It had to be a first, having a gospel choir performing a cappella at an art opening at the Yellowstone Art Museum on Thursday night.
When Eunice Terry, founder of the All Nations Church, and five fellow choir members clapped their hands and belted out a song, it felt as much like a worship service as it did an opening for “Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate.”
Drawing a crowd of about 120 people, so many that they barely fit in the large gallery, is also a rarity.
And certainly, having Mayor Tom Hanel and Police Chief Rich St. John speak at an art event is unusual.
“Every man was created equally, that’s what this is all about,” Hanel said. “As the mayor of this town, I’m here to tell you that I welcome diversity.”
St. John reiterated the Billings Police Department’s commitment to respond swiftly and compassionately to hate crimes.
“We have a zero tolerance of hate crimes,” St. John said. “We do so, not because it’s required by law, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
The exhibit features 30 works by some of the 100 artists who transformed hate literature into works of art, following the idea that one should combat hate with beauty. The exhibit, curated by the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, has been touring Montana galleries and community centers for two years. The Billings exhibit is its last stop before the works head back to the Holter for maintenance before beginning a national tour.
“Transforming Hate” will be on display at the YAM through June 27.
“I think the show is awesome,” said Rose Cortez, a member of the All Nations Church Choir. “It’s beautiful because it doesn’t breathe off anything but love.”
Erik Johnson, a Montana State University Billings business student, said the show’s power comes from the artists’ gentle response to hate.
“I liked the ‘Thousand Cranes’ piece. In Japanese tradition, you make and send 1,000 cranes as an apology,” Johnson said.
Two Montana State University students drove over from Bozeman for the opening to show their support for the Not in Our Town organization, which started in Billings in response to a brick thrown in the window of a Jewish family in 1993.
They recently founded a group, We Are the Dream, to combat hate in Bozeman. Sonia Chavez, president of the group, said white supremacists passed out flyers in Bozeman last year, inspiring the community to form a Peace March last fall.
Justin Cohn’s group Metal Heads Against Hate is organizing a metal concert May 8 in Livingston to raise money for the nonprofit Bozeman group.
“I think this show is amazing,” Chavez said. “We’re here to show our support and to let people know that students are taking a stand against hate.”
Not in Our Town helped host the opening reception, and Billings director Eran Thompson said gatherings like the opening Thursday night are important to keep hate crimes and their perpetrators at bay.
“We as a community need to stand up in a positive and creative way to combat hate,” Thompson said.
Later, he quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”