Annie Ruth with pieces from "On Her Shoulders"
Photo credit: Cara Owsley

ArtsWave has been working with local organizations to make inclusion a hallmark of the Cincinnati region’s arts. Over the last year, ArtsWave has invested more than $1 million in direct funding for artists of color. 

This includes a set of grants meant to uplift the artistry and experiences of people of color, awarded to 27 Black and Brown artists through a competitive entry process in 2020, on the themes of "truth" and "reconciliation." In July 2021, the public will see showcases of their work at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Memorial Hall OTR. Many of the artists are already sharing their projects, while collaborating with artists and community members along the way.

The projects take many different forms. After losing her job as a teaching artist because of the pandemic, Desirae Hosley (who calls herself “The Silent Poet”) decided she had more to give her students. She invited them to a virtual meeting, looking to bring closure to their classroom experience. That meeting became the impetus for a monthly virtual series called “Social Therapy 2020: Behind the Zoom Screen,” where participants from different races and backgrounds ages 17-55 shared their writing and spoken word pieces, all focused on their individual journeys and healing after a traumatic year. Hosley hired professional teaching artists who helped attendees find new ways to communicate and better understand each other.

Social Therapy’s one-year anniversary event was a public Zoom performance uniting multiple voices into one spoken word platform. For example, a teaching artist from Cincinnati Opera told his story about moving to America from Mexico. Many students spoke about their unique struggles, all entwined with the hardships of the pandemic. One graduating student described losing the chance to perform rap and poetry, which were important outlets for him during personal hardships.

Hosley continues to host Social Therapy workshops. All are invited, whether as artists or observers, and no prior experience is necessary. She notes, “You never know what story can affect you and be important to you. Your story deserves to be heard.”

Multi-faceted artist Annie Ruth created 12 new mural-sized paintings for her project, “On Her Shoulders,” revealing insights into the experiences of Black women. In each piece, she sought opportunities to build connections across cultural and generational divides. “My Sister for Real   for Real” shows a white woman and Black woman holding picket signs, with references to the Black Lives Matter movement and tragedies including the murder of George Floyd. Annie Ruth chose vibrant colors, inviting viewers to connect, and going beyond the act of documenting an injustice. “Nothing is better than getting to know one another, having empathy on a cultural level. When George Floyd called out for his mother, you should feel that, not sympathize with it,” she explains.

As she created each piece, Annie Ruth hosted art talks to open dialogue on the themes she explored. She shared some of these talks on her YouTube channel. In one, she features Dr. Tonya Matthews, CEO of the International African American Museum in Charleston, SC, and children’s writer Sharon Draper, the 1997 National Teacher of the Year. They approached her work from different angles and perspectives from different generations, while articulating their similar aspirations as black women. Annie Ruth looks back on that event as a highlight in her vision of art as a springboard for deeper conversations.

In addition to the Truth and Reconciliation Showcase, Annie Ruth’s work will reach audiences at the Cincinnati Museum Center starting July 9. Visitors will receive a symbol key to guide them toward a fuller understanding of the paintings. Beyond the exhibitions, Annie Ruth hopes to create an educational curriculum based on her story-sharing sessions.

Artist Brent Billingsley created a collaborative community project in "Painted Pieces of Truth and Spoken Words of Reconciliation." He worked with artist apprentices from ArtWorks, along with patients at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, community members at Kennedy Heights Arts Center and others to create composite murals that he calls “Painted Pieces of Truth.” Contributors provided sections of each mural, which can be assembled to form a whole image. Billingsley’s subjects are iconic images of famous Americans from many different cultural backgrounds. The goal, he says, is that “if you live in America, you will see yourself somewhere in the images.” Each appears in black and white or shades of gray. A common motif in each work is an American flag, which provides the only splash of color.

Billingsley also reached out to schools throughout the Cincinnati region, inviting students to a high school senior poetry slam. Students submitted videos of their “Spoken Words of Reconciliation” pieces, along with a written copy. Visitors to the Truth and Reconciliation showcase will see videos of students performing their poems. at. In the fall, Billingsley will bring both elements of his project together for a festival-style event he describes as a “celebration of art and a chance to remember what unites us.”

With the commission of this project, Billingsley’s opportunities have grown to the point where he can choose to pursue art-making on a full-time basis. However, his proudest accomplishment is not in the art itself, but the engagement it creates. He states, “My superpower isn’t being an artist. It’s engaging kids through art.”

Truth and Reconciliation artists continue to host events based on their projects. Visit to see events made possible by the program, which was made possible by the City of Cincinnati, Duke Energy, Fifth Third Bank, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and ArtsWave’s Arts Vibrancy Recovery Fund. ArtsWave hopes to repeat the project in the year ahead.