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E pluribus unum: Local artist says Carson tribute about more than an election

By LISA WHALEY

Bill Bledsoe had never wanted to become involved in the field of politics when it came to his art.
Yet at a gathering held Friday night at the McKinney Center in Jonesborough, Bledsoe did just that, unveiling a tribute to presidential candidate Ben Carson to a group of Carson supporters and non-supporters alike.
He did it, he said, to promote community unity. And he may have gotten his wish.
“Politics are polarizing,” Bledsoe admitted. “It can turn people against you.”
Yet not everyone at the Carson tribute was planning on voting for Carson in Tennessee’s presidential primary, held March 2.
The group included everyone from Carter LeCraw, an organizer of the event and a Carson delegate for Tennessee, to Vincent Dial, pastor of Bethel Christian Church. Johnny Russaw, East Tennessee State University’s first African-American football player, provided inspirational music, while Dr. Patrick Stern, another organizer of the event, interviewed young Aaron Voudrie, an immigrant from Ethiopia and ardent Carson supporter.All of these people were there, Bledsoe said, because it was a chance to honor a man, no matter what the view on his politics.
“His story is one that is really incredible, where he started and where he ended up,” 14-teen-year-old Aaron said before the tribute. “I want that to be my story.”
This past year, Aaron dressed up for Halloween as Ben Carson and distributed fliers. Four years ago, he said, he dressed up as President Obama.
For Bledsoe, the issue of character was what drew him to the renowned neurosurgeon.
“I grew up in the era of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King,” Bledsoe explained. “I believe it is ‘not the color of your skin, but the content of your character.’
“To me, Ben Carson just epitomizes that idea,” he continued, noting that Carson first came to his attention at the National Prayer Breakfast eight years ago. “When you look at him, you see a person who is full of character.”
As an artist, Bledsoe wanted to capture that integrity. But he wanted to do it because he was inspired, not because he was hired for the project.
“I had been approached several times to do artwork for political candidates,” Bledsoe said. “I turned them all down.”
But this was an idea he wanted to capture for himself.
What started out as a simple portrait, seemed to grow and grow.
Bledsoe said he researched history, zeroing in on men and women of all races, who to Bledsoe epitomized the idea of “character.” They included Sacajawea, Harriet Tubman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and many, many more.
Bledsoe then merged these figures, as well as their words of inspiration, into the Carson artwork. He titled the piece, “E pluribus unum,” which means, he said, “out of many, one.”
His work inspired others, including LeCraw and Stern, who wanted to showcase the idea and the art not only to promote Carson, but more importantly, they said, to remind the community – and America, that “we remain the United States, not the divided states.”
“It’s about unity of community,” Stern said. “Perhaps that’s more important than what happened on a national level.”
LeCraw agreed. “We have a duty,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need to do this.”
Or, as Bledsoe stressed, “We are all bonded in our diversity.”

Jonesborough artist Bill Bledsoe stands beside some of the artwork he created as a Ben Carson tribute.
Jonesborough artist Bill Bledsoe stands beside some of the artwork he created as a Ben Carson tribute.