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Two Forest Park residents are using their creative talents to explore a theme appropriate for both the religious and political seasons.

Artist Kathy Garness and writer Billy Lombardo have submitted works to be displayed at the “Enemies” exhibition, hosted by the St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

“(The exhibit) explores a side of theology we don’t always look at, evil pain and suffering. We usually try to avoid those things. It challenges you to consider ‘what is an enemy,’ and do I need to even accept that we have enemies,” said Ralph Blackman, the Dean of the cathedral.

In addition to their relevance during the current Lent season, Blackman said, “These are issues that are poignant in our time politically, in the context of our world and in the context of our city.”

Garness, who usually specializes in botanic illustrations, was inspired to create her contribution to the exhibit by a visit to the zoo.

“I went to Brookfield Zoo and saw these rhinos nose to nose, and it looked funny to me. There was some inherent humor as well as tension. When they put out the calls for entries, I thought ‘this is perfect,'” she said.

Using techniques inspired by the art of “Sumi”, a form of painting using only black ink which originated in China and then spread through Japan in the 14th century, she recreated the scene, painting the two charging rhinos as mirror images of one another.

“The point is that when we find the person who is so other to us that we don’t understand them, often we’re looking in the mirror more than we’re looking at something completely foreign. What we consider to be foreign is much more like who we are (than we think),” she said.

Lombardo, a Forest Park resident who teaches creative writing at the Latin School of Chicago, contributed a story from his book The Logic of a Rose, a collection of short stories chronicling his upbringing in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport.

The story, titled The Pilgrim Virgin, tells of a neighborhood boy with a reputation as somewhat of a hoodlum who ends up saving a family from a fire that originated in a bakery downstairs from their apartment.

“The father thought of the guy as a punk, and he ends up knocking on the door and waking up the family during the fire and the father has to come to terms with the fact that this kid is responsible for saving his whole family,” said Lombardo, who is also known for his “slam poetry,” reading his works aloud at venues throughout the Chicago area since 1990.

Garness said she hopes the exhibit will inspire people to strive for dialogue rather than prematurely dismissing those they disagree with. “Humans share 98 percent of their DNA with the rest of the animal kingdom ” we have to find areas of commonality first,” she said.

Lombardo said that the concepts of reconciliation and reluctance to leap to judgment often come up in his work due to his experiences growing up in Bridgeport.

“I think its fair to say that these idea of reconciliation and the complexity of the human spirit, they all take place in Bridgeport, which has achieved some notoriety for racial intolerance over the years,” he said. “There are extreme stories that have colored peoples’ understanding of what the neighborhood is like, unfairly I think.”

Garness, a Sunday school teacher and member of the Village of Forest Park’s recently formed Ethics Commission, said she finds the theme of the exhibit to be particularly relevant during the current local election season.

A grassroots activist supporting nature conservation in the Chicago area, Garness is a vocal opponent of the patronage hiring and kickbacks which she says has come to characterize county politics. “I’m not going to be the judge, but I do want people to be more transparent, and I want an accountable system,” she said.

Still, she tries not to leap to judgment about the character of individual politicians, citing Cook County President John Stroger’s opposition to residential development in the Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester as an example.

“Here is someone I had completely dismissed as someone completely involved in the patronage system, and here he is, for whatever reason, taking on something I hold near and dear. It made it hard to be so easily dismissive,” she said.

Blackman hopes the exhibit will become the first of a series of similar displays exploring intriguing theological themes. He said that the diversity of the artwork displayed, which ranges from poetry to jewelry created by artists based everywhere from Chicago to Champaign to Royal Oak, Michigan, makes the exhibit especially powerful.

“I think the fun thing for me with art is that sometimes I might not get what the artist is doing,” he said. “Some pieces speak louder to me and some I’m still working on, but they all have merits.”

The exhibit began on March 1 and will run through April 16 at St. James Episcopal Cathedral, located at 65 E. Huron (southeast corner of Huron and Wabash) in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, and features 16 artists. More information is available at www.saintjamescathedral.org.