Reacting to Fear: Mary Engelbreit’s In the USA

Creativity can help us through uncomfortable emotions and thoughts. What happens when these personal visions strike a nerve with others?

© Anil kumar with CCLicense
© Anil kumar with CCLicense

Mary Engelbreit is a children’s book illustrator and author from St. Louis, MO, USA, who started her career as a designer of greeting cards. Her delightful books of brain teasers, projects and recipes for kids, her fairytales and seasonal storybooks and her collections of poetry and scripture have created quite a following and earned her a reputation as the Norman Rockwell of our time. Her work is known for its gentle and cheerful nature, so one might be surprised to hear Engelbreit’s name mentioned in connection with controversy.

A few days ago, Engelbreit posted a new work to Facebook. In the USA was inspired by the killing of teenager Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, a suburb of her hometown, and the volatile situation that has resulted from it. All proceeds from the work are to go to Brown’s Memorial Fund. Comments were largely positive, but some people felt the need to attack. From those who felt she was being un-American, to those who accused her of making profit from tragedy, to those who could not believe that she was siding with a criminal and giving money to his undeserving family, things got very ugly. So ugly in fact, that Facebook stepped in and pulled In the USA from her wall because it had been deemed offensive (they did later reinstate the post). So what does this earth shaking, saber rattling piece of art look like?

In the USA © Mary Engelbreit, 2014 used in accordance with fair use policy
In the USA
© Mary Engelbreit, 2014 used in accordance with Fair Use policy

Wait, what? This sweet, chubby-cheeked mother and child is the subject of viperous rants?

Perhaps critics are vitriolic because they expect an author that writes for impressionable children to stay out of the way and to keep her subject matter light. Engelbreit has said that she uses her art to work through things that bother her, but doesn’t release most of those personal pieces to the public. This time she must have felt that she could do something to help the situation by voicing her empathy. It should be noted that Engelbreit lost a son, Evan, in 2000, when he was shot and killed at the age of nineteen. Seeing Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, on television brought back memories of a terrible time in her own life.

I hope we can all agree that the state of affairs in Ferguson challenges adults to explain the realities of violence and racism to children and young people. I’d venture to say that most people reading this blog have never had to put their hands in the air and ask not to be shot, but it can and does happen in the United States, especially for minorities and for those who don’t have the respect that money seems to buy. It is terrifying to realize how easy it is to revert to fear and suspicion of those different from us and it certainly isn’t un-American to wonder how we can approach equality and safety for everyone. Silence is perhaps the worst approach, as it encourages those who follow us to avert their eyes and turn off their empathy. We are already too far down that road.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Art often hits us at a more visceral level than words, speaking directly to the inmost parts of ourselves, places that don’t respond to reason and argument, but to symbols. In addition to breaking the silence and shattering the illusion that everything is fine, there are connotations in In The USA that are extremely provocative. The choice of mother and son calls up images of the Madonna and Child, a subject for countless artists for the past two thousand years. Depictions of Mother Mary holding Jesus are woven throughout Western history, fusing with the memories we have of our own mothers. Adding to the unique and sacred nature of the bond between mother and child, they tell of a God who could have approached humanity in fear and retribution but chose instead to empathize and become like us. Whether or not an individual believes in such a God the archetype remains valid– the one who makes things better for everyone else by dying. To make things more intense, this mother is crying and the child has his hands up in a gesture that isn’t so different from the crucifixion. These are things we might expect from a Stabat Mater or Pietà, a depiction of Christ’s death. Engelfreit has, intentionally or not, invoked two incredibly powerful archetypes, the grieving Mother and the dying Savior.

In the USA is a brave piece, as is any artwork that tries to make sense of violence. It is exceptionally tidy and decent, but that doesn’t mitigate its impact. Part of the legacy of racism is that many of those who have practiced it will do anything to keep from the embarrassment of being exposed, often becoming adept at rationalizing and hiding it from themselves as well as others. Art like this calls that kind of behavior out. We may feel shame for what we have done or what we have not done. At that point, we can share our disgust and admit our mistakes or we can hit out in fear at anyone who makes us feel wrong. Fear often wins. But it doesn’t have to.

Want to know more?

St Louis Public Radio

You can purchase a print of In the USA here.

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