The artist Sheila Pree Bright has spent her adult life trying to sort through her mixed feelings about the American flag.
It's just a red, white and blue bolt of cloth. But all the Atlanta resident has to do is glance up casually and see one at the top of a flagpole snapping away in the wind, or drooping at half-staff, and suddenly she experiences an undeniable punch of emotion. Much of who she is today is a direct result of those 50 stars and 13 stripes.
She's the daughter of a career sergeant major who was tormented by his involvement in the Vietnam War. She's an African-American woman, now in her 40s, who experienced racism as a child while living on a military base in Germany — and who reacted to that slight by identifying with another oppressed minority group. And she's an artist who has achieved some of her greatest professional triumphs while photographing Old Glory.
When asked to describe her relationship with the flag, Bright is silent. Then she shrugs and smiles a little.
"The flag is complicated for me," she says. "What better place is there to be living than in America? But at the same time …"
Fifteen of Bright's evocative photographs of Baltimoreans engaging in unconventional ways with the U.S. flag are a highlight of "For Whom It Stands," an exhibit that opened this weekend at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.
Bright didn't tell her subjects how to pose. Instead, she instructed them to interact spontaneously with the flag. Some people hid behind it, while others wrapped themselves in it. An employee of an Inner Harbor hotel hauled the flag behind him as though dragging a heavy burden.
The photo of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake shows her simultaneously protecting and being protected by the flag. She wraps the stripes like a shawl around her arms, while cradling the stars with the same care with which she'd rock an infant.
In another shot, the flag obscures virtually every identifying feature of the nameless person standing under the mammoth covering. Observers would be hard-pressed to tell the subject's sex, age or race. Perhaps that's the point.
And Kaye Marie Lumayog, 12, a recent immigrant from the Philippines, appears to be crawling out from beneath the flag's rippling folds, as if she is beginning a different and unfamiliar phase of existence.
"For Whom It Stands" runs through February 2015 and contains more than 100 works of art and historical artifacts that explore Americans' relationship with the flag from the Revolutionary War through the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There's a scrap of the flag that flew at Fort McHenry during the British bombardment in the War of 1812, as well as flag-inspired artwork created by such well-known artists as Faith Ringgold and Romare Bearden.
The lithograph "Roots" shows the head of an African-American man in profile and silhouetted against a map of Africa floating in the sky. Below that continent, a slave ship sails in a gray sea toward a red-white-and-blue coast that also takes the form of the man's shoulders.
In Gordon Parks' 1942 black-and-white photograph, "American Gothic, Washington, D.C." — a comment on the famous artwork by Grant Wood — a solemn-faced cleaning woman named Ella Watson poses in front of the American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other.
The show at the Lewis skews more heavily toward art than history, perhaps because the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, which is directly next door, has a new permanent exhibit called "Family of Flagmakers" that provides an in-depth look at the making of the 1814 flag.
But the mural created from Bright's 15 photographs — one for each of the stripes and stars on the 1814 flag — is a showstopper.
Bright's human subjects are rendered in black and white, while the flag is depicted in vibrant color. Does that suggest that the nation as a whole is more important than any one person? Or does it indicate that an unvarying system of values doesn't fit with a nation of individuals characterized by subtle shades of gray?
At times, the artist seems to have elicited responses from her subjects that might have surprised even them.
For instance, Kaye Marie, a seventh-grade student at City Springs Elementary/Middle School, where Bright created a companion mural, says that she was thinking about her homeland the whole time she was posing for her photograph.
Kaye Marie and her family moved to Baltimore from Gingoog City in the Philippines in August 2009. Sometimes, she feels torn between her old country and her new one.
"I feel as though I'm abandoning my true identity," Kaye Marie says. "I feel as though I'm less of a Filipino now. But I can learn how to balance this."
She couldn't help worrying about her friends, neighbors and extended family when Typhoon Haiyan swept through the island nation in November, displacing 4 million people. Then she thought about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and how Americans reacted by rallying as a nation.
As Kaye Marie puts it:
"The flag reminds me that you have to stand up together when tragic things are pulling you down."
For Rawlings-Blake, the flag symbolizes a beloved but flawed grandparent or cousin.
The photo shoot with Bright "was a very powerful thing," she said, adding: "I thought about the deep and abiding love you have for your family. When there's unconditional love, you still see the bad parts, but you love your family despite them."
As Bright watches the people around her struggle to reconcile their feelings, it helps her understand the complicated role the flag has played in her life.
As long as Bright can remember, she was steeped in the rituals and etiquette surrounding the American flag: how it was to be raised and lowered, the proper way to salute and fold it, how to dispose of a flag that had worn out.
Her father, James Robert Griffin, was a Vietnam War veteran who made his career in the Army, rising to the rank of sergeant major. It wasn't until Bright was an adult that she realized that her father had a drawer full of military honors.
"Before he went to war, my father was very vocal," she says, "He spoke up. But once he came back, he was silent. I never realized that my father had all these certificates and awards because he never talked about them."
Bright's family was stationed on a military base in Heilbronn, Germany, for three years in the 1970s. She was keenly aware of the distinction between Germans and Americans. But it was a shock when she learned that some of her countrymen made a further division based on skin color.
"As a child, you don't see yourself as looking any different from anyone else," she says. "But when we rode the school bus in Germany, we were called the n-word."
Bright's reaction was as idiosyncratic as she was.
"I didn't want to be black," she says. "I wanted to be Jewish."
She says she doesn't remember if she had a Jewish friend at the time, or whether they'd been studying the Holocaust in school.
"I don't know why I wanted to be Jewish," she says. "I've thought about it, and I don't know why. I think that's when I began unconsciously observing people and trying to understand why they do what they do."
James Griffin put his inquisitive middle daughter through school at the University of Missouri, where she earned a bachelor's degree, and later at Georgia State University, where she earned a master's degree in photography.
When Bright was in graduate school, she decided to create an art project based on her father's wartime experiences. She went home thinking she'd turn her camera on him for a few weeks.
"But I never could get him to talk about Vietnam," she says. "I kept asking, and finally he said, 'No more.' He said, 'I did what I had to do for my country' — and then he started to cry."
So a few years later, the artist thought long and hard before showing her father three photos that she began taking in 2006 of young Americans posing with the flag. She knew that the snapshots were unorthodox and might even offend the career military man.
"I brought him three 30-by-40-inch images, and said, 'I'd like for you to see this,' " she says.
"One of my subjects was African-American, one was white, and one was Asian-American. He stared at those photographs for five minutes.
"For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People" runs through Feb. 28, 2015, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. Admission is $6-$8. Free for children 5 and younger, teachers, and members of the military and their families. For details, call 443-263-1875 or go to rflewismuseum.org.
"Family of Flagmakers" is the new permanent exhibit at the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, 844 E. Pratt St. Admission is $6-8; children 5 and younger are free. For details, call 410-837-1793 or go to flaghouse.org.