Cruel Fences: Four Entries at ArtPrize 2017

I was impressed by four ArtPrize entries that portray the cruel fences—both real and figurative–that divide us from our fellow human beings. All four seem to ask the viewer to reflect on painful present day realities and what we can do about them.

“Fenced In,”  By Cassandra Burgess

"Fenced In," by Cassandra Burgess

“Fenced In” is a viscerally disturbing 3-D work portraying a young girl behind a chain link fence. She could have been trapped behind a border fence, unable to reach safety or freedom. Perhaps she was a captive. Or perhaps she was running from those who killed her family.The girl’s face and hair appear on a two-dimensional painting, but her sculpted hand grasps a real metal fence, which renders her hand and the fence disturbingly close and real.

But, upon reading the artist’s description of the piece, I learned that there are two fences—one separating the girl from a happy life, and an invisible one preventing the artist from helping  her.

The artist explains that the work stems from her own deep feelings: “This piece reflects how I feel disconnected from being able to lend a helping hand. Which is why I purposely sculpted the hand disconnected from the piece onto the fence. I wanted to help and was unsure how I could. So I did what I knew and that was art.”“ArtPrize 9 is well underway in Grand Rapids Michigan. With over 1300 entries, ArtPrize is the world’s largest art competition and invites full public participation. Learn more at ArtPrize.

Upon seeing her work, people in the organization Courage Worldwide offered her an opportunity to give more tangible help. She continues,“I went to Africa twice this year! I got to live life with incredible girls that have been rescued….Creating this piece  ’Fenced in’ not knowing how I could help opened up an opportunity to be with the girls first hand and form relationships.”


“Companions,” by Deborah Rockman

"Companions," by Deborah Rockman

“Companions” is a series of paintings that offer a harsh commentary on white, western Christianity. Rockman explains: “In ‘Companions 11’ we see a Syrian refugee holding his daughter behind barbed wire fencing, unable to escape the dangers that threaten his life and the lives of his family and friends. In my western representation of Jesus Christ, who stands outside of the barbed wire, he does not make eye contact with the man or his daughter, nor does he touch them. This references the widely held belief that your prayers will be answered only if you subscribe to Christian beliefs, but otherwise your plea will not be heard.”

“What Divides Us,” by Jennifer Miller

"What Divides Us?" by Jennifer Miller

“What Divides Us”  is a picture of stark physical separation. The viewer sees a soldier on patrol, marching in the snow at the Korean border. The viewer is not far from him but is separated from him by a barbed wire fence. The fence appears very threatening—but so do vines growing through it are equally full of dangerous barbs. Do the vines suggest that nature itself adds to our alienation from each other? Behind the soldier’s quizzical face I can imagine him wondering, “Are you—or are you not—my enemy?”

Miller says she wants “the viewer to consider what really divides us. People define so many differences … nationality, political ideology, culture, race, gender, religion, to name just a few … but do those things really divide us? We impose divisions, like borders and walls and barbed wire fences. But our common humanity is far greater than anything that divides us.”

“El Sueño Americano (The American Dream),” by Tom Links (See the work at
See the four entries on the ArtPrize Nine web site:
Fenced In
What Divides Us
American Dream 

The artist seemed to ask me to imagine the human stories captured in belongings—now separated from their owners—left behind  in this entry by Tom Links.“El Sueño Americano (The American Dream)” is a collection of photographs of thousands of items taken from people attempting to cross the Mexican border.

The artist tells the story behind the photographs: “Lurking beneath the bright and shiny dream of a better life, El Sueño Americano is a deeply disturbing reflection of our treatment of fellow human beings. As a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol janitor, part of the job was removal of trash bags at just one of our 136 facilities, where personal belongings are seized from migrants at or near the border. One day I looked into the bags. I glimpsed personal items, carefully chosen to support their owner’s desperate and dangerous journey. Items confiscated and trashed as ‘non-essential’; rosaries, bibles, wallets, clothes, coins, phones, food, soap, blankets, and family photos. Spending time with the confiscated items, organizing them, photographing them—profoundly moved me. How precious were these to their owners? Disposing of them, I realized, was an act of dehumanization. El Sueño Americano is a visceral snapshot of what is happening, in direct defiance of those who would sweep it out of sight.”

The artists clearly want us to ponder the current painful realities pictured in these ArtPrize works. Starting from my last entry and moving back to the first, here are my thoughts:

  • As in “The American Dream,” at the very least we must make ourselves aware of the reality of the cruel dehumanization of others that we witness. And then do what we can to honor the victims.
  • But we need a bigger vision. Like Jennifer Miller, we must ask, “What divides us?” Can we look beyond “nationality, political ideology, culture, race, gender, religion” etc. to find our common humanity?
  • And as Rockman insists in “Companions,” each of us must examine our own religion—and I add our own nation, tribe or belief system—to see how our inherited culture may be blocking our compassion for those on the “wrong” side of the fence.
  • Most importantly: perhaps a few of us will lead a movement for ending the cruel separations between us; but all of us—like Cassandra Burgess—can begin by taking whatever action we are capable of to lesson the suffering of others.

What do you think?

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