The Artist as Witness: Empathy, compassion and outrage

The newest exhibit at the Central Michigan University Art Gallery

The current display of Elise Engler's Diary of a Radiohead: 1888 Days of Waking Up to the News located in the CMU art gallery. | CM Life - Courtney Boyd |

A plaque on the wall of Central Michigan University's art gallery reads: "Their witness is rendered in meticulous figuration. The emotions conveyed are raw: empathy, compassion, and outrage." 

This plaque is one of many describing The Artist as Witness to visitors, the current exhibit on display at CMU's art gallery. The exhibit consists of work from eight artists, and the work has quote "a laser focus on conflict and suffering, injustice, and social change" according to the CMU Art Gallery website. 

The artwork spans across centuries, from 1890 up to 2021, and they were created by eight artists.

The collection was organized at Eastern Connecticut State University by art gallery director Julia Wintner. She said she is honored that Central reached out to her to show this exhibit here. 

The exhibit was inspired by a graphic novel memoir titled The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It tells the story of the author immigrating from Vietnam to the United States when she was a child. Wintner said the exhibit was made to be a visual companion to that book. 

"It was made not only to support (the book)," she said, "but to expand their reading and understanding of the immigrant’s story." 

The project featured two groups of artists: political artists from New York (Elise Engler, Nancy Chunn and Sue Coe), and prisoners from Connecticut's Prison Arts Program (Michael Caron, Ryan Carpenter, Lee Jupina Sr. and Micheal Reddick). Käthe Kollwitz is a deceased artist from Prussia who's art is also in the collection.

Wintner said combining these two genres of work was challenging, as it's a clash of "introspective and outward-looking perspectives." 

One of the politically involved artists in the exhibit is Elise Engler, who created Diary of a Radio Junkie: 1888 Days of Waking Up to the News (2016-2021). Every day for more than five years, Engler woke up and drew something that was happening in the news on small cards, varying from 5 x 5 to 7 x 9. A portion of this project is available to very at the CMU art gallery now. 

"It started out as ‘the first item of the day’ that I heard on the radio," she said. "It was supposed to be a one-year project. But as elections started, I realized it was a bit more serious." 

When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, she knew the project had to continue.  

"I realized that I couldn’t stop because the content of our news was going to change drastically," Engler said. "I became more engaged with the larger issues, and it was endlessly fascinating to me." 

Artists from the Prison Arts Program were featured in the exhibit as they work closely with Eastern Connecticut State University. According to the Community Partners in Action website, the program encourages "creativity, self-discipline, self-esteem, technical and communication skill development, critical thinking" and "eliciting empathy" from the incarcerated members and staff within it. 

"Eastern has a long history of collaboration with the Prison Arts Program," Wintner said. "It gives them a platform to speak about their experiences." 

Wintner said she hopes the students and faculty at Central who visit the exhibit feel touched, just as her students at Eastern did. One student who works at the CMU art gallery part-time helped to assemble the exhibit and shared a similar sentiment. 

"I usually do a walk through as soon as they're hung up," said Samantha Parrish, a junior at CMU. Parrish took interest in the pieces from the Prison Arts Program, as well as Nancy Chunn's large piece titled The Jail (2014-2016). Chunn's artwork reportedly took eight hours to assemble, as well as three other people to help Parrish assemble it. 

"It's nice to see the humanity in it," she said about the exhibit. "A lot of the artists are prisoners, and it's nice to see them being treated as humans." 

The Artist as Witness exhibit is available to view at CMU's art gallery until Nov. 11. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 A.M. to 6 P.M., and Saturday from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. Admission is free.