Unity Flag Project brings purple empathy to VWU

A traveling art exhibit titled the “Unity Flag Project” is currently open for viewing for Virginia Wesleyan students, faculty and staff in the Neil Britton Art Gallery located in the Hofheimer Library. According to the VWU website, the exhibit displays 40 flags (32” x 60”) created by artists from across the United States.

The creator of the Unity Flag Project, Assistant Professor of Art Meaghan Nelson at Belmont University, was inspired to create this project after researching the topic of civil discourse after the 2016 presidential election.

After the 2016 American presidential election I published an article titled, ‘Blue Educator in a Red State: Creating Spaces of Purple Empathy through Civil Bipartisan Discourse,’ where I describe my exploratory process as an art educator working with a large, politically divided group of non-art major students as they process their opposing views surrounding the 2016 American presidential election,” Nelson said. “I used current visual culture in order to promote empathy for bipartisanship among students in a time of political unrest.” 

Her goal was to provide a safe space for bipartisan discourse using the visual arts as a way for students to share their commonalities and differences. This allowed for so-called “red and blue students” to gain “purple empathy” by sharing, listening and hearing one another. 

As the 2020 presidential election grew closer, she began thinking of additional ways to unite Americans. “I do a lot of my best thinking away from my computer, at my painting easel, and this is what inspired the paintings ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ and ‘Purple Empathy’ – these were the first Unity Flags created,” Nelson said. 

When it was announced that Belmont University would be hosting the third and final presidential debate of the 2020 election, she proposed the Unity Flag Project as a way to promote unity and purple empathy through the creation of the visual arts.

In the summer of 2020, she reached out to creators from all over the United States. “As a collective, the Unity Flag creators represent the diversity of the nation in regards to culture, ethnicity, race, gender, age, profession and political affiliations,” Nelson stated.

Professor of Art and Curator of Exhibitions at VWU John Rudel manages the programming in the gallery and has been heavily involved in this project since being contacted by Dr. Craig Wansink and Kelly Jackson of The Robert Nusbaum Center. Wansink and Jackson created a flag design with the assistance of VWU Branding and Design Manager Christine Hall for the initial exhibition at Belmont University. Then they contacted him to assist with bringing the exhibit to campus. 

Rudel says the goals of the project are to, “inspire people to contemplate the role of visual arts in social discourse, and bigger questions of what it means to be American, and what it means to be unified.”

  He created a virtual reality exhibition to reach those that are unable to come onto campus to view the in-person gallery. “The VR gallery is intended to place the viewer amidst the paintings and surrounded by them,” Rudel said. “I’ve created two VR galleries and two exhibition videos this year and we have reached over 1400 views so far. I guess we are resolved to continue to run programming and figure out how to reach an audience with social distancing as a necessity.”

Additionally, according to Rudel, students enrolled in HON 270 The Artist & Society will be collaborating in groups to complete Unity Flag paintings that will be added to the exhibition. 

The exhibit opened on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, and will continue through March 19 after which it will travel to Florida State University. The collection of flags is available to view virtually at this link https://unityflagproject.com/. Those interested in submitting their own Unity Flag should email jrudel@vwu.edu.

Connor Merk