The Frist Art Museum presents We Count: First-Time Voters, an online exhibition featuring the work of five local artists inspired by the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Originally scheduled to be on view in the Conte Community Arts Gallery, the exhibition will go live at FristArtMuseum.org/WeCount on May 1, 2020, as the Museum is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. It will highlight the history and challenges of voting in the United States and the first voting experiences of a diverse group of Nashvillians.
The artists—Beizar Aradini, M Kelley, Jerry Bedor Phillips, Thaxton Waters II, and Donna Woodley—connected with individuals and community groups across Nashville to learn about their voting experiences. The artists then created visual representations of those stories, through drawing, painting, printing, stitching, and other techniques. “Some topics that emerged from the conversations were disenfranchisement, awareness of everyday inequities, the challenges of the immigration and citizenship process, and the restoration of voting rights,” said Shaun Giles, Frist Art Museum assistant director for community engagement and exhibition curator. “The resulting works of art embody both individual and collective insights on civic engagement and responsibility, as well as the systemic hurdles that prevent people from participating in our democracy.”
“Though we are disappointed to not be able to display the work in our physical building because of unforeseen scheduling challenges related to COVID-19 closures, we are excited to present our first-ever completely digital exhibition experience,” said Giles. “We are exploring ways to present the art and voters’ stories in dynamic and meaningful ways online for our audiences.”
Together, the artists represent many different backgrounds of Americans—they have ancestors who were African, Kurdish, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islanders. “We were intentional about reaching out to a diverse group of artists working in a variety of mediums,” said Giles. “They are all certainly skilled artists, but also community-oriented individuals who value shared dialogue and civic engagement."
The 19th Amendment, which guarantees and protects women’s right to vote, is especially significant to Tennessee, as it was the 36th state to pass the amendment, completing the two-thirds majority needed to make it the law of the land. Tennessee, however, is now ranked 49th in voter turnout and 45th in voter registration. “On top of all of our current challenges, 2020 contains a confluence of events in our country, with the census and the presidential election,” said Anne Henderson, Frist Art Museum director of education and engagement. “Through this exhibition, we hope to encourage visitors to exercise their constitutional right to vote and to deepen understanding of historic and ongoing struggles for equal voting rights.”
Several works address the struggles to gain or regain the right to vote. Beizar Aradini’s reflection on the immigrant experience of gaining citizenship is told through an embroidered poem and portrait mimicking an ID photo. M Kelley’s prints highlight the journey of reentry into society after incarceration, expressed through the use of iconic paper ballot and flag imagery, symbolic colors, and depictions of themes raised in interviews with those who have restored their rights and those who continue to work toward system reform.
Thaxton Waters II conducted interviews and held conversations throughout North Nashville. His painting addresses the persistent denial of voting rights to black men in the segregated South even after military service, as depicted in the faces of generations of soldiers. Roses surrounding the painting’s border symbolize the War of Roses, the battle between the ideals of suffragists and anti-suffragists.
In colored pencil drawings, Jerry Bedor Phillips portrays four members of the Nashville community who represent different backgrounds but are all engaged, voting citizens concerned for the future and how they can help shape it. Donna Woodley celebrates a passionate and tireless voter’s advocate in North Nashville whom she got to know, paying tribute to her life in a painting.
Details about online public programs for this exhibition will be posted on FristArtMuseum.org and @FristArtMuseum on our social media platforms.