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Felt tips and feelings: Posters
Offer Outlet After Tragedies

Date: Sept. 25, 2001
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Archive: Campus News

First the streets of Cincinnati erupted in riots in April. Then on Sept. 11, terrorists steered airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, crashed another in Pennsylvania and left the nation and the world in a state of shock. All of these events, though different in impact, give rise to an inner turmoil of emotions that can be difficult for us to voice -- or even put into words.

Steve Sunderland

A UC professor of social work has found a way to literally draw these feelings out, using magic markers, ink, pencil and scraps of cardboard boxes. Right after the riots began, Steve Sunderland, professor of social work and expert on grief counseling, picked up a pen and piece of cardboard to jot out his own feelings. Since then, he has created stacks of graffiti-like corrugated posters, borrowing on an approach he observed in a Louisville exhibit of works by African American artist Jacob Lawrence. Although the posters started out with the Cincinnati riots, they now also encompass the indescribable emotion of the recent terrorist attacks.

While Sunderland stresses the two events - the riots and the terrorist attack - are very different, they do have some points in common. In both cases, but even more so with the terrorist attacks, Sunderland said, "I think we are largely overwhelmed. We are in shock and don't know what the appropriate response is."

He also believes that both involve common elements of fear and prejudice. "There is a fear that Cincinnati has become too dangerous a place. I hear a lot of white people saying that they think African Americans have taken over and are running the city into the ground. And I think what I am hearing this week is that the world is no longer safe, that the Arabs have taken over and are running the world into the ground. I think it will in fact escalate as our fears inflate, and we don't really know who our enemy is," said Sunderland, who is the co-founder of the well-known Fernside Center for Grieving Children in Norwood, Ohio.

Poster Made After Attack

No matter what the reaction, Sunderland suggests that we all need to talk about our feelings. "We need to express our fears, and we need to do it in a supportive atmosphere, without fear of being judged."

When Sunderland first started making his own posters, he said, "I didn't know what to do with my feelings, my anger, my upset, my fear."

"What can be done to stop the violence?" asked one of his first posters after the Cincinnati unrest. Three weeks later, another asked: "Business as Usual?"

"It was still too soon...we were still in shock, we were moving to blame people and try to find some solutions, such as the 3,000 summer jobs for urban teens," said Sunderland.

"Back to Square 1," bleakly stated another of Sunderland's posters, not long after Week 3. It depicts six black squares with 1s inside, all labeled with different kinds of hate he could hear about every night on the news - hatred of other's race, hatred of other's religion, hatred of difference, hatred of all police, self hatred, and hatred of kids, elderly, gays and Jews.

Soon, the pieces of cardboard were providing him with some sense of release, and he decided this approach might be helpful to others. He took his poster-making project to groups in the community. His own social work students, youths in Winton Place Youth Center and members of the Clifton United Methodist Church all sketched out grief, sadness, anger, frustration, shock, fear - you name it - all those feelings that remained invisible or seemed to be unutterable in the weeks after the riots. Sunderland even practiced poster therapy with police and members of the community who participated in forums to follow up on the civil disturbances.

Then, Sept. 11 happened - the day that news commentators have compared to Pearl Harbor. First, Sunderland was preoccupied with worry about his own brother, who worked next to the World Trade Center. By midnight that night, Sunderland learned his brother's office had moved months before. Relieved, the grief counselor began to think about the impact of the terrorist attacks on other people. The next day he went back to the Winton Place Youth Center to make posters with the children. "The posters were amazing, and I took them to an evening prayer meeting at Clifton United Methodist Church and the following day to a meeting of 25 ministers at MARCC (the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati)."

Posters at Union Terminal

Few at the church could do any posters, so deep was their shock and grief, said Sunderland, who himself drew two towers of hearts, twin towers of love and pain, where once stood the 110-story World Trade Center skyscrapers. "The ministers could draw, but talking about their posters was not easy." One clergyman dissolved into tears as he looked at a poster that reminded him of being a child in the days after the Japanese attack on Hawaii in World War II. Tears proved to be a common reaction, too, at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church on the Sunday after the attacks, when Sunderland led a poster-making session for members of the congregation.

"All of these meetings reaffirmed my belief that the poster process can touch children and adults in ways that are beautiful, courageous and hopeful," he said.

While Sunderland has found the cardboard drawings personally therapeutic, he hopes that others do, too. At Winton Place Youth Center, Sunderland's work has helped the children, who are aged 5-18, "articulate feelings and use that energy to do better, rather than destructive things," said Linda Wihl, executive director. "In the wake of the riots and the World Trade Center, the art really helped the kids as a group to cope with that trauma and share feelings in a way that enabled them to get on with the business of life."

Even more people will have the opportunity to vent their own feelings when Sunderland's exhibit, "Posters 4 Peace," opens Oct. 1 at the Edwards Gallery on the sixth floor of Edwards One. Everyone who goes will have a chance to make posters of their own, as well as view the work in Sunderland's ever-expanding collection.

"I hope people coming to the exhibit will feel safe in expressing any feelings they have about the Cincinnati police-community situation and the recent attacks. We have a lot to say, and I hope the exhibit gives people a chance to do that," he said.

"I think this exhibit will help to get people talking and begin healing," agreed Anne Timpano, director of DAAP Galleries. "It will be a participatory exhibit. I think it can have a cathartic effect on people who participate."

Exhibit to open Oct. 1

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