Cheryl Pope has a background in fashion design and boxing, a unique combination of skills and interests that has informed her career as a contemporary artist. Pope’s multidisciplinary artworks fuse elements of her multifaceted identity together through a materials based process that addresses social and emotional themes and issues. Her work also embodies principles and methods of collaborative learning, where diverse groups of people cooperate in activities that broaden their sense of self, communal and civic relationships.
A major topic within Pope’s work is the role of the individual and the collective within communities. She often works with young artists and students across Chicago, Illinois to explore, discover and express how race, gender, class, history, power and place affect the identity of a community at large.
Pope portrays communities as being an amalgamation of identities, with a foundation of unique multicultural perspectives that reveal strength through diversity. Her work has poignant and positive sociocultural overtones, which emphasize the importance of exhibiting empathy towards one another. One of Pope’s large scale installations that profoundly addresses this is Community Is Built On Empathy (2016), which was initially installed in the gymnasium at the Kenyon College Athletic Center in Gambier, Ohio. The installation consists of several banners –such as the ones you would see in a school gym or sporting arena to announce specific performance accolades– adorned with personal declarations. Hanging above and around the gymnasium floor, these banners are reminders of what it means to display value for yourself and others. The banners were created during the spring 2016 Semester at Kenyon College when Pope collaborated with two social science professors and their classes. The students in the two professor’s classes prompted anonymous personal statements from Kenyon college students and alongside Pope, they selected twenty of them to be made into banners.
Examples of specific texts include “I’m not good at being vulnerable,” “I am learning,” and “I wish I did more.” These phrases signify largely archetypal ideas about self perception. They are statements that have likely crossed our minds at one time or another. Whether we are open about these thoughts or not, these private and intimate notions shape the way we perceive ourselves and others. Sometimes we feel good about ourselves, while other times we have low self-esteem and feel largely negative about the condition of things. If we all want to live our best lives, we need to establish a strong sense of community by showing that we are aware and engaged in strengthening and embracing our personal and collective self-worth. That is the crux of Pope’s installation.
The fact that Pope’s artwork, Community Is Built On Empathy, was both realized and exhibited within an educational setting is a testament to the idea schools should create and maintain an environment that supports equity, equality, social justice and good well-being. Schools are communities made up of diverse groups of students and faculty members, each with their own unique experiences and backgrounds. As a result, it is a school’s fundamental duty to champion, recognize and reflect the diversity and uniqueness that is both implied and explicit within the school community.
Schools should enable and empower students’ and educators’ best traits, while prompting them to be understanding, compassionate and patient with others. No one should feel disempowered or ashamed of who they are. The systemic perpetration of self-deception is a dangerous and dehumanizing practice, which leads to self and interpersonal discord. The whole framework of passing and failing within systems of education needs to be refocused in order to allow for students to make bold and positive discoveries about themselves and the world around them. Collectively addressing our vulnerability, weaknesses and self-worth, as well as celebrating our strengths and diversity, is the scaffolding and the pulse of a vibrant and liberated community.