Freedom 58 Project exhibit comes to Breckenridge to highlight human trafficking
Bob and Libby Swenson want to inspire hope. That’s why their Faces of Freedom art exhibit is filled with bright colors to shed light on a dark topic: human trafficking. The Swensons, co-founders of the Freedom 58 Project, created the exhibit in conjunction with other anti-trafficking organizations such as Love Justice International and have brought it to Summit County, their home for roughly 30 years.
Titled “Voices Calling for the End of Modern Day Slavery,” the exhibit opened last fall at Colorado Mountain College’s Breckenridge campus and displays about 60 paintings out of a collection of 230.
It has taken about seven years for the Swensons to grow the collection to that size. Bob Swenson was first motivated to help while attending art festivals in Breckenridge and Beaver Creek. The pair was discussing the bleak statistics of human trafficking when they saw Brighton artist Judith Dickinson painting a portrait of a woman in Africa. Inspired by her story of helping widows in Rwanda, Bob Swenson thought of making portraits of trafficking survivors, and Dickinson offered to be the first.
“The hard part was, how do you tell a trafficking person’s survival story without exposing them and exploiting them?” Bob Swenson said.
Libby Swenson, now a regional director of donor engagement for Love Justice International, reached out to the organization prior to her working there for assistance. They came up with a system that has Freedom 58 receiving a photo, story and the consent of a survivor from Love Justice that is used as a basis for the artwork. From there, it becomes a creative challenge for an artist to hide the survivor’s identity via different styles.
“We didn’t want anything to be dark,” Rob Swenson said. “We wanted it to convey beauty, dignity and honor to the oppressed. It’s pretty diverse.”
There are also more general pieces in addition to the personal portraits, such landscapes that depict Nepal or scenes of Love Justice stations where agents intercept people being trafficked. Rob Swenson said they took the story of young girls walking in high heels at a gentlemen’s club and abstracted it into a painting of the shoes unassociated with any one person.
“We want to portray a picture of hope,” Libby Swenson said. “The people that are in these portraits are not in slavery right now. They’ve either been rescued or intercepted before they ever got to the point of exploitation.”
Over 200 artists across the country have participated in the project. The Breckenridge exhibit showcases the work of roughly 45 of those who are mainly regional, such as Evergreen’s Don Sahli. For Alyssa Rodriguez of Avon, it’s a chance to see the exhibit from the public’s perspective.
Rodriguez met the Swensons on a bison ranch in Montana and wound up working with Freedom 58 for almost four years until 2018. She said her role was essentially that of an art director, and it involved public speaking events, managing a database and partnering with other organizations.
What: Faces of Freedom art exhibit
When: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through May 6
Where: Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge
Cost: Free. Visit Freedom58Project.com for more information.
Rodriguez helped take the exhibit around California, Kansas, Missouri, Montana and other places in Colorado, but Libby Swenson said the Breckenridge exhibit has been the longest and most developed. Rodriguez added that the visual impact and scale of Faces of Freedom has grown over the years, with some paintings measuring 5 by 6 feet or larger.
Rodriguez has always been interested in art. She studied it at Concordia University in Nebraska and is working on a graduate degree in art leadership from Colorado State University.
“After I graduated college, I was really interested in having my art say and be something outside of having good quality or just for expression’s sake,” Rodriguez said about joining Freedom 58. “I wanted it to make an impact, and I was always interested in working with human trafficking relief organizations.”
Her emphasis is in collage and mixed media, focusing on rice paper portraits. She starts with charcoal on canvas and uses chemicals to create a wash to make it like painting. Rodriguez then layers on rice paper, gold or silver leaf, seals it in beeswax and finally pours oil over the paper so all the layers blend together, including the charcoal portrait.
“Usually, when I first do the technique, I do it as a live performance piece,” Rodriguez said. “First you can’t see the portrait at all, and then when I put the oil on, all of a sudden the audience can see the person come through underneath.”
She has made a couple for Faces of Freedom, but “Khmer’s Child” is what was chosen for Breckenridge. Gold leaf covers roughly half the painting as a women’s portrait floats above.
Mixed media resonates with Rodriguez because of its flexibility. She doesn’t want to be stifled by specific rules that other mediums may have, and it allows her to fully express the concept, symbolism and references of the work. For example, the gold or silver represents the value of a person, and beeswax means preservation. She aims to make every portrait with high-quality materials to offset any demoralization the subject might have felt. She also uses essential oils based on the geographic area the person is from to give it a sensory aspect.
“I was always a rebellious child,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to touch artwork in museums, and you can’t because you would ruin the pieces. So what if I made a way where you can’t ruin pieces by interacting more?”
The touch and smell is to create empathy, since Rodriguez said it is easy to feel detached from the issue of human trafficking. Libby Swenson said art can be a powerful tool in promoting anti-trafficking organizations.
“When I’m able to walk people through the art exhibit, it’s actually the closest way people can get to the field without getting on the airplane,” Libby Swenson said.
None of the art is for sale, as the goal is to raise awareness, and subjects are also free to revoke their consent on a piece. Works have QR codes that bring up videos, stories and other information if people wish to learn more about how to provide aid. Rob Swenson, a former linebacker for the Denver Broncos, said fame isn’t satisfying and that he finds it healing to help others.
“I wish everybody could play in the NFL, and they would learn that whatever they’re seeking is not there,” he said.
Following the Breckenridge version of the exhibit, Faces of Freedom will move to Colorado Mountain College’s Edwards campus. It opens there May 16.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.
Now more than ever, your financial support is critical to help us keep our communities informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on our residents and businesses. Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.
Your donation will be used exclusively to support quality, local journalism.