Windows of Understanding addresses social justice issues through art

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For husband and wife, Dan and Peichi Waite, the word dignity played a big role when putting together their work of art on the topic of food insecurity for the sixth annual Social Justice New Jersey Public Art Initiative.

“No one should feel embarrassed about needing to go get food,” Peichi said. “When we were living in Orange County (Calif.), we knew of people who would drive to other counties, to other cities to get food from pantries because they did not want their neighbor or people who might have been volunteering there to see them go get food.”

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When the couple, with backgrounds in education, sociology and art, moved to Highland Park, Middlesex County, four years ago, they co-founded a Little Free Garden.

“We plant all these vegetables and herbs in our big garden that we have out back,” Peichi said, adding since the pandemic, they have given out hundreds of seedlings to the community.

The Waite’s were paired up with REPLENISH, formerly the Middlesex County Food Organization and Outreach Distribution Services (MCFOODS). REPLENISH was created in 1994 to help achieve food security and provide access to nutritionally adequate food and other basic necessities to all residents in Middlesex County.

While speaking with the REPLENISH staff, the Waites learned staff – while grateful of any donations – they would like to see a wider variety of donations whether it cater to the large ethnic population with different types of rice, sauces and/or cheeses; cater to people who may be gluten free; or items that people might not think of including diapers, baby wipes, and/or detergent.

The Waite’s put all these items and then some in three large photographs. With plans to take photographs over the holiday break at the REPLENISH site in East Brunswick, they had to end up photographing most of their family and friends due to COVID.

Artwork by Dan and Peichi Waite.
Artwork by Dan and Peichi Waite.

For Dan, the photos may have not turned out exactly how they planned, but having family and friends in the photos made it personal and what they ultimately wanted to accomplish.

“You want to set the table for those that are food insecure at the same level and attention you would set your own table,” he said.

The Windows of Understanding in Middlesex County is now in its sixth year. Artists are paired with nonprofit organizations to create original work of art addressing heavy topics centered around the theme of building a healthy community – mental health, food equity, violence prevention and women’s health.

The New Brunswick Community Arts Council, Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, Highland Park Arts Commission, the Metuchen Arts Council, and the South Plainfield Cultural Arts Commission partnered on the initiative that unites New Jersey artists, organizations and businesses to promote awareness and engagement around social justice issues impacting local communities.

The works are on display at venues throughout New Brunswick, Highland Park, Metuchen and South Plainfield through April 1.

​Virtual and hybrid programming such as panel discussions, educational workshops, community conversations and wellness sessions complement the visual displays throughout the run.

Mental Health

Artist Alfred Dudley III, a full-time Master of Fine Arts student at Rutgers University, worked with the For KEEPS (Kids Embraced and Empowered through Psychological Services) Program at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick on the topic of mental health.

The healthcare professionals at For KEEPS strive to offer high-quality mental health diagnoses and intensive treatment to children who suffer from emotional and behavioral difficulties that impede their ability to function successfully in a social environment, according to its website.

In the artwork titled “All Hands In,” two cloud figures are depicted as avatars of the good folks who work at For Keeps. Their environment and action in the artwork reflect them successfully working together to produce a safe space for communication and hope for the youth in the program.

“I like to think the work can become an opportunity for the viewer to make space to feel whatever they are going to feel … that’s the basis of what any good therapy or any catharsis and progress is,” Dudley said.

Artwork by Alfred Dudley III.

Violence Prevention – Public Safety / Police Relations angle

David Lago, an art teacher at New Brunswick High School and one of the advisors of the Art Club, in collaboration with more than 20 of his students of the New Brunswick Chapter of the National Art Honor Society created a painting that “humanizes the badge and bridges the gap” between law enforcement and youth.

They worked with Police Capt. Mike Bobadilla, of the New Brunswick Police Department. The artwork depicts Bobadilla and a student named Brianna.

Jairis Araizo, a junior at New Brunswick High School and a member of the National Art Society, said as part of the project, the students came together to discuss what the police do in the community.

“They are always at these events that happen downtown and at Boyd Park,” she said. “Police are always there to observe and help. It’s always nice to see them. It doesn’t feel like a dangerous presence rather than a welcoming presence. They are there to also enjoy the events.”

Artwork by David Lago and members of the New Brunswick Chapter of the National Art Honor Society.

For Artist Robyn Trimboli-Russo, having participated in Windows of Understanding in previous years on topics of environment and youth engagement, she was taken aback when she was assigned to represent the Metuchen Police Department.

Her experience opened up her mind and softened her perception of police officers.

“You can’t get away from the bad press,” she said. “I know it in my mind, that there are some isolated incidents like in every group. Not everyone is bad and not everyone is good.”

In the past, Trimboli-Russo said she probably would never walk up to a police officer to talk.

“Now it’s like I feel like they are my bud,” she said.

Trimboli-Russo created loose, informal portraits aimed to show the person behind the badge. She spoke with members of the Metuchen Police Department’s bike patrol. The life-size scale of the portraits and the anecdotes that accompany them – from what is their favorite place in Metuchen to their favorite ice cream flavor – encourage people to relate to the officers on a human level.

Artwork by Robyn Trimboli-Russo.
Artwork by Robyn Trimboli-Russo.
Artwork by Robyn Trimboli-Russo.

Women’s Health

Artist Vanessa Nuckols, a student at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick, focused on sexual violence and bringing awareness to the topic in “Reclaiming my Voice.” She worked with The Middlesex County Center for Empowerment, the state designated sexual violence program for Middlesex County.

The Center strives to support and empower survivors and significant others affected by sexual violence, and to help eliminate all forms of sexual violence through community awareness and education, according to its website.

The work is intended to be a graphic novel page that tells the story of a person who has experienced sexual assault and the impact it has had on their life. The use of a narrative format, as opposed to a single image, conveys the multifaceted and ongoing effects of sexual violence.

It is vital that we offer a comprehensive support system and appropriate therapy options to individuals who have survived sexual assault to address the unique challenges they may face.

“When you convey such a topic, it’s hard to put that into a single image,” Nuckols said. “Everybody goes through a unique individual process of recovery. I think that was the challenge to put it into a broad visual that people can relate to [and/or] learn from.”

Artwork by Vanessa Nuckols.

For more information on the project, visit www.windowsofunderstanding.org

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