Asylum seekers' art on display in 'Embroidering Hope'

Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upper Arlington hosts a street festival on Saturday, May 21, featuring a traveling exhibition of embroidered art stitched by asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Embroidering Hope," an exhibition of devotional embroideries stitched by asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upper Arlington.

Several years ago, Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upper Arlington created a Migration Ministries group. “The impetus was when all of the news headlines were talking about children in cages,” said Joyce Acton, who heads the committee. “We just felt like we needed to understand what was going on and really get our heads around it.”

Acton and her husband typically spend winters in Tucson, Arizona, where they attend Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which is situated about 70 miles from the Mexican border town of Nogales in the Sonoran Desert. Acton got involved in Grace St. Paul’s migration ministry, as well, and through that work met Valarie Lee James, a former art therapist who organized the nonprofit Artisans Beyond Borders.

“[James] contacted me one day and said, ‘There's a family that I know who is at the border, and they've been given permission to cross to seek asylum. They're coming to Columbus, Ohio, and I would really like for you to reach out to them.’ So of course I did,” Acton said. “Valarie then said, ‘We have put together this exhibition, and you guys are so involved in everything — would you like to have it there?’” 

Acton again agreed, and this month Saint Mark’s is hosting “Embroidering Hope,” an exhibition of 75 colorful, finely detailed devotional embroideries stitched by asylum seekers waiting at the U.S.-Mexico border from 2019 to 2022. On Saturday, May 21, from noon to 4 p.m., Saint Mark’s will also host a street festival in conjunction with the exhibition, featuring food trucks, children’s activities and a 2 p.m. gallery talk from James.

Mantas from Joyce Acton's personal collection

The cotton cloth artworks on display are known as mantas or servilletas, and they traditionally have served both ceremonial and practical purposes. “In the beginning, they were devotional cloths or altar cloths where many people would have their candles and say their prayers,” Acton said. “They also had a functional aspect to them, because they often were used to wrap food, like tortillas and bread, especially if they were traveling.” 

James and others found tattered mantas in the Sonoran Desert, left behind by migrants looking for safety across the border. (One such manta – torn, stained brown from the desert and stitched with the Spanish word for Sunday, Domingo – is featured in “Embroidering Hope.”) While some considered the items trash, James and other sympathetic artists in Arizona took an interest in the embroideries and in the stories and people behind them.  

“They went to the border in Nogales and met with the women there who were doing their embroidery work, sitting on concrete,” Acton said, describing the origins of Artisans Beyond Borders, an initiative of Grace St. Paul’s in Tucson. “They ended up being able to buy materials and tables and chairs for them to sit to do their work. And then they started helping them begin to sell them.” 

“Embroidering Hope,” created by Friends of Artisans Beyond Borders, is divided into three sections along the sanctuary walls of St. Mark’s — Recover, Restore and Revive — and panels reveal photos of some of the artists, as well as personal stories behind the mantas, including Carlos, a gunshot victim from Honduras who learned to embroider at a border shelter, but only after his brother pushed his wheelchair more than 600 miles to get there. (The manta artists come from all over Central and South America, not just Mexico.)  

The show also features eight mantas stitched by the mother of the aforementioned local migrant family, who waited nearly two years to gain asylum and enter the United States. “They are just an incredible family. Really, really wonderful. But it's hard for them. Everything is hard,” said Acton, who continues to provide support for the family through St. Mark’s. “It takes a lot to give up your home, your family, your culture, everything. ... What is important, I think, is to look at each of these [mantas] and realize that there's a real person behind that who is or was at our southern border. And they're there because they were fleeing something pretty awful.”