V.L. Cox walks the grounds of the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas. She stops to point out the historic building’s chapel, its kitchens, its clawfoot tubs on the way to her studio tucked into a corner of the mostly empty, 56,000-square-foot edifice set on 63 acres of North Little Rock soil.
It’s a swelteringly hot day and being inside the 1910 Italian villa-inspired building doesn’t offer much reprieve.
“You know,” Cox says, “this place is designed so that when all the windows and everything are open, the building actually has good ventilation and you can even get a decent breeze in the summer.”
But the windows aren’t open, so Cox shrugs and heads back to her slightly air-conditioned studio.
The artworks that line the walls, shelves and spare floor space in her studio demand attention immediately upon entering. A table made of stained glass windows from the south Arkansas church she grew up in. A dress form draped in a faded American flag and twisted wire. An assault rifle composed of human bones.
Everything changed for Cox in 2015. She’d left her ad agency days in the past to pursue art full time nearly a decade earlier, mostly focusing her work on stories of the South through a screen door lens of nostalgia.
Then Arkansas House Bill 1228 came on the scene, a law designed to expand the powers of religious freedom in lawsuits, but which opponents say allows for lawful discrimination against LGBTQ and other communities.
“I never thought in my lifetime that I would lose the right to eat a sandwich in a restaurant,” Cox says. “I was gobsmacked.”
So she acted through the most powerful way she knew how, her art. Cox constructed six doors modeled after Jim Crow-era “colored only” doors — one for whites, colored, LGBT, immigrant and homeless only, with chains blocking the door reserved for “human beings” — and placed them on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol.
She woke the next morning to find photos of her doors on Yahoo News, making their way across the globe to news outlets in India and South Korea. But she also found a fundamental shift in her calling as an artist.
“The doors had such an impact on people and I wasn’t expecting that,” Cox says. “It opened my eyes to see I needed to keep talking about these things, the things no one else wants to talk about. I realized we had an even bigger problem than I thought.
“That’s when I thought it was about time to talk about the Ku Klux Klan.”
The End Hate Project is a 50-plus-piece exhibition that has been traveling the U.S. for the past two years. The exhibit spotlights and dissects discrimination, both past and present, with sometimes disturbing, sometimes humorous, but consistently powerful commentary, decrying society’s “forgotten rationality.”
It began with the doors, then grew piece by piece in what Cox describes as an almost serendipitous way.
“I just kept finding these perfect pieces of historical material, or they would find me, I should say … I felt like a vehicle and that this was how it was all supposed to happen.”
As the exhibit grew, so did Cox’s crowds. In full and in portions, The End Hate Project has since been touring the nation, on display at the Virginia Holocaust Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, the LGBT Community Center in New York City and the National Mall in Washington, among other locations.
The doors alone have traveled more than 100,000 miles, and there are days their creator feels every one of those miles.
“I’ve thought long and hard about those doors,” Cox says. “From a technical standpoint, the literal weight of these old doors is a real issue when we’re transporting them. But I’m always reminded that the subject matter is heavy, everything surrounding it is heavy and difficult. You have to keep lifting it up and moving forward because it’s worth it.”
The tour wraps this fall with the exhibit appearing for the first time in its entirety in Cox’s home state at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Elaine Massacre. The bloodshed in Elaine saw a white mob take the lives of what some estimate as hundreds of African American sharecroppers in what was certainly the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and potentially the country.
The town’s violent past is mirrored in many of the exhibition’s pieces, including the skeleton rifle created in response to the Pulse nightclub shooting and an authentic, blood-stained klan robe, what Cox calls a “hundred-year-old crime scene.”
And echoes of that same violence still reach Cox today in the form of death threats from klan members and attempts to destroy her artwork — one visitor succeeding in smashing a skull covered in hand-hammered gold leaf in the grip of an antique vice meant to represent the bonds of conformity.
But Cox isn’t disheartened; in fact, she’s surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Instead she remains exceedingly grateful to be starting meaningful conversations, to be what she considers a small instrument in the grand scheme of things.
“Sometimes I really don’t know what to say or do about things, but I do know I can create a piece of art that crosses communication barriers. Politics can’t do that. Religion can’t even do that these days, but art can do that. Books can do that. Musicians, same thing. Theater, same thing. It can reach anyone regardless of their background, and that is what we desperately need nowadays.”
And just like that, Cox has thrown open a window, a heavy old door, and welcomed in a cool breeze on a stifling day, a balm for the raw wounds of the current age.
“I see the promise, and I’m not giving up.”