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Bus sculpture on the road to becoming a reality: Work of art to tell the story of migrant farm workers

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Sally Jacobs is making a used school bus into a traveling sculpture to help educate people about the lives of migrant farm workers. She has started with a model of what the finished bus might look like.


By Kim Grizzard
Staff Writer

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

When Sally Jacobs set out to create a work of art to tell the story of migrant farm workers, she searched for an idea that would move people. She found it on a school bus lot in Edgecombe County.

The concept was to turn a surplus public school bus into a public sculpture designed to represent this historically marginalized group. The plan, which got a green light in the form of a $45,000 Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation Grant last month, is now on the road to becoming a reality.

“This was a risk,” said Jacobs, who received the grant in collaboration with the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN). “The project was very different and out of the box for what they were asking. It's not a static work of art, but that also became the attraction to it.

“It's not an end product,” she said. “It's a point of departure.”

Jacobs' decision to turn a 43-passenger yellow school bus into a traveling exhibition was driven by her work with her husband, Pitt Community College instructor Scott Temple, on the film “At A Stranger's Table.” When the couple began filming the documentary in 2016, she learned that the laborers' whole lives seemed to revolve around the wheels of those buses.

“This bus is like everything to them,” Jacobs said. “It's their transportation. It's their access to meals. It's their shade. It's their relief from heat.

“I had to have a bus to tell the story. How can you not?”

Jacobs' recently acquired bus, like the ones that are repurposed for use on a farm, will be modified to include a video screen to show the documentary “At A Stranger's Table,” which is in post-production and will include captioning in Spanish and English.

Other features of the bus will be an audio recording area where people can listen to stories from workers and record their own narratives, a resource library and a creative concepts studio where people can respond with drawings, photos and letters on a community board.

The outside of the bus will feature large-scale portraits of workers the couple met while filming. The hood will be adorned with a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Latin America). Patterns indigenous to Mexico will be painted above the exterior of the bus windows.

Otherwise, the bus will retain its exterior color, which will not be retouched. Modifications to the interior will be minimal as well. A few rows of seats will be removed to allow space for certain components, but comforts such as air conditioning will not be added.

“I want people to get on the bus like a migrant gets on the bus,” Jacobs said. “I want you to feel what they feel. I want you to experience what they experience.

“It's important that there's no veneer,” she said. “It would be kind of a like a dichotomy to say you're sitting watching this film with these workers in the field and learning who they are in an air conditioned environment that's comfortable.”

The adaptation is expected to take the better part of a year to complete. Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has created a partnership with UNC-TV Public Media North Carolina, which will be working with the foundation to capture and document the progress of the 10 grant recipients.

Once adapted for the exhibit, the bus will have a permanent home at the Alice F. Keene Park on County Home Road, across from the Eastern Carolina Village and Farm Museum and the Leroy James Farmers Market.

“It completes the story,” Temple said of the developing bus sculpture. “The bus has the ability to speak to all these stories and more that are part of the farm worker community.”

The bus also has the ability to travel. Jacobs is studying for a Class B license that will enable her to drive the sculpture to schools or community events, as well as to farm worker camps.

“That is one of the things Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation was most excited about or found unique is that this is going to be able to go actually to this marginalized group, to this population of people that are often invisible,” Jacobs said. “Imagine a bus pulls up that has people that they know on the side and Our Lady of Guadalupe and these patterns and then come in the bus and have a video installation that narrates some of their job and tells people who they are. I can't imagine how validating that would feel when for years they feel completely invisible.”

Farm workers as well as others who view the still unnamed sculpture will be able to contribute to the evolving work.

“It's what we're referring to as a living sculpture,” Jacobs said. “The title will happen.

“It will come. A title into a work of art is sort of like the entry into a poem. It gives you a little bit of insight into what you're about to read,” she said. “Since all of these parts that people are about to experience have not become tangible yet, we're still playing with the idea of what the title will be.”

So far, the only name displayed on the bus is visible on its personalized license plate, which reads: CAREAVAN.

Jacobs, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting and has served as a professor of art, never imagined that after more than 25 years as an artist her career would have taken this turn.

“If anybody told me I would be driving a bus off a school bus lot in Edgecombe County that's going to talk about the migrant farm worker community in Greenville, I just would have never believed them,” she said. “I had no idea three years ago when I started in the fields with this film project what I was going to be doing right now, in my wildest dreams.

“But I wouldn't trade it for anything really because it's given me so much empathy for the other in a way that I would have never experienced if I didn't.”

Jacobs, who has spent much of the last few years getting to know members of the migrant farm worker community, has come to view the people she has met as more than subjects of portraits or interviews. They are family friends, whom she checked on during last year's Hurricane Florence. Jacobs and her husband keep in touch with them via text when the workers return to Mexico for the winter.

Some of those she has photographed and interviewed are H-2A documented; others are undocumented migrant workers. But Jacobs said her purpose is not to fuel controversy over immigration.

“My job is not to decide if they should come or not come because they're here. They're already here,” she said. “The system would not run if they weren't. So it seems like the least I can do is use the thing that I'm passionate about, which is art and empathy for others, to help tell their story.

“It's not my story,” Jacobs said. “The artist just becomes a vehicle for a bigger, more inclusive narrative.”