unequal system outside the window of the bus. Their bodies are layered like a palimpsest demystifying the borders. A sign with the words “I AM” alludes to Moses being called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites:
‘I am has sent me to you.’”

For over a year the Black residents ventured to work by carpooling, walking, and riding bikes until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. Viewing this piece, one may rejoice and celebrate a victory won. Veering to the left side of the composition, one will see that I have constructed the conceptual back of a bus, which is loaded with the stains of the past and present. Lurking like ghosts, white figures loom over the people like a low-hanging fog. One figure wears a cap with the letters “ET,” not for extraterrestrial, but for a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who went south to visit family for the summer in Money, Mississippi. The currency of his life was spent because of a gesture he supposedly made towards a white woman in a convenience store. The boy was abducted, beaten, shot, and lynched. His corpse was tied with barbed wire to an engine block and thrown into the Tallahassee River. Three days later they exhumed his body from the river and sent his remains to Chicago for his mother to identify. His name was Emmett Till. More symbols reveal martyrs and individuals who have been trapped in the hailstorm of hate stemming from the institution of slavery to the present. An “X” on the hat represents Malcolm X, and a crown on the shoulder stands for Martin Luther King Jr., two leaders who were assassinated in 1965 and 1968 respectively, fighting for justice.

A Black man with his hands upraised represents Michael Brown, who was slain in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; the words “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” were proclaimed by protestors. Next to him a young man with a hoodie and a can of tea represents Trayvon Martin, who was slain in 2012 in Sanford, Florida. The letters “K-o-o-l” adorn Trayvon’s hoodie, symbolizing a pack of cigarettes and Eric Garner, who was slain in Staten Island, New York, in 2014 for selling single cigarettes. Garner cried, “I can’t breathe!” and sadly, ironically, they are the same words that George Floyd uttered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2020 before his death under the knee of a police officer. A mother and child sit, calling for peace amid the hate storm. The two are sacred figures minus the halos that would traditionally adorn the head of Mary and Christ. They represent the everyday deities that I believe we all are. Each one of our lives, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class, are sacred and beautiful. The woman holds a Bible open to Matthew 5:3–11; verse 9 becomes our urban credo—“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” We must continue to be a light in the face of darkness, work for beauty, seek truth, and fight for justice. We are called to be fishers of men, and when we march for equality we will be protected!

The reporter thanked me for my words and message for the South Bend community and asked me if I had a title for the piece. I replied, “I am tentatively calling the piece Rosa Sparks. At that instant, the chaperone who hung on my every word quickly turned and walked to the corner of the room frantically fanning her face to regain her composure. My eyes followed her with concern, and I finished my last words with the reporter. I quickly made my way to the young woman and asked if she was alright. Fighting back tears, she intimated to me that she was unable to get out of bed that morning due to depression, but something told her to get up and go. She expressed her love for the workshop, the beautiful way in which I connected with the children, and she understood the voice she heard: I was sent for her. She said that I was doing what she was called to do, and that what I exemplified in the workshop encouraged and blessed her. I replied, “Praise God, I am so thankful God used me in this way.” The tears in her eyes began to fall like a river overflowing its banks. She said, “And then you said my name. I am Sparks.” We both wept.

When I look back and reflect on my experience in South Bend, I realize I went to South Bend to create art, but God had something far greater for me to do; God delivered me to be a spark.

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