Bench art spotlights human trafficking

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The silhouette in artist Deb Bridges’ bench design represents any woman. Photo provided by Slave Free Nebraska.

Story by Camila Orti, NewsNetNebraska

Five painted benches promoting human trafficking awareness will adorn the corners of 12th and P streets in Lincoln in late October.

The idea for the benches started with a University of Nebraska-Lincoln advertising class. The students wanted to use community art to tell the public that trafficking, or forced prostitution, exists – even in Nebraska. Nineteen artists competed to have their creations displayed on benches in the city.

Word of mouth got around to Deb Bridges, a 51-year-old graphic artist, who works from home. Bridges has participated in other community art campaigns, she said, and was eager to submit a design to Slave Free Nebraska. Incorporating the idea of human trafficking into art, however, was a new challenge.

“It is a hard topic, and how do you put that in art?” Bridges said.

Deb Bridges said creating her winning bench design was a fun challenge. Photo provided by Deb Bridges.

Her solution was to create a colorful design that shows freedom, joy and inspiration. And it needed to incorporate the internationally recognized Human Trafficking Blue Heart, a requirement for all submissions.

“I wanted the woman to be a silhouette because I wanted it to represent anybody,” Bridges said.

Bridges’ design was one of the five winners selected by a panel of judges in May. The winning artists then had until the end of August to finish painting their benches.

So, the graphic designer put her computer away and pulled out the oil paints. Eight hours of leisurely work in her garage later, Bridges’ Photoshop-created design took its new form.

Besides catching the eye, Bridges said she tried to make her design simple and indestructible, in case it ever needed to be touched up or repaired.

Sara Leimbach, the only student-winner of the bunch, said she created her design in the same flowing style that she paints. Leimbach, who graduated from UNL in May with an advertising degree, has always considered painting a passion, but has never strayed from canvas.

“The paints we were working with were unlike anything I’ve ever used before,” Leimbach said in a phone interview from her new home in Portland, Ore.

Leimbach experimented with other designs involving text before she settled on her winning composition. The 22-year-old said she liked the simplicity of the heart being the focus of the bench.

“The blue heart is symbolic enough that people will recognize it,” Leimbach said. “I wanted the heart to be spreading the message.”

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Leimbach’s design was the only student winner. “I was pretty surprised because it was a student class that put it together,” Leimbach said. Photo provided by Slave Free Nebraska.

Both Leimbach and Bridges agreed that transferring their designs to the benches altered them slightly, but made for an interesting process. Leimbach said that any difficulties she encountered were worth it in the end.

Bridges chose to use oil paint for its durability. Photo provided by Camila Orti.

The students, with guidance from lecturer Sriyani Tidball, advertised the campaign through the Lincoln Arts Council, and by handing out fliers during “First Fridays,” hoping to attract artists and sponsors. Soo Lee, a UNL alumna, took Tidball’s class in the spring, and helped with social media to promote the Slave Free Nebraska project. Lee said what she learned in Tidball’s class about human trafficking was eye-opening.

“In some countries they seize the women as the criminals instead of the victims,” Lee said.

Leimbach said the topic is often avoided because of its gruesome nature.

“This is my chance to do something on a larger scale to promote talk and prevention of this issue,” Leimbach said.

Bridges admitted that she hadn’t even heard about human trafficking in Nebraska before becoming involved in the campaign. “I would like to know more about it,” Bridges said.

When the benches are unveiled, the students behind Slave Free Nebraska hope that the people of Lincoln will, too.

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