I am interested, both as a curator and a border crosser, in the visual language of cultural memory and emotion. These visual references help us map the immediacy of our lives onto the cultural memories that sustain our communities and are the infrastructure of the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. When Cynthia Penna and I conceived of the Traveling Canvas project, we wanted to explore how artists communicate visually across cultures and wondered if these exchanges could enrich the literacy of viewers and therefore influence their understanding about other and othered peoples.


We invited five male artists from across the world to share five canvases, considering what are the most salient elements of their visual culture in practice and in the mores and memories they convey. As they began to work and ship canvases around the globe, I wondered if women artists would respond differently to conversing in visual cultural language in a confined, shared space. Cynthia and I again launched a worldwide search for artists to participate in this important and unique experiment in visual literacy.


The results of ten canvases circling the globe are aesthetically and culturally astounding. The depth, complexity and richness of the compositional interactions demonstrate that the artists we asked take this metaphoric journey with us were up for the challenge. Work ranges from polite respect and distance, to courting and communing, to demanding space to be seen, felt and understood.


Perhaps most interestingly, the men seemed to strive for harmony, showing themselves as the ambassadors of their respective visual cultures. I had predicted otherwise, that they would dominate the canvas, throwing down the gauntlet for their peers to find painterly ways around the through the canvas. Ironically, I was the first student in the literacy campaign we initiated with the Traveling Canvas. It was precisely these preconceived notions about gender, identity and aesthetics that the project sought to dismantle.


The women’s canvases were equally surprising. Each artist filled their originating canvas, centrally locating their visual memories, perhaps confronting long existing biases and slights. Subsequent artists literally piled on, creating layers of diverse brush strokes, color palettes and narrative composition that speak to the intricacies bridging women’s work and cultural storytelling. Both groups offer compelling ideas about inclusion and integration of visual styles and cultural metaphors.


The Traveling Canvas also succeeded in building a community from strangers. The artists did not know each other before the project began and the only clues to their respective identities were the address labels on the tubes that held the shipped canvases and the canvases themselves. Each artist had to read and study the canvas when it arrived, deciphering the polyglot languages and adding their own. In doing so, they discovered respect, tenderness and a longing to meet and connect with their cohort.


At the conclusion of this three-year project, we as curators and artists have grown and the canvases have taken on deeper meaning as our world retreats to big men, xenophobia and cultural hysterics. This work is needed now more than ever as evidence of the power of visual literacy to build community, compassion and cultural fluency.