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Bay Area artist tours "Watermelon Couch" project across country

Bay Area artist's "Watermelon Couch" prompts dialogue with Black farmers
Bay Area artist's "Watermelon Couch" prompts dialogue with Black farmers 02:59

Two years ago, James Shields was using his marketing background working as a labor organizer. But he closed that chapter of his life, returning to his roots and passion: art.

"A lot of the symbolism in my work has to do with paying homage to nature," said Shields. 

He tinkered with abstract art, but eventually pivoted to sculpture. With his latest work, he created what he calls "Watermelon Couch". 

"I was aware of why the watermelon represented Black people. It was mostly associated with stereotypes. I figured it would be a great conversation piece," said Shields.

So he took his couch on the road last year, from California to states in the Deep South like Alabama and Georgia, striking up conversations with Black farmers who have overcome immense obstacles and systemic racism over generations.

"I never gave up on my dream. I continued forth until I persevered," said farmer Sam Cobb. 

U.S. Census numbers show less than 2 percent of farmers in the country are Black. 

"There was a need to hear these stories from these farmers, and showing a connection through my art that could platform them," said Shields. 

The 39-year-old will soon embark on the second leg of his journey, this time to the Midwest, following the migration routes of 20th century southern Black families seeking opportunities. 

"This couch represents the disbursement of stereotypes, meaning let's showcase these Black people who have a history of being master farmers," said Shields. 

Shields is raising funds and has applied for grants to continue his artistic adventure to discover and share untold stories.

"It's a spiritual mission, in regards to being on a journey, tapping into the past that people have laid before me," said Shields. 

The road ahead for the "Watermelon Couch" is unknown, but there's a seat for anyone willing to listen, connect and learn.  

Shields hits the road for the next three months on Thursday. He expects to log more than 20,000 miles through the Midwest. 

Segments of his journey, including this upcoming stretch, are posted on his Instagram, "Creative Shields".

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