The Middlebury Campus

M Gallery Exhibit Celebrates VT Immigrants

Invisible Odysseys explores the personal stories and struggles of migrant workers. (Campus/Sophie Bufton)

Invisible Odysseys explores the personal stories and struggles of migrant workers. (Campus/Sophie Bufton)

Invisible Odysseys explores the personal stories and struggles of migrant workers. (Campus/Sophie Bufton)

By Ben Mansky

A breeze blows over Otter Creek, sweeping an earthy scent up from the riverbanks  to the patio of Old Stone Mill. The M Gallery shines like a beacon from the first floor of the old building, and the sounds of conversation filter through the windows. Inside, visitors find ropes of flowers draped  over rafters. But alongside this cheerful atmosphere is a message far more complex. It is a message of injustice and fear, of danger and sacrifice — but it is also a message of courage, hope and the pursuit of a better life.

The Invisible Odysseys exhibit, brought to the M Gallery as a part of the myAMERICA? Immigration Symposium, opened last Friday to an enthusiastic audience of students, faculty and members of the community.  Addressing the issues surrounding immigration from Mexico to the United States, the exhibit aims to provide a more personal perspective on the struggles of immigrants. Each work of art is accompanied by a story — sometimes a poem, sometimes an explanation of the piece, sometimes a tale of the treacherous crossing into the United States — presented in both English and Spanish. Nearly every diorama featured in the exhibition was created by an immigrant now working on a farm in Vermont. The workers have little to no artistic experience.

The exhibit’s creator and curator, sculptor B. Amore, explained that her original plan for the exhibit was to listen to the workers’ stories and interpret them as sculpture herself. With the help of Susan McCandless and Ethan Mitchell, alongside groups including the Addison County Farm Worker Coalition, Juntos and Migrant Ed, Amore located the first migrant, Ismael, and heard his story. Upon listening, however, it struck her that his tale was so vivid and visual that the only one to recreate it should be Ismael himself. With that, the network expanded, and greater numbers of Mexican farm workers were encouraged to express themselves and their journeys through large, autobiographical dioramas. For inspiration, they were each given a booklet of outsider art — works by people with no formal art education —  as well as materials and support. While some were reluctant at first, the newfound artists soon found the work extremely gratifying.

“Everyone was so excited to work on it because it was a chance to tell their stories,” said Amore.

The process of creating the dioramas took about six to eight months, with a long period of outreach and planning that put the total time that went into this exhibit well over one year — and it certainly shows.

The art is visceral, and the impact is made only stronger by the stories that accompany each piece.  Fear is made tangible in the work “Esfuérzate y se Valiente/Be Strong and Courageous,” where a large van full of people teeters atop a box painted with a map of the border crossing. Visitors can feel disillusionment in “The Mirage of a Dream,” which presents the imagined America with a dollar bill over an entryway while describing the “crossing of death” that awaits those who attempt entry. “Worker’s Mandala/Tracing the Journeys,” a central piece by Amore, serves as an overview of the entire collection, mapping each immigrant’s arduous path up from Mexico and across the country to arrive in Vermont. But the message that shines through is that of two opposing views of the Green Mountain State — Vermont as a paradise, and Vermont as a prison.

The portrayal of Vermont as a pastoral paradise is a predominant theme in several of the dioramas in Invisible Odysseys. “The Sacrifice to Better Provide for my Family,” created by an artist who calls himself “El Emigrante de Hidalgo, México,” focuses on the juxtaposition of two contrasting scenes — a Mexican desert and a Vermont landscape.  Present at the exhibit opening, El Emigrante de Hidalgo described the meaning behind the desolate desert landscape, scattered with scorpions, snakes and sharp stones.

“The scorpions and the snakes represent the dangers we face in crossing the border,” he said. “The [painting in the] center is here, Vermont — here, there is life, there is work.”

He spoke of his personal struggle, of leaving behind his family without knowing if he would ever see them again, of adapting to a strange new environment without knowing the language, of rising costs in Mexico and the need for work that will allow him to pay for his children’s education.  He would bring his family to Vermont to stay with him, he said, if they could come legally, but since he is not legal, it simply is not safe. While Vermont is calm and secure compared to Mexico, all he can do is wait .

Like El Emigrante de Hidalgo’s work, “Aparador/Window Shopping” by El Soñador imagines a better future for generations to come, a future that isn’t possible in Mexico. However, El Soñador fears that this imagined future isn’t possible in the United States, either — not with the constant fear of deportation. Another artist, A.B., takes a similar view in “Beauty Can Be Deceiving,” writing that, although Vermont gave the impression of beauty, and although there was work here, it is closer to a prison than a paradise. Here, the artist is unable to travel freely, constantly facing the fear of deportation or mistreatment and cannot stand being away from any relatives for so long. Juan Carlos’ diorama “La Caja de un Rancho/The Box of a Farm” mirrors this sentiment, describing himself as trapped, both on the farm and in the United States.

It is true that life in Vermont is not easy for these workers — they live in extremely cramped conditions and work long hours for low wages. But, for many, it is neither a prison nor a paradise — it is only a tool.

In “Pursuing a Dream,” artist Mauro has built a model mansion, brightly colored and festively decorated. He describes his long-term goal to have such a house on a nice property in Mexico.

There is not enough work in Mexico to raise the money, so he has come here for a few years — only as long as he needs to save up for his dream home.

He does not and never has intended to stay here. Mexico has always been the goal; Vermont has just been a necessary step along the way.

Slightly less self-assured are mother-daughter pair Anabel and Maria. In their diorama, entitled “Ilusión/Illusion,” they express a profound nostalgia for their life in Mexico.

However, while they made a promise to themselves to go to the U.S., raise money, then return to Mexico to purchase land and a proper home, they are having second thoughts aboutgoing back — there  is not the same stability to be found in Mexico as there is in Vermont.

Overall, Invisible Odysseys provided an intensely personal perspective on the issue of immigration, one that is near-impossible to find anywhere else. Amore recognizes the exhibit’s neat design.

“When you read something about immigration, how often do you actually see a quote from an immigrant,” she asked.

Invisible Odysseys displays the power of art in giving everyone a voice, even those who we rarely think about in our day-to-day lives, those who have faced more than we could imagine, to get where they are right now.

Amore thinks it is about time they made their struggles known.

“These are people with tremendous courage.”

Invisible Odysseys will be at the M Gallery until Oct. 7. In addition, opening Sept. 28 in the Vermont Folklife Center in town is an exhibit of the work of El Emigrante de Hidalgo, México.

1 Comment

One Response to “M Gallery Exhibit Celebrates VT Immigrants”

  1. Stephanie Lafarge on September 28th, 2012 7:23 pm

    I am impressed with any Gallery that would devote it’s resources to illuminating this important topic through artistic expression. I own property in Vermont but never thought about the plight of immigrants. This project has raised my consciousness.Thank you