Local artists spoke on how art has helped heal them and how the city can invest in local artists.
(Screenshot by Ana Martinez-Ortiz)

It’s been an unprecedented year. The pandemic has brought devastation to the economy, people’s lives and more. It also uncovered the racial and health disparities that have long been prevalent and ignored in cities across the nation such as in Milwaukee.

It makes sense then, that the Greater Milwaukee Foundation chose to not only go forward with its fourth annual On the Table event, but that the theme was ‘healing justice.’

On the Table gives everyone a seat at the table to discuss the issues facing Milwaukee, have meaningful connections and sort out potential solutions, which have the potential to come to fruition through the Ideas to Action grant.

This year’s On the Table took place virtually over the course of three days starting on Monday, Oct. 12 and ending Wednesday, Oct. 14. The event kicked off with a panel headed by keynote speaker, Frank Nitty Sensabaugh.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, moderators and discussion leaders held conversations topics related to ‘healing justice’ such as Black and brown philanthropists, how to build an ecosystem for change, funding the frontlines and more.

LaShawndra Vernon of Artists Working in Education and Kennita Hickman of Imagine MKE hosted a conversation titled, “Healing: Using Art as a Way Forward.” The panel consisted of local artists: Ray Nitti, Rosy Petri, Nicole Acosta and Anna Rose Menako.

The artists discussed how art has helped them heal and how it can help heal a fragmented community.

Petri is a multidisciplinary artist. Her specialty is quilting. Petri told the story of how art healed her after experiencing two deaths in the family.

“I found myself sitting in front of a sewing machine for the first time in a decade,” Petri said. “Since then my work has been directly tied to my healing process.”

Through her creative process, Petri found the tools she needed to heal.

Nitti, a local rapper, explained that the grew up in a domestic violence household. During an Urban Underground youth seminar, two guest poets read “The Children are Crying.” Nitti started crying and one of the poets encouraged Nitti to work through his feelings through written word.

Nitti started writing poetry to process his feelings. He said writing poems helped get his thoughts down while also giving him the means to forgive. It also motivated him to create a place for artists to express themselves and sharpen their talent. Nitti is one of the moving forces behind The Community Within the Corridor.

Menako added that art has given her a sense of self-empowerment to trust her intuition.

“When I make a piece of art, I think ‘how do I want it to make me feel?’ and then I just keep piecing the art work together until it comes to fruition,” she said. “That has been very healing for me and given me a sense confidence in my own artistic voice.”

While creating art has helped them heal, Vernon and Hickman also asked the artists to describe a piece that has helped them. Acosta, a Latina photographer and painter, recalled the time she saw a painting of Frida Kahlo while on a family road trip.

Frida Kahlo’s unibrow is almost as iconic as the artist herself and she never shied away from portraying it in her painting. Acosta said at the time she too had a unibrow but seeing this painting of Frida Kahlo was therapeutic.

“It was the first time I saw myself in a piece of art,” Acosta said.

Petri and Acosta both talked about the work they are doing to create healing art during this current time. Petri is focusing on ways to decolonize the narrative. She noted that instead of waiting for someone to create the space or moment, artists should create it themselves.

Currently, she is working on an oral history project that focuses on Black women and Black queer folks in the movement who aren’t necessarily on the front lines but who are contributing to the work being done.

“[I’m] taking some time to sit with and talk with them and listen,” Petri said, adding that she’s wants to know what’s important to them and what type of support they need.

She’s working with photographers and other artists to create a piece that will eventually be a first-person source.

Acosta, meanwhile, is continuing her hoops portrait project, in which she takes pictures of Black, brown and Indigenous women wearing hoops. Hoops have a stigma attached to them, Acosta said, in which Black and brown bodies are viewed as unprofessional or ghetto if they’re wearing hoops. But through her portrait series, she’s helping women reclaim their heritage and their power.

“The hoops are telling their stories and the people who are wearing these hoops are sharing their stories associated with their portraits,” Acosta said. “You come to realize that mothers are passing down earrings, grandmas are passing down or gifting earrings…”

“There are all these beautiful stories wrapped up in our hoop earrings and those are the type of stories I found while doing this project that people want to hear.”

As the protests over the summer unfolded, Acosta found that sharing the portraits and continuing to take the photos gave a voice to many women, who wanted their stories to be

The artists were asked how art remains a priority for them and what the city can do to make art a priority.

“People are relying so heavily on artists right now, it’s not non-essential it is quality of life stuff that gives people hope” Petri said, citing clothes, tv shows and movies, books and food as everyday essentials that have derived from art and culture.

Petri said she hopes that the city realizes that the homegrown artists are just as valuable as the folks who come in.

“Art is an essential need for us,” said Nitti. “I hope the city is learning from this pandemic that we need way more investment because it helps retain our homegrown talent.”

The artists all agreed that artists need to be paid what they deserve and that diversity is important as is checking the infrastructure.

While the conversation may have ended, the work has only just begun.