We are all people, of all colors.
Any quick search these days can produce statistics that support the value that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have on businesses and communities. For this reason, DEI trainings, certifications, and strategies are just as easy to find. Despite the vast resources, best of intentions, or professionally researched classes taught by skillful instructors, without an emotional connection, the lessons and importance of DEI may be lost.
But what about empathy in DEI? The ability to not only support, but to understand and share the feelings of another. Research supports that DEI may need the addition of another E for empathy, and Forbes recently reported that empathy should be an essential part of any DEI curriculum (forbes.com).
But how to you build empathy? Turning to artists are a wonderful place to begin.
Simply experiencing art can expand the viewers mind, and hearts, to help see own and other’s worlds better (new.arsmia.org). In Georgia, artists and entrepreneurs are using art as a powerful tool in creating empathetic relationships between residents.
These forward-thinking entrepreneurs are across the state, including Georgia’s smaller cities. Artists and small business owners in the Coastal Community of Brunswick, Georgia are using art to build bridges between, well, bridges.
A renaissance is taking place in Downtown Brunswick and artists are driving some of its change.
When I first moved to Glynn County, I heard the term causeway phobia, referencing the F.J. Torras Causeway. Crossing the salt marsh and five tidal rivers, the Causeway is the 4.2-mile strength that connects the City of Brunswick to St. Simons Island. Causeway phobia is a local term to describe the reluctance residents feel about crossing the bridge – for some, the hesitation could be because of the cultural differences over those four miles. The City of Brunswick and St. Simons have similar sized populations around 15,000, but in Brunswick the Black or African American population is 60% while it’s less than 3% on St. Simons Island (https://www.census.gov/).
Residents like Kevin Pullen and others are working to remove those barriers. Using the arts as a catalyst for cultural understanding, connectivity, and empathy for one another. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kevin to discuss his newest project, Colors, and learn how he and other Brunswick entrepreneurs are using arts and culture to grow communities.
Kevin Pullen is a life-long artist
Art life studio is where Kevin Pullen transforms stories and words, into awe-inspiring sculptures and paintings. And while you’d never know it, painting for him came later, with sculpting being his first calling to the arts world.
“I remember going to Kindergarten, Ms. Johnson’s class on the fourth floor, and she had clay. I had never seen clay before, and I loved it. Clay lets you manipulate your world, whatever you want to do with it.” Kevin smiled brightly when sharing his first experiences molding and creating. Going on to talk about his use of clay to make toys and presents that may not have ended up under a Christmas tree, “I’d go into the clay pile and make one.”
Those early Kindergarten experiences were the first sparks, but his mother continued to fan the flame. She gifted Kevin with his first easel and a $1.00 book, How to Draw by Walter Foster. Later, bringing home thrift store finds to encourage her son’s skills.
“One time, she found a big, gilded leaf sculptured carved frame. All the ends were like pure Italian carved sculpture on him. She buys this thing and one of the corners just cracked out. I mean, just blown right out. She brings this thing home, drops it in the backyard, in the grass. She gets a box of plaster, a fork, a single edge razor blade and a butter knife. And she looks at me and says, you can fix this. And I was six, seven years old, whatever. Mom tells you can do. And you believe her. Mine was always doing that.”
Kevin’s tools have changed since that butter knife, so have the themes of his artwork. Since moving to the Golden Isles ten years ago, Kevin has found inspiration from the deep history and cultural roots in the region. Likening it to a calling, “I don't know what it was about here, the Golden Isles region, that I found more to paint about. I found more to sculpt about, and I just made a commitment here that that's what I was going to do. I was going to do whatever this region told me to do.”
I first heard of Kevin because of his bronze sculpture depicting the historic story of Neptune Small. During the Civil War, Neptune carried the body of his wounded master, Henry Lord Page King, from Fredericksburg Virginia back to his home on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia.
Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with Kevin to talk about his latest project – COLORS
What is the COLORS Project?
COLORS is the initiative to tell those stories of people of color to all people of all colors through art experiences. And that's really what the call of it is.
COLORS came about when someone asked me about my vision for what I do as an artist. I had spoken to the idea of having an African American museum, a heritage and cultural center, but I don't want to be a museum of Black people by Black people and for Black people, because that defeats the purpose of having the institution.
It sounds like COLORS is a shared experience for the community.
Precisely. It's not for only us, because we tend to share our experience, not all of it, but we know it better than a lot of other folks. What the missing piece of it is, is how and why my cultural experience matters to you.
