USCRI Debuts a Poster Art Series in Celebration of a Century of Welcoming Refugees and Immigrants to America
The artist behind our “Out of Many One” poster project raises awareness of refugee and immigrant issues through painting
In light of its milestone 100th birthday, USCRI is debuting “Out of Many One,” an art exhibit created by Washington, D.C.-based artist Joel Bergner. Each of the 10 unique posters depicts a decade of our organization’s history of protecting the rights and rebuilding the lives of refugees and immigrants. Rich in color, intricate details, traditional patterns, iconic images, and historic landmarks, each compelling piece tells a story.
USCRI sat down with Bergner, 32, known both locally and internationally for his eye-catching mural art, to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creation of “Out of Many One.” Here, an inside take on the creative force behind USCRI’s art exhibit celebrating a century of serving and protecting those fleeing war and persecution.
USCRI: Before we go into the poster project, let’s talk about the art form you’re best known for: murals. Your striking murals can be seen throughout Washington, D.C. and other cities in the United States and around the world. What attracted you to that art form? Why murals?
Joel Bergner: I was attracted to public art from the very beginning because it’s more accessible. While galleries are often accessible to a relatively small group, murals and other street art forms can be seen and appreciated by everyone. They become part of a community and often involve youth and other locals in their creation. Plus, they are a great way to address the topics I’ve always been very interested in, such as social, cultural, and political issues.
USCRI: USCRI commissioned you to do a 10-piece painting series for our decade-themed poster project. Even though the art form is very much unlike murals, the topic of refugees and immigrants resonated with you. Tell us why this was a familiar subject and what it was like to work on the project?
JB: I have done a great deal of community-based work, including work with refugees and immigrants, and have been moved by many of the people I’ve met though this work. Also, I come from a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe who left during the pogroms, a series of violent attacks and persecution against Jews. My grandparents came to New York City and met there. This is why I relate to the issues refugees and immigrants face on a personal level and I have always incorporated those issues in my art. While working on this project with USCRI, I learned a lot about the history of refugees and immigrants both around the world and in America. Plus, doing a series of paintings added an even more interesting element to it. It got me thinking.
USCRI: What are some of these social, cultural, and political issues you mentioned and how do you address them in your art?
JB: When it comes to my artwork, I have two goals. The purely artistic goal is for people to see and appreciate the art and the craft of it. But there is more to it. I also try to bring up social issues and show the people behind the stories. My goal is to bring to light issues that are important but often under the radar, such as the plight of refugees and immigrants, domestic violence, disenfranchised youth, and stigmatized cultures. For many projects I conduct interviews with individuals. I give them a voice to talk about themselves, their dreams, and tell their stories through art, an approach I call “journalistic mural art.”
USCRI: How do you tell a person’s story through art?
JB: I’ve always thought that it’s much more emotional when you tell one person’s story as opposed to talking about a topic from the macro level. So I always focus on individuals. Drawing attention to a person’s eyes is one part of it. The eyes are the most expressive part of a person’s face. They give off a lot of emotion. I also try to get across a range of emotions in a person’s facial expressions. For example, in the last piece I did for USCRI, the woman has mixed emotions. She’s going through pain but she’s also hopeful. Click here to see the painting Bergner is talking about >>
USCRI: When USCRI staffers saw the finished “Out of Many One” posters, they instantly fell in love with them. We were amazed at your ability to capture 100 years of history in 10 paintings, which is why we’d love to learn more about what went into their creation. Can you give us an inside look into your creative process?
JB: After researching a topic, I create a loose, abstract sketch and then start working on the characters. I use a combination of spray paint and brushwork. In the last year, I started making stencils to create more depth and add a cultural element to the art. The idea came to me when I saw an inspiring picture of an African woman holding a stencil of tribal patterns. It’s a traditional technique in Africa.
USCRI: Tell us about the cultural significance of the stencil patterns you used while creating the “Out of Many One” painting series.
JB: I created stencils in the shape of patterns that are unique to a country or region of the world highlighted in a given painting. For example, in the 1930s painting of the Jewish refugees aboard the S.S. St. Louis I used the Hamsa pattern, which is a traditional symbol for both Jews and Arabs. For the painting showing immigrants in the United States in the 1920s, many of whom were Irish, I used a Celtic pattern. You can see Mayan patterns in the painting featuring child migrants from Latin America and traditional Palestinian patterns where Palestinian refugees are depicted. Click here to see the paintings Bergner is talking about >>
USCRI: How long have you been pursuing art, and how did you become a mural artist?
JB: I always loved to draw when I was a child, and created many cartoons and a comic book series. I was 16 when I started more consciously being an artist. My projects got bigger and bigger—literally. As I got a little older, I also started to travel alone. Getting exposed to other cultures influenced and inspired my art work. I painted my first mural when I was 22. It was at a café in Chicago. My friend convinced the owner to let me paint the wall. I then moved to San Francisco’s Mission District, a Latino community that is one of the world’s greatest neighborhoods for public art. I created many of my early murals there and was influenced by the culture and art. The rest is history.
USCRI’s “Out of Many One” poster exhibit will be shown throughout the country in celebration of World Refugee Day and USCRI’s centennial birthday. Click here to find a list of USCRI events near you >>
Joel Bergner is an artist who lived for many years in Chicago, where he worked with people with mental illnesses, and then with the homeless. He later spent many years in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., working with teenagers who struggled with issues such as prostitution, violence, drugs and suicide. Bergner’s community work and mural art projects with youth have taken him to El Salvador, Brazil, Cape Verde (West Africa), Cuba, Peru, and all across the United States, where he was influenced by the various cultures, music, art, traditions, spirituality, and politics that surrounded him. All of these experiences greatly influenced his brightly colored, socially conscious murals and works of art. His work has been featured on the international news channels Al Jazeera English, BBC World News, Voice of America, and published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, TIME Magazine, and many others. He was a featured artist at the Amnesty International Human Rights Arts Festival and the World Children’s Festival in Washington, D.C., and had solo exhibitions in West Africa, Brazil, and the US. In 2003, he received San Francisco’s “Best Public Mural Award.” Bergner is currently based in Washington, D.C., where he plans to continue his public art and his community-based work. Learn more about his art at www.joelsmurals.com.
Read personal stories about refugees and immigrants rebuilding their lives in the United States. Check out our Refugee Voices campaign >>