Two midcoast artists traveled from Maine to the Arizona-Mexico border last fall to better understand the polarized national conversation about undocumented migration, the border and human compassion.
They also wanted to make art.
The resulting collaborative project by Anneli Skaar of Camden and Mark Kelly of Lincolnville, “The Other,” examines how the concept of universal human compassion relates to undocumented migrants.
“We basically wanted to see it firsthand,” Kelly said. “To be in the location where all this is happening and get our own eyes on it. To have a true experience there, rather than just reading and looking at pictures from other people.”
Plans for the project began months before their trip, when they decided they wanted to look at border issues. Kelly had an idea in mind.
His friend is an attorney for an Arizona man who volunteers with No More Deaths, a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona that works to stop the deaths of migrants in the desert. The man, Scott Warren, was arrested a year ago and charged with three felonies after helping people in the desert. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison, according to No More Deaths.
Last spring, Warren testified that he is compelled to help when someone is in need, while federal prosecutors argued that the migrants were never in distress and did not need his help, AZCentral.com reported. But despite fewer people illegally crossing the border, more are dying there, mostly from exposure to the elements or natural barriers, the newspaper reported in 2017.
Skaar and Kelly wanted to try to make some sense of all this.
“Our talk, and the whole project, really, is about how compassion shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Skaar said. “Compassion for another human being should be something that everyone just agrees on. But people say, ‘People deserve to die because they’re doing something illegal.’ It’s such a hard line to take. If you meet someone who’s dying, would you not help them? You help people who are dying. That’s the core of what we wanted to talk about.”
During the summer, Skaar and Kelly met weekly and hashed out what they wanted to do: make a seal that is an alternative to the Great Seal of the United States. Instead of an eagle, their version features a starling, a European bird brought to America in the 1890s that has spread to every state and has become a serious problem in the Sonoran desert of southern Arizona, Skaar said.
In one talon, the starling clutches arrows and a medal for St. Michael, the patron saint of the border patrol. In the other, the bird holds a bone and a pendant bearing the image of the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, something many immigrants bring with them on their journey.
Skaar and Kelly would make a photo negative of their seal and bring it with them to the desert. There, they would use sunshine and water to make cyanotype prints.
“We had photo-sensitive paper, and these areas to expose it. We went to areas where migrants had been found or apprehended. The places where these people are traveling,” Skaar said. “It really had a sense of place. It wasn’t like making them in a darkroom here.”
While making their prints, they met border patrol officers, residents of the region and more.
They went to a court hearing for Warren in Tucson and heard Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco ask, “Where is it written that humanitarian aid is not a crime?”
They also saw clothing and objects abandoned by migrants, including several bottles of urine saved by people who feared they would find no water to drink.
“Seeing a bottle of urine someone saved to drink again, you’re pretty desperate,” Skaar said. “That was a powerful image for us.”
But they also found that the situation on the border is much more complicated than current political rhetoric would indicate. Skaar tried to incorporate those complexities in a short book she wrote about the project, which also is called “The Other.”
“It’s not black and white,” she said. “There are sides to it, and all the sides become very aggravated because of policy … and at the end of the day, everybody just wants to be safe.”
For more information about “The Other,” or to learn how to get a copy of the book, email firstname.lastname@example.org