The Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum's current show—Walking in the Spirit—features self-taught folk artists who turn everyday objects into religious visions. An anonymous carving of Noah's Ark, described as "Tramp Art," was whittled from the planks of a fruitwood crate. My favorite among the paintings—"Baptism"—sets the white garments of an African-American Sunday against a dark backdrop painted over cardboard squares, all thickly coated with shellac and held in place with upholstery tacks. It is the work of William Hemmerling, a retired Sears & Roebuck window dresser from Louisiana who, late in his life, transformed scrap materials and recycled paint into works of empathy and sudden acclaim.
In many ways, it is just the right exhibit for the visit of Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus as the President's Breakfast speaker. In the 1970s Yunus' microfinance programs began giving small loans to impoverished Bangladeshis to develop their own enterprenneurial ideas. Villagers found livelihoods in bamboo crafts, enriched cattle feed, and new biofuels. The potential of small investments and local ingenuity to function as a global antidote to poverty, especially in the midst of larger economic forces and political agents, will be a focus of our conversation with Yunus this Friday. As I note below, several students have been preparing for the Convocation panel. As they have probed some of the geopolitical questions raised by microfinance, they have been equally drawn to the idealism of Yunus' vision that even modest gestures of confidence in the disadvantaged can be an art of hope.