Walls: Arbitrary Impediments

Walls became an obsession when I went to Berlin in 2010. I followed the path marking where the wall had been. I saw the few remaining sections of the wall.  I heard about a couple from East Berlin who walked away from their apartment in 1961 with a picnic basket, hedging their bets that life would be better on the other side. After the wall came down in 1989, they were able to return to see their apartment. Nothing had changed. Their neighbours had moved in, but the furniture and even the pictures on the wall were the same. The wall created a divide in aspiration, potential, security, prosperity, perspective and culture — a divide that was not there before and which more than two decades has not completely erased.

There are several geo-political borders like the former Berlin Wall that are as impenetrable as people can make them: in Western Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla; between India and Bangladesh  the US and Mexico, and Israel and the West bank; across Cyprus;  Belfast dissected with “defensive architecture.” These are arbitrary lines. They are drawn by the more powerful side.  The line dividing Israel from its neighbours, for example, was drawn on a map in green ink by a British official (hence “green line”) with no thought to the consequences for families, neighbours, and communities.

Walls, albeit not in material form, figure in our imaginations and speech: when we struggle to succeed we can feel like we are ‘hitting our heads against a wall’; when someone or something bothers us we say we are being ‘driven up a wall’; when we are excited we are ‘bouncing off the walls’; when something is pervasive it is ‘wall-to-wall’; when we will try everything possible we will ‘go to the wall’; long-distance runners, energy flagging, can ‘hit a wall’.

There is also every kind of emotional wall. The materials of these walls are hurt, fear, depression, depletion, inability to trust, insecurity, self-esteem, injury, misunderstanding.…  We build those walls one experience at a time.

The paintings in the Walls series are meditations on the idea of separation, arbitrariness, and emotional distress — our experience of being separated from our people, our land or our deepest desires. I found that I tended to think in terms of release or escape: over,under,through, and around, as well as ladders, flight, windows and doors.  I worked at getting the feel of arbitrary separation. I thought about the things that stall our lives in frustration and unrequited dreams, preventing us from any progress at all as surely as a concrete wall. I wondered about the difficulties we encounter as individuals, as communities and even societies as we approach others with good, but misaligned intentions. I painted and I made books. I ruminated and  imagined. And maybe with the final panel of ‘Green Lines’, the barbed wire unravelling, I came to a wishful resolution.

Rhonda Harder Epp