Drawing for Peace
Steve Sunderland’s Artistic Vocabulary
By Saad Ghosn
“A question always haunts me: What am I doing for peace?” says Steve Sunderland, an artist, writer and professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Sunderland is the director of “Peace Village,” a healing educational organization he founded after the 2001 Cincinnati riots and the 9/11Trade Center attack; it uses art, music, conferences and various creative means to heal from violence and promote inner and social peace.
Sunderland actually has done and daily does a lot for peace.
Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and ’60s, early on he developed good organizing skills that found him an important player in many social justice and liberation movements. As a college student he was actively involved in the hunger program for Mississippi, the Civil Rights Movement in Washington, D.C., desegregation and setting up a union for graduate students at Indiana University/Bloomington, promotion of student academic freedom of speech under the American Students Organization and development of compassionate and inclusive means to fight anti-Semitism as part of the National Training Laboratories.
After graduating from Case Western Reserve University with a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and administration, his energy focused on desegregating higher education. He functioned as vice president of the Master Plan at City University in New York City, helping integrate 25,000 African-American and Hispanic students based on open-admissions policy. Then, until the 1977 recession, he was head of a small college for African-American and underprivileged individuals in New York, pulling them out of welfare and enrolling them into a master’s degree program that combined study and work.
This is when he moved to Cincinnati to join UC, initially as dean of the College of Community Services, then as a professor at the School of Social Work and lately at the School of Education. At UC he continued his activist work toward the integration of higher education.
As an organizer, Sunderland followed in the steps of his father, a British immigrant, labor organizer and communist leader in New York City in the late 1930s. As an artist, Sunderland took his inspiration from his maternal aunt, a mentally handicapped artist whose beautiful paintings adorned the walls of his family house. For two years he attended the first public High School of Music and Art in the country, in the center of Harlem. Students of all ethnic backgrounds populated it, his first experience with real diversity.
Sunderland, however, did not do art until he was in his sixties. Art came back into his life with the 2001 Cincinnati riots and the 9/11 attacks of the same year. Inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s documentation of Harriet Tubman’s and Frederick Douglass’s life stories on particleboards, he decided to use cardboards to document and reflect the events going on at the time. Armed with cardboards, markers and crayons, he mingled with the rioting crowds, watched, listened and drew mostly the faces and emotions of those present. He also involved his UC students, enrolled in a class on conflict resolution, to do the same. Witnessing the events through the faces and feelings of participants rendered on cardboard grew in scope and intensity, and Posters4Peace was born.
Sunderland has since been using the technique non-stop. He drew people’s reactions to the 9/11 attacks. For the past nine years he has drawn the feelings of participants in a yearly Vietnam peace conference led by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn; the conference includes Vietnam War vets, anti-war protesters and Vietnamese people, all gathered for healing and reconciliation.
With students, Sunderland draws scenes of hunger. With children, he draws events that affect them. He also draws themes of inclusion in the classroom, natural disasters such as the tsunami in Indonesia and earthquake in Haiti, wars and the misery of death.
“I draw about the pain I encounter or experience, pain of those who want social justice, fairness, pain caused by poverty, loss of hope, no jobs, racism,” he says. “I draw mostly faces of people I meet. I draw them myself; also invite them, if willing, to partake in the activity. Afterwards we all share the images, discuss feelings and messages.”
After the 2001 Cincinnati riots, when the city hired a consultant to mediate between police and the community, Sunderland was invited to join in to elicit police officers’ and citizens’ feelings about the violence. Drawing on cardboard, he prompted participants with two questions: “How do you feel about the riots? And what would your drawing of a healthy city be?” He obtained hundreds of response drawings that served as conversation starters to address the issues; they eventually contributed to a peace treaty with the police.
After the 9/11attacks, drawings were reactions to the events, to the sense of impotence generated and to how to respond to the tragedy. With the Vietnam vets, they were about feelings of hurt, regret and anger.
In all instances, Sunderland uses the drawings as vehicles for an immediate reflection on the problem addressed, an expression of his own reaction and feelings and those of others involved, everyone empowered and engaged in a dialogue for a peaceful resolution.
“Art provides a vocabulary; it is a liberating activity,” he says. “It is also a communication tool that allows exchange of ideas, feelings. Art can plant a seed of compassion and function as an instrument for peace. Drawing images and feelings, sharing and discussing them, break down artificial boundaries between individuals, lead them to a deeper appreciation of their humaneness.”
Through Peace Village and with his students at UC, Sunderland has recently focused on inclusion, hunger and Islam.
His drawing, What is Inclusion, created in response to a conference of disabled individuals, ponders whether there is room in our hearts for mixing people despite their disability – or only room for segregation. Dreaming of College is about the disabled student wanting to be in college but not in an isolated corner.
Sunderland is also a writer who authors a regular column on peace in the monthly online Metro newspaper.
“I want both my art and writing to be at the human level,” he says. “My work illuminates peace in some fashion, catching a look on the face of a person, a word or expression that throws light on justice – sketches of hope and compassion in a world that struggles to keep peace alive. I want my drawings to heighten reflection and action for and with others. Through art and conversation, I aim to rebuild the world of people caught in tsunamis of violence and despair, to signal the powerful inner spirit of love.”