How Paula Gerstenblatt used art as a tool for community building and change in Mart, Texas.
The Nancy Nail Memorial Library is in a well-kept, one-story building off the main street of Mart, a small, rural Texas town 18 miles east of Waco. A newcomer can easily find the library among overgrown lots, handsome but dilapidated commercial brick buildings, and houses that have seen better days. Next to the library, a Lone Star flag waves in the breeze.
A lovingly assembled exhibit of photos and memorabilia along the walls of the library’s reading room offers clues about what happened to Mart. The town started as a turn-of-the-century, small, western settlement, grew into a thriving regional commercial center with the arrival of the railroads, and started declining as rail service diminished in the 1930s to completely stop in the late 1960s.
When Paula Gerstenblatt (PhD ’13) first visited the library in 2008, however, she read something else about Mart’s history in the exhibit.
“There were fifteen display cases. And there was not one black face. Not one,” she recalled. At the time, a third of Mart residents, Gerstenblatt’s in-laws among them, were black.
Her visit to the library sparked a three-year, art-based community project that incorporated African Americans into the display, stirred civic action among Mart residents, brought university students and international artists to the town, triggered multiple initiatives and programs, and eventually became part of Gerstenblatt’s dissertation.
“I need to be out there making stuff happen, looking at things from a social justice perspective, and organizing people and building capacity, Gerstenblatt said. “That’s my way.”
Recovering Mart’s Black History
Gerstenblatt had first visited the library looking for memorabilia of Anderson High School, the all- black school her husband had attended during the era of segregation.
“When they desegregated, Anderson High became a middle school for everybody,” Gerstenblatt explained. “The building was sold and the mementos, the trophies, the records, everything from the black school was lost. People thought some things were in the library archives, but then we found out that everything had been trashed — literally put into the trash,” she said shaking her head, still in disbelief.
People’s memories of the era, however, were still alive. Gerstenblatt secured funding from Humanities Texas and assistance from Baylor University to train community members to collect oral histories from Mart’s black residents. This effort also unearthed mementos and photographs that were added to the library’s exhibit in two display cases fully dedicated to Mart’s black community and unveiled in a public ceremony in June 2009.
By then Gerstenblatt was a doctoral student in social work at The University of Texas at Austin, and her mind was bubbling with ideas of how to continue the work in Mart.
Making Art, Making Community
Multicolored pieces of glass shine on the walls of a storefront that stands out on Mart’s main intersection. The storefront’s mosaic is one of three public murals that came out of the Mart Community Project, an all-encompassing label for the variegated initiatives that Gerstenblatt spearheaded in the town.
For the public murals, Gerstenblatt secured funding and arranged for Senegal-based artists Muhsana Ali and Amadou Kan Sy to visit Mart during three summers. They led community members in the construction of the murals, which are made with pieces of broken tiles, cut mirror, objects, and an under-glass painting technique traditionally found in Senegal.
“The Senegalese mosaic technique is very participatory: people bring their objects and they also paint glass tiles and all of that is put in the mural. The whole mosaic is about rebuilding memory, identity, and facing a difficult past,” Gerstenblatt said. Herself an artist, she deeply believes in the power of art-making to bring people together.
“There is something about making art that dislodges the power differential and disarms people to open up and share stories,” she explained. “They go into a space that they are not always in — intellectually and emotionally — when they are in their comfort zone. It’s labor intensive and often difficult, but it is a transformative experience.”
As a doctoral student at UT Austin, Gerstenblatt was also able to make good use of university resources for the Mart Community Project. Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 130 students spent time in the town and worked on projects ranging from art camps to support groups to collaborating with the city council to tackle infrastructure challenges such as the lack of public transportation.
Emily Hackett (MSSW ’12) was one of those students. She ran a support group for Mart High School students during a semester in 2011.
“The community gave us a room in an abandoned building. We cleaned it up, bought dollar-store stuff, put a rug down, got all the cockroaches out… and the kids showed up and it was amazing,” Hackett said. “If nothing else, they had the experience of sharing and trusting and feeling connected to other people. Hopefully they will be able to do that in their communities in their future.”
