Sarah and Rosa...
in Celebration of Black History Month (February) and Women's History Month (March)
Elko, Nevada isn't exactly on the road to somewhere else, at least it wasn't for me when I began the
3 1/2 hour drive from Salt Lake City on May 7, 2014. I rented a car at the airport and splashed my way along I-80 through thunderstorms, which threatened to blow me onto salt flats stretching as far as I could see. I persevered because I knew that Sarah was waiting, and I was eager to meet her. After a year of trying to coordinate our schedules, she was expecting me at 11:00.
Sarah Sweetwater was the 42nd woman I visited on my 50-state journey. Forty-one women before her had shared their stories of creating labyrinths, stories intertwined with their own personal journeys. The only thing I knew about Sarah was that she had designed the labyrinth at Elko Peace Park, along with another community labyrinth in Ely, Nevada, plus one of her own – with the help of students, grandchildren and friends. I was on my way to walk the labyrinths in Elko and to hear her story.
What I didn't expect to find was an artist...and a subject I recognized immediately.
A woman on a bus bench.
Paused at a pivotal moment in American history.
"My intention in positioning Rosa in a half standing, half sitting position," Sarah explained, is to emphasize her intention. She was intentionally taking a stand on sitting."
Through Sarah's lens, I leaned forward and greeted Rosa, a Black woman living in the Jim Crow South, who had had enough. Enough indignity. Enough injustice. Enough!
"Watch," she seemed to be instructing me. "Watch me... sit."
She sat, fully aware that she would not rise – not this time – when the bus driver ordered her to give up her seat to a white person. By taking a stand, she ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against racial segregation on buses.
Rosa Parks was not the only woman of courage that Sarah sculpted. Cast in bronze only a few steps away stood her statue of Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute woman, whose voice became a strong advocate for the rights of Native Americans. And commanding a table just inside the entryway sat Maya, a graceful goddess carved in white Carrera marble - "a compilation of womens' power and strength," Sarah said.
Rosa's face stayed with me for the next two years as I finished my travels and completed the book. She seemed to be asking something of me, but I couldn't determine what. I wrote Sarah to ask if she had found a home for Rosa. Impatient for an answer, I Googled "Sarah Sweetwater Rosa Parks" and to my shock and deep sadness, stumbled upon Sarah's obituary. She had died of cancer a year and a half after my visit.
Thanks to Sarah's daughter, Alice Digenan, I learned that Rosa (now bronzed) resides in Picture This Gallery in Elko. Alice is searching for a permanent home for Rosa, where her mother's talent and Rosa's message are accessible to a larger population.
I've continued to contemplate what Rosa, through Sarah's artistic vision, asks of me, and perhaps asks of each of us. I hear their voices, raised in a common refrain:
"Honor your own strength and move forward!"
In gratitude, dear Sarah and Rosa, I continue on my path – with heightened intention.
Sarah in the center of the labyrinth she created with family and friends.