Painting a little joy into corners of sadness

Baltimore ... Or Less

February 22, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Willa Bickham paints what she sees around her home in Southwest Baltimore, the flowers in the backyard, the evicted family huddled on a door stoop, Christmas at her granddaughters' home, the a-rabber's wagon full of fruit and vegetables, the burned-out house where children have died.

Bickham's home is the Catholic Worker Viva House that she and her husband, Brendan Walsh, founded more than 35 years ago at 26 S. Mount St., in a struggling neighborhood where survival is even harder today.

A sampling of her artwork, mostly watercolor paintings, is on display now at the Reeves Gallery of St. Ignatius Church at Calvert and Madison streets.

Viva House still serves free food on Wednesdays and Thursdays and operates a pantry offering bags of food once a month.

"Meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes today, salad and fruit," Bickham says. "Today, oh, there'll be about 260."

She and her husband do a lot of advocacy with neighbors, helping with evictions and gas bills, along with protests and demonstrations, such as the weekly witness against capital punishment at the state prison complex on Madison Street.

"That takes up a lot of time," she says, so she paints in evenings or on the weekend.

"I do most of my painting at home and take it to class for critique," she says. "I do silk screens and textiles. I paint and quilt."

She made a wedding quilt for her daughter, Kate, when she married Dave Walsh-Little. She painted her granddaughters, Maya and Grace, into her Christmas painting Joy ... Couragio. The late Philip Berrigan, the patriarch of the Catholic anti-war movement, often used the word couragio when he urged courage.

"I did this while he was dying," Bickham. "It was just too hard a time to do an intense painting. I had to do something with a lot of play and hope."

An anti-war gesture

She paints regularly with a group of women who study with Marshall Kinsley, a former president of the Watercolor Society. Liz McAlister, Berrigan's wife and a longtime peace and justice activist in her own right, just joined.

Joy ... Couragio is an utterly charming painting of Christmas at the Walsh-Little home, when they lived next door to Viva House. You can see Grace, 2, and Maya, 4, through one window.

"Maya likes Rapunzel, She wan-ted me to paint her with long hair," Bickham says. And so she did.

A monkey and an elephant hang swags of green and a long, long-necked giraffe puts the star atop the Christmas tree while polar bears dance upstairs.

In the doorway are Baby Jesus and Mary, "a Madonna in snow," Bickham says. And in an anti-war gesture, the nearest window shows Raggedy Annie taking the gun away from a wooden soldier and snapping it in two.

"I do a lot of anti-war posters and banners," she says, "and the flowers, the evictions, house burnings. Every time I [worked on] the house-burning picture, I heard fire engines. ... We hear them all the time. There's not a block around us that hasn't had one house that's burned up.

"Three more kids -- three of our friends -- died three weeks ago in a house fire, started in the basement," she says. "One of them had just been in for a Martin Luther King celebration, five-year-old Jazmine."

The picture -- Baltimore: Another Row House Fire -- is a kind of triptych, with a burning house on the right, one of those folk shrines of Teddy bears and dolls at a scarred door in the center and a huge lighted candle on the left.

"This particular fire [occurred] because there was no electricity and they were using candles," Bickham says. "And then we light candles to remember them."

'It's racist and wrong'

Perhaps an exhibition infused with the spirit of Dorothy Day, the tough, fiery and spiritual co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, would not be complete without some controversy. Bickham's silkscreen print Dorothy Day: Our Problem supplies it. She made it for the U.S. Bicentennial Celebration. Tumbling down into the stars and stripes of the flag are Day's words: "Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system."

Some of the parishioners of St. Ignatius find it objectionable.

"This to some would be seen as a statement about our country's flag," Bickham says. "People would say 'Well, look, I'm not a flag waver but I believe in this country. And I believe in this system. It's the best system there is. So why are you criticizing it?' "

She comes over when the gallery's open to talk with people about the print.

"It's harsh. It's a hard thing that Dorothy said," Bickham says. "The way I explain it to parishioners is you only have to look two blocks [to] where the execution system is, death row and the cruddiest, filthiest prison system we have. We know it's racist and wrong, classist."

And that's one of the things she gets out of painting: "The great joy of being able to make a statement about what I see around me, injustice, suffering. Great satisfaction. It's a joy to do this."

Exhibit

What: Catholic Worker art by Willa Bickham

Where: Reeves Gallery, St. Ignatius Church, Calvert and Madison streets

When: Today and next Sunday, 8:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

Admission: Free

Call: 410-233-0488

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.