What began as a local artist's idea for a small exhibit about refugees and immigrants in central Ohio has grown into a 34-artist traveling exhibition with an accompanying documentary film.

Through a partnership with Northland-based Community Refugee and Immigration Services, Pataskala artist Laurie Van Balen's small idea has blossomed into something big.

"Everything in a very sort of blessed way fell into place," Van Balen said. "We have a lot of enthusiasm, and we have, I believe, a very powerful project.

"This isn't your typical art show where you're trying to sell a lot of art. We're trying to educate, but in a more compelling way than just reading about refugees. You're not going to attract people with statistics. You're going to attract people with emotion."

The opening reception for the Columbus Crossing Borders Project is set for 2 to 6 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at the Cultural Arts Center, 139 W. Main St.

Van Balen said President Donald Trump's election and early actions coincided with her concept.

Under Trump's most recent executive order involving immigrants, which has been blocked temporarily by a Maryland-based federal judge, citizens from six Muslim-majority countries -- Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- would be prohibited from obtaining new visas. The order also would suspend the U.S. resettlement program for 120 days and reduce the annual number of refugee admissions for fiscal year 2017 to 50,000 from the originally scheduled 110,000.

"It was an issue that I felt very drawn to because to me, it exemplified the question of where did we stop caring about each other," Van Balen said. "It's so easy to be desensitized. I feel we are capable ... of caring for each other and helping each other.

"I think that pot was stirred by certain factions of the media and certain factions of our government that had something to gain by stirring that pot of fear. It was nothing more than a humanitarian effort to create critical thinking and compassion.

"My intention was never to make it (the Crossing Borders project) political."

Doug Swift, a Zanesville-based documentary filmmaker, came on board the Columbus Crossing Borders Project late last year.

"She reached out to me (in mid-December) and explained the project and asked if I would be interested in documenting the project," Swift said. "It was the art element that really intrigued me. It's hard to quantify compassion and empathy, and I think the artists did that."

The documentary, Swift said, provides an important accompaniment to the work of the artists.

"The main thrust, the main initial idea is to get some refugees to tell their stories so we could meet them as people," he said. "It was very moving. I would say the most striking thing for me was how much I feel like I gained by getting to know the refugees. They didn't ask for this. None of them wanted to come to the United States, really.

"They went through all kinds of hell and yet they were kind; they were compassionate; they were spiritually put together. I was drawn toward them. I admired them and wanted to be around them. It's really the American story. They come with so little, and they give so much."

The opening reception is a one-time event at the Cultural Arts Center, and Van Balen said officials there "squeezed us in."

Future showings of Columbus Crossing Borders Project are planned for the Martin de Porrs Center at Ohio Dominican College and the Schumacher Gallery at Capital University.

kparks@thisweeknews.com

@KevinParksTW1