Artist tells story of migrant farmworkers

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Sally Jacobs, left, explains the model of her sculpture, a school bus. “As an artist, I always find the best work for me has been when there's a social justice component," she said. "That's kind of what makes me excited about making art is that it can be a voice and a vehicle for those that are maybe marginalized.".


By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, March 3, 2019

One of the first lessons artist Sally Jacobs learned when she set out to make a documentary about migrant farm workers is that not all the yellow buses winding down the back roads of eastern North Carolina are taking children to school.

When she and husband Scott Temple began filming “At A Stranger's Table” in 2016, she discovered that the laborers' whole lives seemed to revolve around the wheels of those buses. Often stripped down and re-purposed, the buses brought the workers from the labor camps to the fields and back five or six days a week. During breaks, the shadow cast by the bus gave them relief from the sun. On Sundays, the bus was their only ticket to grocery shopping.

So when Jacobs set out to create a sculpture to represent the seasonal laborers, she selected a bus as her vehicle of expression.

“The bus is so central to their experience here,” she said. “It seems appropriate that this became part of the experience. … So the bus just started becoming more and more important to their voice, to finding and describing who they are.”

Last month, Jacobs began touring the area with a toy-sized model of a bus that she hopes will one day be a full-sized sculpture designed to drive a conversation about what those brought in to harvest crops and what they contribute to the community.

“Everything we eat is harvested by somebody's hand,” Jacobs said. “It's recognizing not only where our food comes from but who is picking this food and the sacrifices that they make in order for me to have good food on my plate.”

Jacobs' recognition of the migrant farm worker community began three years ago when the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN), approached her and her husband, an instructor of English and humanities at Pitt Community College, about creating a film.

“These agricultural workers have done so much for our country here in the United States, especially for North Carolina,” said Juvencio R. Peralta, executive director of AMEXCAN. “But we don't lift the voice of what these individuals do every summer or every season.”

The documentary, which is in post-production, is scheduled for release early this summer. It follows the stories of a half dozen undocumented and H-2A documented migrant workers in eastern North Carolina and culminates in them sitting down at a table with six people who consume the food that the workers harvest.

As Jacobs and Temple began filming hours of interviews with people, like Enrique, who has spent more than 13 of his last 27 years traveling to the states, they began to believe that there was more to the stories than film alone could capture. They decided that a series of portraits would complement the work, so they created dozens of them. The images mostly show men who paused for a moment while working in the fields, some of their faces dripping with beads of sweat. In addition, Jacobs used graphite to create rubbings from clothing the workers left behind at the end of the growing season.

“It's a paradox,” Jacobs said. “They come and they're given donations of clothing that might say 'Mark from Sears' and you see them wearing all these shirts that are from other people's lives and other people's professions.

“They have no experience with any of those people. They have no relationship with any of those people,” she said. “And just as they came into their lives, all this clothing, they leave them when they go.”

To create a tangible reminder of the workers' transient lives, Jacobs submitted a proposal to the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Inclusive Public Art Project last fall. Her sculpture design project was selected from a field of 85 submissions as one of 20 semifinalists to receive a $5,000 grant. The final 10 grant recipients, to be announced in May, will receive an additional $45,000 to fund their projects.

Jacobs would use the money to turn an old, yellow school bus into a traveling exhibit of sorts to take the farmworkers' stories to museums, galleries and events. Plans call for the bus to be decorated with large-scale photos of workers and to include a video screen to show the documentary “At A Stranger's Table.” Other proposed features of the bus are a recording area to collect additional narratives from the community, a self-expression area where people can contribute art and ideas, and a library resource center.

“I like to look at it as a living sculpture,” Jacobs said. “It's not permanent, and that was important, too, because the workers are not permanent. They move as well. They travel; they go back home.”

Response to the proposed portable sculpture has been positive. Dozens of students and guests came to PCC's Goess Student Center on Thursday to view a model of the bus and make suggestions for its name, appearance and content.

“I'm just happy to see so many people attend,” Peralta said. “This project has been taken to a different level now with this new art.”

PCC student Vanessa Duran, who moved to the United States from El Salvador five years ago with her family, said the diverse stories represented in the film, portraits and sculpture are eye-opening.

“Most of them, they've never been out of the trailers where they live,” said Duran, who attended Thursday's event. “They go from the trailers to the farms and back.

“They don't have a voice,” she said. “Since they don't have it, we should be the voice for them.”

Jacobs agreed. She hopes that the film and art project will help to tell the stories that many of the workers may not otherwise be able to tell for themselves.

“I didn't feel like you could just make a painting about who they are or make a film about who they are,” she said. “Their lives are multidimensional, the experience in what they do here for us is multidimensional, so the work needed to be multidimensional.

“This is their story. We are like the bus, just the vehicle.”

For more information, visit a strangerstable.com or sallyjacobs.net.