The lines we cross in our lives

Dean Mitchell's painting 'Route 66'
Dean Mitchell’s ‘Route 66’ (2020) © Dean Mitchell

A few days ago I thought I was in the midst of a strange early morning dream. But as I lay in bed in a half-sleep state, still trying to decipher the dream world from reality, I realized that the yelling I thought was coming from my subconscious was actually coming from the street below my bedroom window. It was barely 6am, and an angry and distressed woman was loudly telling her partner that she was done with their relationship.

I live on a very quiet residential street by New York City standards, so in the interludes between the screaming, it was eerily quiet. Soon she spoke again, yelling to someone down the phone that she wanted to “get away from him”. There was “nothing left [for her] in New York ”.

I got out of bed and looked out of the window to see the woman standing on the sidewalk with her suitcases, and the man just outside the front door. A car pulled up. The driver got out and put the woman’s cases in the trunk as she climbed in the back seat. It seemed to me that her partner had crossed some line. And that she was now crossing her own.

The whole incident caused a low wave of sadness to come over me. It felt strangely emblematic of what feels like a larger world fracturing around us, and it’s made me think for the past few days about the idea of ​​crossing lines, real and symbolic ones. We all make lines in our heads and hearts, which can or cannot be crossed in our relationships, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our countries. And at some point, most of us have to reckon with the question of what happens when those lines do get crossed.

The painting “Route 66”, by the contemporary artist Dean Mitchell, is a depiction of a desolate stretch of road along the celebrated US highway that once connected Chicago to Los Angeles. We come to the brown and gray painted canvas at an intersection of roads, gazing on to the turn that would put us on to Route 66. The landscape before us is barren. There are no cars or people in the frame, nothing to suggest which historical period we are in. As a viewer, we face a stop sign, the point where we must pause to consider what our next move will be.

US Highway 66 officially existed from 1926 to 1985. I’m most familiar with it from Nat King Cole’s 1946 song recommending travelers to “travel my way, take the highway that’s the best / Get your kicks on Route 66.” Those lyrics, written by Bobby Troup, a white musician and actor, offer a carefree vision of the highway. But I suspect that Mitchell, a 65-year-old African-American man, was well aware of the unique dangers posed to black people who traveled stretches of that route.

Route 66 was sparsely populated and passed through many counties containing “sundown towns”, places that prohibited black people from entering after the sun went down. Any black person who found themselves in one of those places after dark faced the prospect of racially motivated violence. The risks were so great that in 1936, Victor H Green, a black became a worker, published The Black Motorist Green Book giving advice on where it was safe to stop to eat, rest or get gas. Your life depended on knowing in advance what lines could be crossed safely and where.

In order to cross a line, lines first have to be drawn. And line making, real or symbolic, is one way of gatekeeping, demarcating place and power, and distinguishing between “us and them”. Pick from any number of countries, cities, neighborhoods: lines are still being drawn and the safety and danger of crossing them is still being considered.

I discovered the sparse work of Barcelona-based artist Guim Tió at some point in the past couple of years. I am drawn to his use of color and space to evoke immediate feeling and quiet reflection but also to evoke a sense of our own placed-ness in any given context. In “La Gran,” a small figure stands in the middle of a vast expanse of land. He’s facing what is presumably the sea, with open sky all around. Two simple lines between land and sea and water and horizon situate the tiny painted figure in a world that appears devoid of distraction or community, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the person is alone, facing the dividing line between one world and another.

Guim Tió's painting 'La Gran'

Guim Tió’s ‘La Gran’ (2019) © Guim Tió

I don’t know that any of us can escape the moments in life where, like this figure, we’re brought to a decision point that requires us to think through and negotiate what lines we are willing to cross. Usually crossing a line comes with some sacrifice and discomfort, stepping through the scary and unfamiliar in order to reach the other side. These days I find myself thinking not only of the tragic circumstances of those fleeing Ukraine, both Ukrainians and other nationals, but also about the Russians who have chosen to leave their country or to stay and protest, having determined that their president has himself crossed an irredeemable line.

Tió’s stark painting is a poignant reminder that we each stand alone in summoning up the courage, wisdom or willingness to make the most challenging decisions. Though it can feel like a lonely place to be, it may also be exactly what you need to hear and heed your own voice.

Within this idea of ​​crossing lines, I’ve also been thinking about women. There have been such striking images in recent weeks of women who have been forced to leave Ukraine. Women at train stations or walking along with children lagging behind them or in their arms. Women saying goodbye to their husbands, brothers and fathers, women traveling together, older women carrying their little dogs towards safety. And then the images of women staying to take up arms or remaining behind to care for newborn babies or pregnant women. All of these women are making choices on what real and symbolic lines must be crossed to ensure the welfare of themselves and their families. Ukraine is not of course the only place where women bear significant consequences for major political conflicts and decisions. Syria, Afghanistan, Central African Republic – the list could go on.

Caitlin Connolly's painting 'Climbing Mountains with Children'

Caitlin Connolly’s ‘Climbing Mountains with Children’ (2019) © Caitlin Connolly

The artist Caitlin Connolly draws, paints and sculptures, her work reflecting her interest in women’s interiority, and how women move in the world. I love her illustration “Climbing Mountains with Children”. The grand figure of a woman takes up the center of the frame. The skirt of her tent-like dress billows out, adding to her larger-than-life appearance. A young girl hangs on to her neck, and she also holds the hand of a slightly older child who is stepping precariously and reluctantly behind her. The woman is forging ahead across a jagged line of mountaintops, her bare feet stepping determinedly on the pointed rock edges, as if indifferent to the difficulty.

We can see that this must be a painful and treacherous journey. She cannot be immune to that reality. But many of us also know there is a peculiar resilience and fortitude that becomes apparent when a woman decides she must do a certain thing, including protecting the ones she loves. Sometimes we have to cross formidable lines not just for ourselves, but because we are committed to the welfare of others.

The sky in Connolly’s image is blue. It feels hopeful, despite the treacherous journey. I think back to the woman I heard on the street on the edge of dawn. It seems there is always some trace of darkness in the choices we make. But there will also always be some thread of light, no matter how thin. Maybe that’s what gives us the strength to cross the line in the first place.

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