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Renowned poets inspire artistic and poetic response

April 13, 2021 | Brandy Gottlieb |

Inspired by poet Joy Harjo's "An American Sunrise" artwork by Caroline Erb, sheds light on issues related to inclusion.

In the shadows of recently highlighted racial tensions in the US, UWF art and English students have been contributing to the conversation through their scholarly and creative works. 

The students’ works have primarily been inspired by the writings of two renowned poets, who virtually visited with UWF students and participated in a community conversation.

Joy Harjo, US Poet Laureate, is the author of "An American Sunrise," a collection of poetry informed by her tribal history and connection to the land.

Claudia Rankine is a nationally renowned poet and Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University. Her work, “Citizen: An American Lyric” recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. 

The work and virtual visits of these two poets inspired campus conversations and collaborative literary and artistic academic endeavors. 

Here’s a look into the students’ Harjo and Rankine-inspired works. 


Caroline Erb

Joy Harjo's work resonated deeply with own art practice for the reason that she expertly creates poetry about both the very personal and the universal experiences of being alive. The imagery in Harjo's work, such as the mention of blood and the heart in the poem "Break My Heart", inspired me to create a garment that conveys the beautiful vulnerability of the human experience.



Richard Sexton

  • "For Grace," 2021
  • Fabric, thread, wood, & twine
  • 72” x 97” x 12”

Inspired by art and text in Claudia Rankine's book "Citizen," "For Grace" is in honor of Grace Wisher, the indentured black American girl who helped Mary Pickersgill sew the first Star-Spangled Banner at fourteen years old in 1813. The historical record miscredits Betsy Ross as having sewn the first American flag, and Grace has all but been erased from her rightful place in history.

The piece utilizes materials and methods of the early nineteenth century, juxtaposing wood and fabric to create tensions between enveloping softness and stiff rigidity. Built in the quilting tradition of repurposed fabric scraps of worn-out clothes and hand-me-downs, and a fencing system woven of pruned orchard trees, For Grace, mirrors the form and process of fabrication crafts during the period in which Grace Wisher lived. 

The quilted American flag represents the rights and liberties granted to all Americans. The barrier is the system of oppression that keeps American people of color from having those rights actualized. Like the stories in Rankine's book, For Grace, speaks the story of the young black woman who helped sew our nation's first Star-Spangled Banner, yet who was denied the civil liberties represented by the flag she helped create.  


Margaret MacBeth


I hope you don’t mind, but I just had to respond to your post

I am happy to share

I know that these stories won’t be popular

Perhaps you’ve experienced the same thing

This has always bothered me

I know these seem like small things, and may seem like no big deal in the grand scheme 

Okay, before I put these stories down, let me preface this by saying…

Even when directly asked for honesty, there is still that tug, that instinct, that urge to explain.  To justify.  To apologize.

Why are we sorry for our life’s experiences? 

I’ve been working this one job all winter and got friendly with the construction guys.  They all make horrible jokes about their wives and girlfriends and sex in general.  Last week I decided to tell my own joke.  I thought it was fairly tame, but they acted like it was the weirdest thing ever and haven’t let me live it down.

What was the joke?

What do you call a herd of cows masturbating? 

Beef strokin’ off.

I drove my car to get an oil change.  

While waiting, the mechanic asked, “Do you even know how to drive a manual transmission?”

Um...yeah.  I drove it here.  

And it’s my car.

“And you can see over the hood?”

I am sitting in a room with a very successful and nationally recognized male CEO.  I was a hired culture consultant and have just witnessed him absolutely obliterate a member of his team in front of eight others in the room for something that wasn’t even this poor exec’s fault.  I start to speak up about what this kind of behavior implies about the culture of the company - you know, doing my job - and he turns to me and says, “  Just sit there and be pretty.”

Excerpt from the Artist’s Statement: 

When I began gathering source material for this project, I was unsure what sort of discrimination I wanted to hone in on aside from that which was experienced due to one’s gender or sexuality. I began this project by asking a rather broad question of how others have experienced discrimination or stereotyping based on these factors. ... I want women to feel well represented in my work, and for men to understand that the scenarios portrayed are, regrettably, not isolated incidents.  

Emily Hallman

An Excert from: “Young Lady” 

It is 1950, and you are walking to Mass with your brothers and sisters on a sunny Sunday morning. As usual, Dick and Ray lead the pack, their long, confident strides setting the pace for the group. Dottie and Lorraine are next, quiet but cheerful. You and Jim, the two youngest, bring up the rear. Your thin shadows move alongside the pack as you parade down the sidewalks to the church. A soft breeze kisses your face and caresses your hair, and you are so caught up in the divinity of the day that you do not realize that you have left your hat at home. When you get to the church, you walk to your usual pew and sit alongside your friends.

After a moment, you feel a firm tap on your shoulder. You turn to see the cloaked figure of Sister Mary Gabriel standing in the aisle, a stern face poking out from her wimple. She beckons you to come with her. As you walk behind her out of the nave, you make brief eye contact with some of your schoolmates in the congregation. You sense their pity, but also their relief that Sister Mary Gabriel has found fault in you and not them.

An Excerpt from the Artist’s Statement: 

I chose to focus my Project Citizen work on issues facing girls in America, both today and in the past. While I felt there was a plethora of material to use for a project about women’s issues, I knew that girls’ issues feed directly into the problems plaguing women. I thought that framing the observations from a girl’s point of view would provide readers with a unique perspective they may never have considered.

In response to "Citizen: An American Lyric," Rankine’s text, “CITIZENS: Rhetoric, Response, Representation will be on exhibit at the Pensacola Museum of Art, April 17- July 24, the Pensacola Museum of Art. The exhibit will feature student artwork.