by Roxanne Ray
Artist and educator Carol Rashawnna Williams wants to create community for artists of color. On Saturday, Aug. 29, Williams will host a Social Sculpture Experiment titled “Plague of Healing” as part of Sustainable Seattle’s four-hour event “In the Time of Healing” at Jimi Hendrix Park.
With 30 years as an artist, as well as 21 years as a musician playing the violin and viola, Williams believes in the power of art to build community and create space for healing. She sees collective imaginings as the only path toward racial and environmental justice.
The original spark for “Plague of Healing” arose in February of this year. “When the president #45 said everything’s all right and that there was really nothing to worry about here in terms of COVID, I knew it was a red flag,” Williams said. “In that moment, I knew things were not all right.”
She presciently began to imagine healing and inclusivity through artistic expression. “I originally posed the question to a friend of the possibility of doing some form of plague performance that took little to no choreography so that anyone could participate,” said Williams, who bills herself as a cultural innovator. “They said I was crazy and nobody would ever go outside their house again, especially to participate in an art experiment.”
As winter turned to spring, stress began to build for Williams when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in the midst of the pandemic. “I had painter’s block and haven’t painted since February — I mean really paint,” she said. “I felt stuck in the fear that our leaders wanted me to be stuck in.”
In April, the pandemic shutdowns affected Williams’s family when court cases were halted around the country, “which meant my son, who is in jail awaiting his trial,” she said, “would be in the worst jail in the state until further notice, without in-person visits, without fresh food, with polluted water, and who knows what else — COVID-19.”
Then George Floyd was killed, launching protests and counter-protests. “The Proud Boys were patrolling my neighborhood at least three times a week for months,” Williams recounted. “I was afraid to go outside.”
But instead of paralysis, a new creative energy drove Williams back to her idea for a plague performance. “I assembled a group of three folks and just stated my idea: I wanted to do an art flash mob about police brutality or the environmental devastation in the form of gentrification and displacement,” she said. “They started to really love the idea, so it started to grow. Soon there were 15 people on the team.”
Williams drew connections between the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for essential workers and the stress felt nationwide in Black and Indigenous communities. “The only way to express it had to be through some form of social sculpture that others could participate in, so that it was now not about the art form but more about community utilizing performance as a means to heal themselves for just one instant in time,” she explained. “That’s when the focus shifted from the police to more of the overall idea that we live in a violent culture, that we currently have minimal social ways to heal together, and that because we live in a culturally vibrant country, the means and ways of healing are all so very different.”
But Williams never intended for “Plague of Healing” to be a stand-alone performance. Instead, it will serve as a fundraiser for her community-building initiative, the BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community Campaign. “Through the RISE program, Sustainable Seattle donated $1,000 towards the campaign to get it off the ground,” she said, as well as providing her with space and time, along with four other BIPOC artists, during their end-of-summer event.
Williams herself dreams of tiny art houses. “BIPOC communities deserve diverse ways of creating culture, and I have always wanted [to] live off-grid in a tiny house,” she said. “This should not just be a privilege for white America.”
This dream is shaped by both financial and cultural realities. “If I want to live sustainably, if I don’t believe in density, and if I want to be surrounded by a community of color, I should be able to have that choice, no matter what city, state, or country I live in,” Williams asserted. “The cost to own a house is astronomical in Seattle, and it doesn’t matter how much money I make — as a single person, it is very difficult to buy anything in Seattle.”
With the limited seed money Williams has gathered, she is already exploring options. “I am currently working with an agency in South Seattle which has a possible land plot to do a model example on, with four to six houses,” she said. “I want to show that this can be done here, even through all the ridiculous zoning and coding laws in Seattle.”
Her goal is to keep artists of color in Seattle sustainably. “I wanted to provide an alternative for BIPOC artists who desire to live a lifestyle befitting of their values and commitment to the land,” she said. “I want to provide opportunities for home ownership at a financial level that is attainable, yet the cost of the house is high enough where folks can build equity and use that equity to further the futures of their families and communities.”
In support of the “Plague of Healing” fundraiser, Williams appears to be in good company. “Private donors, costumers, local artisans, architects, musicians, videographers, local Seattle businesses, photographers, playwrights, and community members came together in a major way to support this effort, for which I am so deeply grateful,” she said. “I could not have created any of this without this amazing community.”
This breadth of collaboration has not been without challenges. “The wonderful part is that one cannot do something this large alone, while the downside is that it takes strategic listening, decisions, coordination, and design to maneuver all the moving parts,” Williams said. “But in the end, I feel that’s a small tradeoff for both projects if they can bring even the smallest amount of awareness to what Black and Brown bodies are currently experiencing in this country.”
Looking ahead to Saturday, Williams emphasizes that “Plague of Healing” is both accessible and welcoming. “It’s designed as a follow-the-leader, and to have as many people that can fit safely six feet apart across the entire sports field of Jimi Hendrix Park,” she said. “The visual alone should be stunning. Fingers crossed — after all, it’s an experiment.”
Beyond red hooded sweatshirts and sculpted masks, participants are welcome to enhance their performances according to their unique talents. “Bring your drums! Bring your bells! Bring your tambourines!” Williams encouraged. “Bring your way of healing! That’s really all you need.”
Plague of Healing will be performed on August 29 at 1:30 p.m. at Jimi Hendrix Park, 2400 South Massachusetts Street, Seattle. All participants are welcome to arrive at noon and may bring, borrow, or purchase red hoodies and masks. All proceeds go to the BIPOC Sustainable Tiny Art House Community Campaign.
Roxanne Ray is a Seattle-based writer covering the arts.
Featured image by Chloe Collyer.