The yellow bus parked outside Pitt County Community Schools and Recreation is no longer needed for taking kids to school. Redesigned as public art, it is now intended to carry a message about the importance of migrant farm workers in North Carolina.
The bus sculpture, about two years in the making, was officially rolled out this week at Alice F. Keene District Park. Funded by a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, it is a collaboration between artist Sally Jacobs, the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina and members of the migrant farm worker community.
“This project is public in all the ways that it’s intended to be because it’s inclusive,” Jacobs said in an interview prior to the Nov. 15 virtual unveiling. “It’s not singularly driven; it’s not artist driven. It’s coming from the voices themselves from the farmer worker community, and that’s really unique.”
It was the voices of those workers that first steered Jacobs, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting, toward converting a retired school bus into a work of art. The common sight of old school buses in the field was one of the first things Jacob noticed when she and her husband, Scott Temple, began filming “At A Stranger’s Table,” a documentary on migrant farm workers, in 2016.
Jacobs determined that a surplus bus, symbolic of workers’ transient lives, would be the perfect vehicle of expression for a public art project.
“I, as an artist, never would have come up with (the idea) ‘I want to make a bus, take and repurpose an old school bus to tell the story of East Cast migrant farm workers’ had I not been in the fields,” she said. “That’s really where the project was birthed.”
Jose Martin Martinez had never been inside of a migrant farm worker bus before he signed on to help bring the sculpture to life. But his brother, Faustino, had.
“My brother, when he came over here to the U.S., he worked in the fields,” said Martinez, who still has friends who make their living as seasonal farm laborers.
Martinez, a native of Mexico who moved to North Carolina in 2002, put his carpentry skills to work to help Jacobs create a rolling exhibit of sorts.
Using a bus as a medium presented a unique set of challenges, from ridding the space of forgotten pencils, lollipop sticks, love notes and gum to replacing the vehicle’s battery and starter. Jacobs also had to find creative ways to secure the contents of the bus, which include books and arts supplies, while it is on the move.
“Most art doesn’t require it to be going 55 mph down the highway,” she said, laughing.
Jacobs found a solution in soup cans, which she filled with markers and paintbrushes and fitted with magnets so they would adhere to bus’ metal interior. She stretched bungee cords across bookshelves for the ride.
Ten of the 18 seats on the 43-passenger bus were removed to make way for such features as a traveling library resource center, an audio recording area where people can listen to stories from workers and record their own narratives, and a creative concepts space where people can respond with drawings, photos and letters on a community board.
Half a dozen seats remain in the center facing a video screen where “At A Stranger’s Table” will be shown. The documentary, which includes captioning in Spanish and English, follows the stories of a half dozen migrant workers in eastern North Carolina and culminates in them sitting down at a table with six people who consume the food that the workers harvest. A 20-minute version of the full-length documentary has been created for the bus tour.
Students at Belvoir Elementary were among the first to view the short film when the bus sculpture made one of its first stops at the school last fall. Belvoir students worked with children from Greenville Montessori School to help Jacobs paint the hood of the bus, which features a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Latin America).
“It was sort of its first experience on the road and engaging in the community,” Jacobs said. “It was a blank, hood with nothing on it and then all of a sudden, it was christened.”
The artist invited students to leave their a mark on the project, including fingerprints, smudges and accidental paint drips. Rather than cover up any perceived mistakes, she chose to incorporate them into the design.
“My challenge, I guess, was I did not want to take away any mark. I just kept seeing everybody’s hand on the hood as an important hand,” she said. “We want this to be everybody’s work.”
Except for the hood, the bus had retained its original exterior yellow and black coloring, although painters from the local Latino community added green above the windows in patterns indigenous to Mexico.
Also displayed on the outside of the bus are half a dozen larger-than-life photographs of migrant farm workers. Some of the 3-foot by 5-foot images are portraits of men and women who have paused from their labor to pose for the camera, while others show workers in the field, carrying buckets of sweet potatoes on their shoulders.
Above the bus’ front windshield are the letters MX-NC, and the personalized license plate in the back reads CAREAVAN. But neither is an official name for the project, which is simply referred to as the Migrant Bus Sculpture Project.
“It (the name) feels right because it is authentic,” Jacobs said. “It’s not kitschy; it’s not commercializing anything. It’s bringing it back to the community that it’s serving. … We need it to be telling and not any more hidden than they already are.”
Jacobs said that COVID-19 has, in some ways, created more isolation for these essential workers. The pandemic also has prevented the bus from being able to open its doors to visitors.
Juvencio R. Peralta, executive director of AMEXCAN, said the organization hopes to be able to schedule tours beginning next year.
“That is the main purpose is to educate the general public but also showcase this great work,” he said.
Jacobs has obtained 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 (license) is gold to me because I can continue making the piece not just be an aesthetic work but a functioning work, which is so central to its mission,” she said.
Although work on the bus sculpture was completed several months ago, Jacobs does not consider it to be finished.
“It’s the beginning to ongoing narratives of the farm worker community,” she said. “The farm workers’ narratives change. (They’re) not static and so neither will the bus be. It’s going to keep talking.
“Just like the hood, everybody’s going to leave a mark,” Jacobs said, referring to the community board, which currently features letters Belvoir students wrote and pictures they drew for farm workers.
“It’s allowing for everybody’s voice to be heard, most importantly the migrant farm worker,” she said. “That’s the piece that I’m most excited about is where it’s going to go, not where it’s been.”