It may not be your specific heritage and culture, but it's important because each heritage and culture matters in the whole picture. And if you're ever going to understand the whole picture, you got to know something about all the slices of it.
If you really don't know me and my culture, or I really don't know you and your culture, then it’s easy to take license to hate you, to prejudge you, to do all those other things. If I do know you, I revoke that license.
Where do you find your inspiration for the COLORS work?
People, places, stories, and the passage of time. I used to read a story and for some reason or another, it wouldn’t stick. Now stories talk to me, but it's probably that I'm listening a little better. I'll read the writings of Dr. King and other people and so forth. I'll read the narratives of things that happened in and there's just something about the now and reading it here or connecting the dots, I don't know. But those stories are very personal. They're very relevant.
You mentioned that the Golden Isles has called you to paint and sculpt stories, for COLORS and more. Why do you think that is?
It's highly likely that my ancestors came in on this coast. I’ve learned and read that a large percentage of the slave trade came in between Carolina, North Florida, and here. I didn’t know those stories. And not that I didn't care, but it's harder to care when you don't know.
Once you listen to those stories, you learn that you are a part of something bigger. You're born, you live, you die, and time keeps going before and after. But what happened before you got here is important, and what's going to happen after you leave here is going to be important. And if you're just along for the ride, instead of doing something to affect positive change, then what are you here for?
You’ve had your first COLORS demonstration at the lofts and work space, 1608 Liberty, what’s next for COLORS ?
I still have more of the art pieces, or stories to make, but the project's taken a life of its own since that demo. During that show I met a young film crew and we’re collaborating to tell the next set of stories that I’m working on. We’re going to share those stories not only verbally or with old photos, but through live art experiences.
For example, we’ll go out there to Jekyll Island where the Wanderer Ship came in. Take in the surroundings, the ocean, the atmosphere. I’ll draw the wanderer out there in the midst. What would it look like if the occupants of the ship were walking onto the beach now, exhausted, tired, hungry about almost dead, what would that be like?
Art would be the piece that helps connect the story to the audience. I don't tell a great verbal narrative, but I can tell the narrative visually, or sculpturally, and then the verbal supports that.
I am also seeking a permanent location for this work, and others. There's a host of art by people of color waiting to be seen, but we have no place here to show it.
Other businesses are using arts and culture to connect the coastal community.
Xyno Furniture is currently one of two Black-owned business on Newcastle Street in historic Brunswick. The company’s high-end industrial furniture is elevated by their mission to transform the traditional retail experience during fun and refreshing buying events. Since opening, the shop hosts monthly events with music, dancing, and artisans. Owners, Derrick and Lisa Jordan are going a step further, planning Brunswick’s, “Make it Funky Fest” on March 11. The event invites families to enjoy live music, soul, R&B, Jazz, blues, food from other Black-owned businesses and artists. The event is drawing in entrepreneurs as far as Atlanta, including Pinky Cole and her famous vegan burgers.
"Our motivation for the Make if Funky music festival is the same motivation we had when opening the furniture store, and that’s to simply be a beacon that attracts people from the surrounding areas and our local community to downtown Brunswick. We aim to show the local community that major things are happening in downtown and more importantly we are encouraging them to be a part of the revitalization," said Lisa Jordan. "We believe the coming together of people in a common interest such as music, binds communities, strengthens friendships and exposes people to new opportunities."
Thanks to entrepreneurs like the Pullen, the Jordans, and others, residents of the Golden Isles have more opportunities to share culture and build empathy. Through art, be it sculpture, paintings, or music, these shared experiences are helping change hearts, and grow the community for everyone.
Connect with the Creators
Kevin Pullen earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hampton University, where he studied painting, drawing, design, metal sculpture and casting, and his art education credentials from Georgia State University. His master’s degree in education leadership and curriculum obtained at the University of West Georgia. Pullen recently retired from teaching at the Golden Isles Career Academy; however, is teaching art part-time, launching its first art program, at for Risley Middle School.
Visit his studio site at Kevin Pullen Art Design. You can also find a video of Kevin sharing the Neptune Story at https://youtu.be/vLvkkDKpSzE
Thank you to Sam Ghioto Studio for capturing the photos and videos for COLORS. Ghioto is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and photographer based on Saint Simon's Island.
Find Your Inspiration to Grow
Ready to help your business and community connect? Across Georgia, find organizations focused on supporting small and diverse-owned firms. Find the inspiration you need to make history with resources and programs throughout the State.