Beyond Borders

Beth Holyoke seeks peace in pieces

By Brittany Erwin

The Syrian Civil War has resulted in the most devastating refugee crisis of our time. You have undoubtedly witnessed footage of families fleeing their homes and risking their lives as they move toward an uncertain future. If they survive their escape, they often face distrust in the place they hoped would serve as respite and refuge. Yet, given our distance from the crisis, it is easy to sympathize and then move on with our lives. For Beth Holyoke, a Yellow-Springs-based ceramist, that is not enough.

Her latest exhibition, Beyond Borders, spotlights the refugee crisis via 20 ceramic plates and plaques and is featured at the Dayton International Peace Museum through August. Holyoke, a University of Washington-educated artist who has been creating art in various mediums for 15 years says, “It felt like something I wanted to explore and see if coming at it from a bunch of different angles could help me and other people digest what was going on.” She is using art not only to make a statement, but also to determine what that statement is.

Holyoke cautiously hopes this work will also do this for others: “I was really pretty nervous about this work. I don’t have expertise in refugees or international issues. So what do I have to say? But, I felt like I had to say something. As an artist, I had to make some work around this subject.” When asked to describe the creation of the plates—a medium she had not worked with before—she explains, “The plates are hand-built, not thrown on the wheel. I rolled them out, made slabs, and formed them in various shapes and put feet on the underside. Then they’re fired in a kiln, then I’m painting them with underglazes and glazes, firing again.”

Within these carefully crafted pieces, one feels the desperation but also the hope. The works are more abstract, emphasizing mood and atmosphere over realism. Searing reds and bright blues representing dangerous landscapes and waterscapes abound in pieces like “Dangerous Waters” and “City on Fire.”

“I really am a person who works in a lot of color,” Holyoke says. “I like color and I like to get it to work for me.” Equally distinct are the muted shades and non-descript faces in “Land of Memories” and “Night Walkers.” In other plates, like “Five Refugees out of a Million,” several dark, carved-out faces starkly declare that these are individuals. “There’s hordes of people and no country can handle them,” Holyoke expands. “It’s easy for us to dismiss when you just hear numbers, but I wanted to do a family to emphasize these are people, these are individuals.”

Another striking feature in two of the works—“Rough Waves” and “Bus Riders”—are fractures in the two plates, both painted glistening gold. These unplanned fissures struck Holyoke as representing the ways these families are broken apart: “People were making the point it was a fractured subject and a fragile people and speaks to what [I’m] working on.”

Similarly eye-catching are the shapes of each plate and how that corresponds to the subject matter depicted within. One plate, “Land of Memories,” is smaller than the others. The colors are dreamy pastels in contrast to the angry vibrancy in other plates. Viewers intuit this peaceful homeland is only a small, distant memory shaded in soft hues of nostalgia, though even this is forever tainted. “I couldn’t stop myself from splashing on iron oxide, which added splatters of dark spots,” Holyoke says. “It’s still going on for these people.”

Yet, hope remains. Holyoke included a series of flag plates representing the countries that welcomed numerous refugees: Germany, Sweden, and Lebanon. The colors of these flags are featured in optimistic works, like “New Home, Sweden” and “Bus Riders.” Holyoke summarizes simply, “I wanted to get somewhere a little positive with some of the work.”

Beyond Borders is a stirring series that all Daytonians should see. Holyoke posits, “You don’t have to be an expert on something in order to think about it. You still know what’s going on in your heart and brain, and it’s good to make some kind of statement.” Viewing the work, which you can purchase to support both artist and museum, will aid in making that statement. Holyoke has plans to extend this theme and to keep making her statement: “It really is an ongoing series, and I’m going to keep working on them.”

Holyoke’s ongoing project is being utilized to connect the refugee crisis to Dayton through multiple events hosted at the museum and the art itself. Holyoke’s artwork and partnership with these individuals and with Welcome Dayton highlight Dayton’s status as a nationally recognized immigrant-friendly city. “I hope it connects with the local community,” Holyoke says. “I know the mayor of Dayton has specifically invited Syrians to come to Dayton. I don’t know if that’s really happening, but I know we were exploring the idea. I am eager to hear what Welcome Dayton has to say.” These are potential neighbors and friends, though Holyoke expresses, “I’m not too hopeful, but it would be great if more refugees could come our way. It would add a lot to our community.”

Beyond Borders will be on display Aug. 14 through the month at The Dayton International Peace Museum, 208 W. Monument Ave. in Dayton. For more information, please visit

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