Utah artists create interactive outdoor pieces to celebrate 55th anniversary of Voting Rights Act

(Photo courtesy of Better Days 2020) Tawnie Richman created an interactive public art installation that will be on display in Centerville and Farmington in August through Better Days 2020's "Hard Won, Not Done" project to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

In Ogden, Utahns can grab a marker and write on three colorful pillars about the ways they want to see their communities change and how they’ll make that happen. Over in Centerville, people are asked to pick up a rock and add it to a ballot box to show why they vote.

Tamia Green, 19, and Tawnie Richman, 23, the Utah artists who created these new interactive public installations that will be on display through August, said they hope their pieces will make people stop and think.

Green, who’s from Ogden, wanted to “get people’s voices out there” and spark a conversation about how things could be done differently. Richman, from Centerville, encourages people to reflect and question, “Why do I actually vote? Do I vote because it’s an American thing to do? Or do I have a reason?”

These thought-provoking creations are what leaders of Better Days 2020, a nonprofit that promotes Utah’s suffrage history, were looking for when they put out a call to artists earlier this year. The installations are part of the organization’s “Hard Won, Not Done” project to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this month.

The landmark legislation, which President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law on Aug. 6, 1965, prohibited discriminatory practices, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, that kept people of color from voting.

“We just wanted these artists to think about voting rights, the importance of being engaged in community affairs, of having a say, what it means to them to have a voice,” and then create something that people could engage with, said Katherine Kitterman, Better Days 2020′s historical director.

This month also marks the centennial anniversary of the ratification of 19th Amendment, which expanded voting rights for women across the country. Earlier this year, celebrations were held in Salt Lake City on the 150th anniversary of Utah women first getting the right to vote.

These milestones applied mainly to white women, though, leaving out women of color who weren’t considered citizens at the time. People of color continued to fight for access to the ballot box for decades after 1920, and it’s important to recognize that struggle as people celebrate suffrage history this year, Kitterman said.

At an unveiling Wednesday night, attendees started adding their ideas on the fabric-covered pillars Green created for Better Days 2020. One person wrote, “Let’s respect each other.” Another said, “I’d like to see a change in the discrimination in the education system.”

“Right now, more than ever, we live in a world where there’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of listening. … This piece allows everyone’s voice to be heard on a unique platform,” Green said.

Green said she has a lot of ideas about what she would write on her project, but if she had to pick one, she said, it would be “that Black women matter.”

It’s a passion that Green has incorporated in her other works. In addition to her interactive piece, she has two paintings about “empowering Black women” on display at Ogden Contemporary Arts Platforms.

“One painting is a Black girl with her afro, and in the afro it says, ‘Don’t touch my hair.‘ And the other one is a painting of a girl with a head wrap. In the head wrap, it describes different terms I use to describe Black women, like strong, beautiful, fearless, powerful,” Green said.

With her project, Richman said she was able to incorporate “two things that I really love”: art and history. Richman studies history at Southern Virginia University, and she’s particularly interested in civil rights and Black history.

She created a voting box out of white, yellow and purple rocks, which are suffrage colors. Above it, she placed a Black hand, also made of rocks, placing a ballot in the box with the names of people who fought for voting rights.

Off to the side, Richman provided a pile of white rocks with different reasons listed on them about why people vote, such as “to help their community” or “to improve other people’s lives.” People can take a rock that means something to them, or write their own, and place it in the box.

Richman’s personal reason for voting is “because it allows me to have a voice for change,” she said.

How to see “Hard Won, Not Done” public art installations

Tawnie Richman’s piece will be on display through Aug. 16 at William R. Smith Park, at 300 N. 100 East in Centerville. Then, it will be available Aug. 17-31 outside the Farmington Museum at 3041 E. Main St. in Farmington.

Tamia Green’s piece will be hosted by Ogden Contemporary Arts at the Platforms, at 490 25th St. in Ogden, through Aug. 26.

The installations are free and open to the public.

Better Days 2020 originally hoped to hold a public event with these installations to discuss different women’s work for equality in Utah, but it wasn’t possible due to safety and health guidelines limiting large group gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, Kitterman said.

Instead of holding an in-person event, the nonprofit published a video in late July in which Kitterman spoke with historians and scholars about the work of Black women in Utah’s history, highlighting Elizabeth A. Taylor, Lucille Bankhead, Mignon Barker Richmond, Anna Belle Weakley and Alberta Henry. The video can be found at bit.ly/3gx0QR4.

This month, Better Days 2020 is also unveiling a new memorial sculpture outside Council Hall in Salt Lake City, where the first Utah woman voted. On Feb. 14, 1870, Seraph Young, grandniece of Brigham Young, cast a ballot in a municipal election, becoming the first woman in the country to vote under an equal suffrage law. (When Young was alive, Council Hall was located near where Harmons is now at 100 South and State Street, but it was later moved.)

Better Days 2020 is holding a “two-day, outdoor, crowd-controlled open house” from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Aug. 21 and 22 for people to see the sculpture at 300 N. State St. The free event is limited to 50 guests per hour, and reservations can be made at bit.ly/3fqzo5X.

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) A new sculpture was installed on the lawn of Council Hall across from the Capitol in Salt Lake City to commemorate women's history as Utahns and people across the country celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of 19th Amendment.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.