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Welcome to Bithlo: art show at Orange County Administration building opens eyes

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Bithlo! <rim shot>

The name itself has become a virtual punchline, comedic shorthand for negative stereotypes about rural Florida. But Bithlo is more than a target of mockery; it's a living community in unincorporated Orange County that exists less than 30 miles from Orlando's multibillion-dollar themed destinations, but a universe away in terms of economic inequality.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 statistics, 18.8 percent of Bithlo's 8,268 residents live below the Federal poverty level (as compared to 13.8 percent of Florida as a whole) with a per-capita income of only $20,759 (Florida's average is $26,551). That's despite the town's median household annual income being almost $3,000 above the state's $47,661 average; though Bithlo exceeds the national average in households earning $75k to $150k, it also has far more than its share of those making under $30k. In other words, the income divide that's widened nationally during the Great Recession has become a gaping chasm devouring greater Orlando's eastern fringe.

Bithlo is home to more than just television transmitters and motor speedways; behind these grim statistics are actual citizens, more than a third of them children under 18. Amid this deprivation, one important outlet of opportunity is Orange County Academy, a private school started in 2010 by United Global Outreach, the nonprofit organization that also helped open Bithlo's first primary-care medical clinic. OCA offers quality education to area students, regardless of financial need. Now, with the help of ArtReach Orlando, those students have also had the opportunity to contribute creatively to an exhibition hanging in the halls of the Orange County Administration building, confronting some of Orlando's most powerful with a daily reminder of our most vulnerable neighbors.

Welcome to Bithlo: An Orange County Community With Pride is a three-faceted collection exploring the "storied past, present life and future possibilities of the Bithlo community." I attended last Wednesday's opening reception and was lucky enough to get a tour of the artwork by Brendan O'Connor. The Canadian transplant is already known locally as the artist behind the SIT Project (thesitproject.com) and the creator of several installations seen during last week's Walk On By pop-up art project. O'Connor's day job is "arts social activist" with ArtReach, a brand-new, privately funded 501(c)3 created by Bickley Wilson and Lucy Roberts. In their first year they are focusing on underserved areas like Bithlo and Apopka, promoting projects that "foster creativity and hope, develop self-esteem and offer children a platform to remember, reflect, re-vision and rejoice."

O'Connor helped spearhead the Bithlo Young Artist Outreach, ArtReach's inaugural summer educational workshop, the fruits of which are available for public view at the Orange County Administration building, 201 S. Rosalind Ave., through the end of September. After that, the art will return to tour Bithlo, hopefully ending up in a permanent home. Prior to the project, O'Connor's relationship with Bithlo was a "total blank slate," but he quickly bonded with the community over weekly barbecues at the school. In the longer term, ArtReach hopes to fund a permanent arts program there, potentially partnering with the Orlando Repertory Theatre and the Kennedy Space Center to train local artists as teachers. O'Connor made a point of mentioning the millions of dollars in corporate donations secured for the area by Tim McKinney, executive vice president of their partner United Global Outreach, saying, "He is not afraid to upset people to get things done."

The first element of the Welcome to Bithlo exhibit incorporates historical photos of Bithlo from the 1920s through 1970s. Many of the long-departed subjects pictured are anonymous, though a black-and-white image of a stoic cowboy was enthusiastically identified as "old man Dietrich" by a lifelong Bithlo resident at the opening. The final portion consists of collages created by children at OCA, visualizing aspirations for themselves and their city.

But the central segment of the show – a series of prints by award-winning Tampa Bay Times photojournalist Willie Allen Jr. – is the most moving. Allen captured BMX-riding 14-year-old boys with stick-and-poke tattoos, young girls at play in the shadow of leaching landfills and a grandmother embracing her grandchild inside a cluttered trailer (which O'Connor aptly described as a "religious painting" and "an allegory for the community").

When I marveled at Allen's ability to capture such intimate images without feeling intrusive, the subject of the last photo overheard and interjected, "Willie's … not a stranger; he's somebody that you don't have to get close to him, you already are." She tearfully relayed to me that Allen's hope was that through his photography, his subjects could see that "there can be a better tomorrow, and they don't have to settle just for what's been given to them."

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