The Mart project also gave university students a hands-on, powerful lesson about community work.
“Students quickly learned how messy community work is: it’s all about relationship building and it takes time,” Gerstenblatt said. “One time we had to completely change something we had on the books for two months because when we got to Mart we found out there was a Christmas stroll on the main street. And you just do it. You have to have the skills to deal with organized chaos. You also have to learn to step back and understand that it’s not ‘your’ program, it’s the community’s.”
A casual visitor to Mart would very quickly learn about the Mart Panthers — a large purple and gold sign at the town’s entrance lists the state championships the team has won as does a mural of a fierce-looking panther off the main street and another large sign in front of the town’s high school — but may miss an overgrown lot behind the library and the squat, colorful building that sits on one of its sides.
As Gerstenblatt soon discovered, the overgrown lot holds much of the town’s heart and symbolizes both segregation and integration. The lot, named after coach Harry Chambless, was the town’s football field from the 1930s until 2007. During segregation, the all-white football team from Mart High School played on prime Friday nights and the all-black team from Anderson High School was relegated to Thursday nights. The first integrated football team was formed only in 1969.
Quan Cosby (BSW ’09), who was a Panther star in the late 1990s and later had a successful career in college and professional football, said that football has the power of unifying his hometown across racial divisions.
“Football is a very big deal in Mart. If you have seen [the TV show] Friday Night Lights, that’s what the town is like. Everyone, including the cops, go to the games. You don’t really worry about divisions at game night, you are focused on… Mart,” Cosby said.
When Chambless field was retired in 1997, it became just another unused space in town. Gerstenblatt repurposed it as a space for art camps, outdoor movie screenings, and other initiatives of the Mart Community Project. In the summer of 2011, Muhsana Ali and Amadou Kan Sy came back and led the community in the creation of the mosaic mural that still covers the walls of the field’s former concession stand.
“Art is really powerful. You can continuously write, record and experience history,” Gerstenblatt said. “I did an installation wall at Chambless field. I wrote people’s feelings about the field on a mirror. I remember a black man in his eighties who said that when they went on the field on Thursday nights, it felt like the universe was theirs. People brought their sayings, their artifacts, their pictures for the mosaics.”
A Life of Its Own
Anyone visiting the Nancy Nail Memorial Library today sees that two of the display cases highlight African-American Mart residents and institutions. Their stories are not yet integrated with the dominant white narrative, but at least are visible.
Newcomers may not notice what some locals see as signs of revitalization: a few handsome, historic buildings turned into antique shops, new faces in the city council, a federal grant to rebuild the water plant, a quarterly town-wide clean-up.
“The Mart Community Project has taken on a whole life of its own,” said Gerstenblatt, who left Texas after graduating in 2013 and is now an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine. “I think its biggest success is that we wrote ourselves out of the story. Not all relationships are supposed to last forever, and we build capacity because it was a relational project, hoping that those networks would coalesce.”
Mart resident Carolyn Potts still appreciates the bout of energy that the Mart Community Project brought to what she affectionately calls “our sleepy little town.”
“When I met Paula I was not doing anything. I was not putting any effort into the community,” Potts said in a recent phone conversation. “The project gave us the vision that we can make a change. And we have been doing it, slowly. I also learned that you don’t do it by yourself, you try to engage others and show them that together we can change things.”
Asked about her favorite memory of the Mart Community Project at its height, she has to think only for a few seconds: outdoor movie screenings at Chambless field that even attracted residents from nearby towns.
“Movies were free, and the popcorn and drinks were free, and people from Groesbeck and Riesel came over,” Potts recalled. “We had a showing of Beauty and the Beast, and all the girls came dressed in their Belle outfits. And then we had a showing of Frozen, and everyone was singing the songs! I am sitting there looking around and seeing all these parents and kids singing, and I just thought, this is pretty awesome.”
By Andrea Campetella. Photos by Lynda Gonzalez and courtesy of Paula Gerstenblatt