Emory grad creates viral image of Kamala Harris and Ruby Bridges

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Nov. 11, 2020

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Bria Goeller’s image of Kamala Harris walking with the shadow of Ruby Bridges, who integrated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960, went viral over the weekend, shared tens of thousands of times on social media. Image courtesy of Bria Goeller and WTF America-Good Trubble.

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The image is simple: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, clad in a dark suit and heels, strides past a wall with her eyes locked on the horizon. The shadow she casts is that of then-6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who integrated her New Orleans elementary school in 1960.

The artist behind the widely shared image is Bria Goeller, who graduated with highest honors from Emory College of Arts and Sciences in December 2019. She designed the artwork in October for Carl Gordon Jones, founder and owner of the satirical clothing group WTF America-Good Trubble.

“It’s been incredible to watch Gordon’s vision come to life,” says Goeller, who answered his charge to create an inspirational image of the two women. “He deserved it, he believed in it and he got his dream. I just got lucky to work with him.”

Goeller’s design showcasing the parallels between two Black women’s strength in the face of opposition took off Saturday, shared tens of thousands of times after media outlets projected Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election and Harris was declared the vice president-elect.

Bridges herself shared it on her personal Instagram, as did Kara Walker, the Black artist best known for her work with silhouettes.

Bridges thanked Goeller and Good Trubble "for the inspirational and beautiful artwork." Tagging Harris and Biden in her post, she wrote, "I am honored to be a part of this path and grateful to stand alongside you, together with our fellow Americans, as we step into this next chapter of American history!"

“It’s an artist’s goal to create something for people who don’t feel heard, and I’m honored to have a platform to do that,” Goeller says. “But the best part, I think, is the mothers and young women reaching out and saying that the image moved them to tears. To know that our work is having that kind of effect is beautiful.”

“I’m grateful that Emory gave me the freedom, the space and the support to carve my own path and become who I wanted, even if it didn’t fit the mold,” she adds.

Art, education and empathy

Goeller was considering art school before deciding to attend Emory. Once on campus, she began doing graphic design for several organizations to keep her visual skills fresh and found her way to the Institute for the Liberal Arts (ILA).

There, she crafted an interdisciplinary studies major focused on art, education and empathy. She also joined the Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship (IDEAS) Fellowship, an ILA initiative that builds a coalition of students from all majors who want to learn to think across and between disciplines, then share that understanding with the broader campus.

She credits the self-directed major and IDEAS Fellowship for giving her the space to learn how she could best engage with the community through her original artwork.

“Bria has always been an engaging and off-the-beaten-path person,” says Arri Eisen, a professor of pedagogy in biology and the ILA. “She is a great example of how to thoughtfully bring ideas together.”

Those combined experiences led Goeller to develop a sidecar course, a one-credit course on how arts-based education can build identity and empathy. She taught the course twice, and it informed the thesis that earned her highest honors upon graduation.

Dana Haugaard, a lecturer in art history, had never taught Goeller as a student, but  agreed to co-teach one session of the sidecar course based on her research and passion for finding ways to contextualize art for social impact.

“I am entirely not surprised her work is getting this attention,” Haugaard says. “All of her work is geared toward creating a better and richer experience for people. She’s the bee’s knees, and if people don’t already know that, they will soon.”

Becoming an independent artist

The path to independent artist has, of course, not been easy. The first major hurdle Goeller says she had to overcome was a willingness to be vulnerable. She credits friendships developed at Emory for showing how opening herself up gave her a sense of self she could infuse in her work.

One of those friends was Frederick Leon, a 2019 chemistry graduate, who later became her boyfriend. In January, she moved to San Francisco, where Leon is pursuing a doctoral degree in biochemistry at the University of California San Francisco.

During her first few months in California, she cobbled together work as an art teacher and barista, doing occasional side pieces with the 3214 ART & DESIGN business she started in high school. When COVID-19 hit and she lost her jobs, she worried the contract work wouldn’t be enough to support her.

“I had just developed the courage to say all I wanted to do is create impactful art, but I took a huge risk moving to San Francisco. And that was before COVID,” Goeller says. “I used the pandemic as an excuse to give it my all, and I was really lucky. Within a couple months, I was making enough to live on, and I started to feel like it could really be something.” 

Expanding her contract work, Goeller began assisting Sirron Norris, the lead artist on the animated TV show “Bob’s Burgers,” on his illustrations and murals. Norris recommended her to Jones, who has used several of her designs, including the Ruby Bridges-Kamala Harris piece.

Sparking necessary conversations

Goeller has no specific plans for her next step, except for working with Jones to keep up with demand for her viral piece. 

She also must keep up with the thousands of incoming messages, nearly all by people touched by how her work showcases trailblazing women fighting in unwelcome spaces. Still, the image has received criticism, mostly that it oversimplifies progress made by Black women and commodifies the modern Civil Rights Movement.

A native of Louisiana, Goeller is comforted that Bridges liked the work even as she is aware of the criticism. She makes clear that most of the proceeds from the image go to Good Trubble, a Black-owned business. Jones has requested that she handle the flurry of media inquiries, even as they work to decide what charities to support with the rest of the profits. 

“A lot of people say it’s erasure, and that Ruby and Kamala don’t share the same struggles. They take issue with the comparison, and I understand that,” she says.

“While I don’t feel it’s my place to comment as a white woman about gatekeeping Blackness, what I can say is that there is a team of Black individuals behind this image who wanted to see Ruby and Kamala’s stories in dialogue,” she adds. “It is a conversation our nation needs to have if we want things to change.”

Carlton Mackey, an artist and director of Emory’s Ethics and the Arts Program, says he discussed the piece with his girlfriend and others, for its connecting points to Norman Rockwell’s original painting of Bridges’ experience, “The Problem We All Live With,” itself an imagined image of a small girl being escorted into school by police.

The Rockwell Museum was among those sharing the image on social media, which Mackey also did before he learned it was created by Goeller.

She was his intern for three years, working hands-on with his pieces around race and culture such as Black Men Smile and carving her own path as a working artist. Mackey also co-taught one of her sidecar course sessions and wrote a letter of reference for her to attend C4 Atlanta’s Hatch Initiative, an intensive training for artists working in communities that are not their own.

“The thing about going viral is, it’s timing and luck made possible by the tons of prep and talent to do the work whether or not people notice,” Mackey says. “One of the challenges I see in this time is how difficult it is to have conversations, and here we are talking about bottled-up aspirations of Black women because of Bria’s art. I could not be more proud of the work she’s doing.”