‘1,000 Footsteps’ series uses art, conversation to tell KC refugee stories

Guests at the opening reception of “1,000 Footsteps Tell the Story” study refugee portraits taken by Julie Denesha. (Photo by Tim Engle/MCC)

“1,000 Footsteps Tell the Story: Refugees’ Journeys Through Art and Conversation” opens with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley’s Carter Art Center, 3201 Southwest Trafficway. The art exhibit and series of accompanying programs focus on the refugees who now call Greater Kansas City home.

The art exhibit includes storytelling quilts and paintings created by refugees, as well as photography and drawings.

Featured speakers at the opening reception will include Ann Say from Once We were Refugees, who helped local refugees make the story quilts; Abdul Bakar, a former refugee who has worked with refugee resettlement; artist Sandra Van Tuyl; and photographer Julie Denesha.

The Carter Art Center, local artists and advocacy groups for refugees made the show possible, says Bernadette Torres, the gallery’s director. She notes that many refugees need protection from violence against themselves or family members still living in war-torn areas.

A Sudanese refugee with one of the story quilts (Photo by Julie Denesha)
Telling stories through quilts

The quilts on display were created in sewing classes at Once We Were Refugees, a not-for-profit that teaches vocational skills to both women and men newly arrived in Kansas City. Through fabric, drawings and photographs, these unique quilts tell the stories of refugee families’ flights from their home countries, life in refugee camps and their voyages to safety. Images and designs stand in for words to document a story before it is forgotten.

When Abdul Bakar, director of refugee services at the Della Lamb Refugee/Adult Education Center, asked volunteer Ann Say if she knew how to teach sewing, she wasn’t at all sure if that was how she wanted to spend her retirement years. Say now instructs refugees from countries including Somalia, South Sudan, Iraq and Syria. She said the work has challenged and energized her in ways she never expected.

Lecture series furthers outreach

Kansas City artist Sandra Van Tuyl worked to bring the art and local agencies together, giving public voice to these personal stories. She’s curated an evening lecture series on refugee issues that accompanies this exhibit.

“We are all immigrants,” says Van Tuyl. “We have all had a journey story. My own family came over from Eastern Europe and homesteaded. That’s a story. The stories of these refugees are new stories of new Americans and how they begin their life here.”

The lectures will be presented Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays throughout the series. Locations will be the Carter Art Center (Room 209) and the Penn Valley Education Center (Room 006). Speakers include:

For full details about the lecture series, click here.

“1,000 Footsteps Tell the Story: Refugees’ Journeys Through Art and Conversation” runs Feb. 2-March 8 at the MCC-Penn Valley Carter Art Center. Gallery hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon-3 p.m. Saturday. All events are free and open to the public.

For a preview of “1,000 Footsteps Tell the Story” on KCUR, click here.

More photos from the exhibit’s opening night: