When I think about how These Waters Run Deep came to be, I take myself back to where I was in my life when it all came about. I was living close to Riverdale at the time. In those days, I was working as an art model in various art schools in NYC and working at my old stomping ground, Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice (YMPJ). It was during this time in my city adventures that I met Lizzy Fox and Sharon De La Cruz.
I saw Lizzy at a poetry performance and was so taken by her piece that I asked her to hang out. I was interested in using my poetry and art to convey powerful messages and she was on the same wavelength. We would meet once a week and took on our healing journeys through our poems. As we worked on our first collaboration, the idea of creating belly casts as a way to speak about health disparities for women of color came to me.
Sharon and I worked at YMPJ together. We came to find out that we were both deeply involved in our Womanist ideology through our social justice work and through our art. Sharon is a talented graffiti artist whose art speaks in political volumes. By the end of 2010, I wrote out all my ideas and was motivated to create a call for mothers and begin the 13 belly cast cycle. My first belly cast was created after many conversations with Sharon and an invitation from her to present my project at Female Flava, an annual conference at The Point CDC, a non-profit dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx:
I began to search for the first volunteer. As the conference got closer, I began to worry. The Universe interceded and brought me to Mercy Tullis. I took the bus to Co-Op City to meet Mercy. She was referred to me through a friend who I told about my project. Mercy was 37 weeks at the time of our meeting. I spent the day before scrambling to find gauze and plaster of Paris, reading up as much as I could on casting. I was nervous, wondering if I knew what I was doing.
Mercy was very excited to meet me. She had the most adorable son who was intrigued that I was in the house. Mercy’s father was also in the house, helping her with the last few weeks of her pregnancy. We spoke first about my project, and she shared more about herself. Then we began. I did the belly cast in her room as I spoke to her and the baby. I learned quickly that my favorite part of this project is rubbing the mother’s belly with Vaseline. The Vaseline serves to prevent the plaster from adhering to the skin. She was smiling as I rubbed her belly and talked to both of them. I almost cried of happiness. Mercy felt like I was serving her and I was honored that she was volunteering for my vision.
Her father was stunned that I was doing this for free. He couldn’t believe that I was doing the project out of my passion and heart. For my efforts, he gave me a shot of a lovely rum from Honduras. It was his way of thanking me for giving his daughter special attention during the last part of her pregnancy. Mercy is a Black, Honduran, American with Jamaican roots, 35 year-old woman married to a Pakistani-American Muslim. She has taught English Language Arts to thousands of our New York City public school children for 11 years. Mercy took a two-year hiatus a couple of years ago, just to find herself back into teaching. Right now, she is solely focused on being a mother. From my last contact with her, she lives in Colorado with her two beautiful children and husband.
For the conference, I painted the belly and gave a presentation on the health disparities for women of color in birth:
Here are some of the words she wrote in her letter to her baby:
“Be yourself. Love yourself. Know yourself. If you do those three things, nobody will ever tear you down. Always know that Mom will always encourage you to be your true self, and Mom will always be next to you, regardless of anything.”
Stay tuned for the rest of the belly cast stories!