Barbara Gamboa’s Life-Sized Canvas

Freedom fighter wages art

By Saad Ghosn

Barbara gamboa and her painting, "Guerlain, the Song of Haiti." Photo by Bill Howes.

As a teenager, Barbara Gamboa was known as “the freedom rider.” The youngest person in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), she would spend her free time designing signs and posters to be used in marches and demonstrations. This was in the mid-1960s, when segregation was prominent and the civil rights movement expanding.

Gamboa, of African American origin, was born in Selma, Ala., a city the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put on the activists’ map. At age 4 she came to Cincinnati to join her parents, who had preceded her, leaving their fields in the deep South for a new and free life, working in the kitchen of downtown’s Mills Restaurant. In Cincinnati, she lived in many places, and as a child, art would always busy her hands.

“Art came to me very early,” Gamboa says. “I would draw pictures in the sand, paint with nail polish and charcoal pieces, make dolls and clothes from paper bags, create designs from chewing-gum foil …”

High-school art teacher and well-known Cincinnati artist Jack Mueller recognized Gamboa’s talent and encouraged her to attend the Art Academy. Tuition was high, though, and not knowing what to do, Gamboa, 17, joined the army to become a surgical nurse. She worked mostly in the operating room, in an orthopedic treatment center in Fort Gordon, Ga., witnessing many limb amputations due to the Vietnam War. The violence she encountered then has stayed with her ever since.

After three years in the army and an interlude living in California, Gamboa returned to Cincinnati, now married with children. She decided to pursue her education, earning a master’s degree in education, focusing on developmental disability, at the University of Cincinnati. For more than 25 years she taught disabled and emotionally or behaviorally impaired children in the Cincinnati Public Schools.

Whether in high school, in the army, unemployed or teaching children, Gamboa always used art as a means for self-expression and as a tool to achieve her social and educational objectives. In high school, she used her art for justice and equality. In the army, her paintings addressed problems of poverty and malnutrition in Biafra and the colonialist wars in Africa at the time.

While teaching, she used art to engage her students, introduce important concepts, address timely issues and illustrate history. To help her students learn to read, she drew images, connecting them to words. Teaching black history, she used collages from old newspapers creating artistically attractive bulletin boards to capture kids’ interest and attention. For each subject taught she would organize her art to coincide with the topic, art becoming itself part of the learning.

During that period Gamboa received four teacher art grants from the “Keep Cincinnati Beautiful” program. The grants funded her use of photography to teach kids about the environment, recycling and community values. She and her students traveled the city, taking photographs about environmental issues. The grant also helped start school gardens, teaching children about foods, their origins, their role in a healthful diet and a green environment.

Five years ago Gamboa retired from teaching. The violence she had experienced both in the army and dealing with kids’ problems resurfaced as post-traumatic stress disorder, causing her heart arrhythmia. Having more free time, she started making art daily; it helped her recovery.

In addition to race and slavery, Gamboa’s art addresses current problems of society.

“All issues are whole, interconnected, generalized,” she says. “Their causes stem from the same well. It is not only black and white; it is most often good and evil, right and wrong.”

Good Ship Fidelity, a mixed media sculpture, represents a small boat in which she positioned, naked, hair cut and chained, Barbie dolls she painted silver. It reconstituted, based on historic diagrams, the physical reality of a slave boat. “While making this piece, I was always in tears,” she says. “It made me relate directly and emotionally to the fate of thousands of my distant relatives; (it) also put me in touch with the bigotry and injustice still prevailing in our society.”

Gamboa features dolls and baby figures in other installations. She uses them as innocent, vulnerable indicators and victims of neglect and violence.

“When I was young, I thought more in terms of race,” she says. “Now I realize that, in our male-dominated society gender … control and domination of women is often the real issue.”

Her painting, Guerlain, the Song of Haiti, is about poor indigenous living conditions of Haiti, perceived as a tropical paradise by insensitive tourists. Upstream is about Katrina and the wiping away of family structure as a result of the physical ravage. In The Greeting, a woman in the background, a hummingbird and lush vegetation depict her longing for a welcoming garden.

When not doing her own art, Gamboa curates shows, bringing together artists of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, connecting them by ideas and themes. The shows concretize her views of a reconciled, tolerant, happy world. I see Africa, Perceptions, Reality and Imagining, a show she recently curated at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, allowed a group of diverse artists to bring forward their concepts of Africa, contributing to a multifaceted reality not only of the continent but also of life in general.

“I am an activist through my own art,” Gamboa says, “also through my use of art to empower others. There are things I won’t bear, and I respond to them. For me, life is what counts, and kindness and good human qualities are the essence. There is no separation between my life and my art. My canvas becomes my life; both blend together.”