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William Rhodes ~ A Visual Artist On A Mission

Posted By: Robert Walker on July 18, 2016

Visual Artist/Educator/Activist, William Rhodes, has taken a unique approach to developing educational programs in our communities through his Quilt and Arts programs.

As an educator, William sees how children are gratified through creating paintings, arts and crafts, that are woven onto quilts to create a tangible display of something they are being taught about in their history.

"The Quilts become a living history for the kids that they feel connected to", William says.

His Nelson Mandela International Quilt project started with his students in the San Francisco **** system, and became an exchange program with students in South Africa where children painted and sewed images of Nelson Mandela onto quilts.

The experience reaffirmed William's belief that when you create something with your hands, it elevates your passion when learning about people and events that make up your history.

Event Announcement ~ If you live or will be visiting Atlanta on July 22nd, we invite your to Williams Rhodes Art Exhibit:

"Hello Friends,

I'd like to invite you all to attend my art opening this Friday, July 22nd from 6-11pm at ZuCot Gallery in Atlanta, GA. I'll be premiering a new body of work examining themes of gentrification and using neon glass. The exhibition runs through the end of August.

I look forward to seeing you there!"
~ William Rhodes

That Nelson Mandela International Quilt Project began a student exchange program for kids in the San Francisco and South Africa elementary schools that are ongoing. And the exhibit has been made available to Museums, Community Centers, and schools in both the United States and in Africa.

A Visual Artist on a mission now to raise awareness about the cultural experiences in this country that lead people to become homeless is an exploration William has begun with a series of interviews with those who are displaced from their homes.

We will follow William with another article as a new project of awareness, education and understanding about Homelessness is developed.

In his words:

While traveling around the country I began to witness the changes in demographics among the African American population in most of the major U.S. cities. Places like New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Oakland, and Los Angeles, are examples of the huge decline in African American populations. Not only did I notice such declines but, I witnessed a rise in the homeless population.

I began to do research and found some connections that led to these current changes. Factors such as, Predatory Home Loans, Gentrification and Job Displacement helped to create this shift.

As an artist I had to find a way to communicate my frustration with these problems. I went out in the community and talked to people about these changes. These conversations led to a series of interviews with homeless residents.

After the completion of the interviews I began to make art that reflected these conversations. From this, I created a series of works I entitled, “The Out Migration Series”.

These works are made from various old suitcases which are weathered and travel-worn. Upon opening the suit cases, instead of an empty shell, the inside reveals a shrine.

Each suit case contains the personal history of the people I interviewed. I chose to interpret their stories by using materials such as; found objects, wood, paint and neon glass.

The people I interviewed had a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. These are people that have family roots that run deep in their communities. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons they are now homeless.

These residents are Mothers, Fathers, and former Teachers. Some even served in the Armed Forces. Through their life stories I felt a strong connection to them. They became like old friends and family.

I like to begin my interviews with the question: What does the concept of home mean to you?

Everyone made it clear to me that home is not just a place. It can be something you carry with you wherever you go. Home is inside your heart, mind and through memory. Some of those memories were items that my interviewees kept inside of their rolling suit cases. These suitcases were filled with photos and personal belongings.

It amazed me how spiritual and grateful these people were beyond their material despair. I wondered how you can stay positive and optimistic with no physical place to call home. Just talking to them made me aware of how much I take for granted. After my interviews, I not only thought of each person as a friend but, in some ways, my neighborhood "Saints".



Similar to Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden; who created art works that documented the great Black Migration from the South to the North; my work illustrates an opposite transition that I call the, 'Out Migration'.

The 'Out Migration' series also asks the questions: Where do Black people go now? Who is waiting for us in this new location? How do we find value in our community? What is the new definition of a Black community?

My interviews:
(*the interviewees’ names have been changed to protect their identity)


John ~ The Father:

When I interviewed John, he talked about feeling blessed to be alive and praising God. John seemed like the classic Dad. I could hear the stability in his voice.

Originally from Illinois, John moved to Oakland, California over 40 years ago. Now he lives in San Francisco. John has been on the street for more than five years. He is a father, Grandfather, and a Shoemaker. He was once married and his wife died 24 years ago.

He doesn't know where his children live and he referred to them as being a little 'crazy'. One day, they just stopped communicating with him.

John lost his home and business. Soon after that, he had to live in his truck. He worked odd jobs here and there to keep things going.


One day when John came back from work to the parking lot where he parked his truck; it was gone. It got towed away by the city. Unfortunately, he did not earn enough money to get it back. He also had several unpaid tickets.

John told me that it took a long time to get over the loss of his truck. His whole life was inside that truck. After that he began staying in shelters. But living in a shelter can be rough. It is like going to prison. It became easier for him to live on the street. John would just find a quiet place to sleep under a tree. He got a tarp and rain jacket to keep warm. He prefers to be alone without any complications from other people.

John told me that he doesn’t like thinking about the future. He is just thankful for what blessings he has.

Tina ~ The Mother:

Tina admits that she lives in a shelter and on the street. She has a lot of pride and doesn’t like to take handouts. She likes to go to the library early in the morning. She told me how she loves to read and how she can finish an entire book in one day.

All of her life Tina wanted to be a Mother. She was a good Mother. She took care of her kids and Tina used to have a pretty little house. She had a cute back yard with a garden. She had two daughters and a son.

Unfortunately, her son was **** 10 years ago. He was shot 16 times. Tina told me how she got a call at night and someone told her he was ****. After that she could never answer the phone at night.

Tina showed me her son's picture in her suitcase. She said to me, "Isn't he a beautiful boy?" She carries him with her everywhere she goes. Tina shared with me a story of when her son was a little boy; she would take him to work with her.

She worked in a restaurant and her son wanted to help her cook. Tina's son wanted to help his mother do everything. He liked work more than school. Tina describes her son as always helping other people and working hard until he was taken away.

Tina said to me several times, "I know I will be with him again soon. I just keep praying and trusting in God."

Man ~ The Soldier:

Man was very charismatic like a great stage performer. He could make his voice get soft or deep depending on his choice of words. He had style regardless of his current circumstances.

He explained to me that his real name is, Man. It was given to him at birth by his parents. His father told him that they choose that name because they got tired of hearing White people referring to Black men as boys.

Man was born in Arkansas and moved here to San Francisco in 1958. He went to high school in the city. After high school, he joined the service and served in Vietnam. He worked as a **** Police (MP), and made the rank of Sargent.

Man told me in his deep voice, that his life got harder after the war. He explained that he lost his wife and family once he came back to the United States, and he felt like his life has been like a war ever since. A war he doesn't know if he will ever win.

For more about William Rhodes and his work, log on at: www.williamrhodesart.com.

Event Announcement/Invite:

"Hello Friends,

I'd like to invite you all to attend my art opening this Friday, July 22nd from 6-11pm at ZuCot Gallery in Atlanta, GA. I'll be premiering a new body of work examining themes of gentrification and using neon glass. The exhibition runs through the end of August.

I look forward to seeing you there!"
~ William Rhodes


If you enjoyed this article, Join HBCU CONNECT today for similar content and opportunities via email!

William Rhodes ~ A Visual Artist On A Mission

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