June 22, 2018
So people did show up, in droves! The final participant count was 200 people, including about 60 children and people from all walks of life and across many different communities within the city (black, white, Korea, et al.) It was actually overwhelming at times – they came with beloved items from home, they came to sniff around and see what was going on, they came with their teachers and many three-generation groups – teenage kids, parents and grandparents. A Korean friend of the art center and gallery had come by on setup day, then sent out an alert to 130 Korean families in the area (KIA Motors has a big auto plant near here) and dozens of members from the Korean community showed up to lend their support.
A policeman came in with a badge from the department, wanting to have us include it, and a young girl brought in a grandfather’s World War II brass insignia that had been pinned on the grandfather’s Army hat. People came in, curious, like we were from an episode of Antiques Roadshow, wondering whether something could be included, would it “print” into the clay, was there room or did we think it would be a fit? Russ, the local notable, gave us his marijuana pipe to imprint in the clay, and his daughter brought in a logo representing his global corporation.
We were busy, and went to work for a solid day adding pieces into the sculpture until 4:00 pm, at which time I was finally able to eat lunch! Then we picked up the ball again to pour the plaster and the foam, ending a very long and full day.
Reflecting on it tonight, I still worry: would the new gantry (a kind of mobile I-beam placed overhead) and chain hoist rig work when we have to raise and flip the piece? At my home studio I’ve always flipped the heavy clay and plaster ‘sandwich’, which weighs about 500 pounds, using chain hoists and steel beams mounted in the roof. Here, I have no choice: I have to do it all with this mobile portable gantry, and it’s been stressful wondering if it would work. In the end, with 8 or 10 people watching and 6 people helping, we did make the flip to the delight of the crowd. The table started to tip, the gantry scudded a few inches forward, and everyone gasped and clapped as it settled down.
So it all worked, not elegantly, but all fine. We started cleaning, with a rotating crew of 15 people or so all having a chance to peel clay away, with essentially no missteps. It was all starting to be a blur – washing, picking, scraping, scratching, washing again, and more clay picking. It felt like a quilting bee with people talking and sharing and picking – all hunched over the piece from several angles, really drawn into a touching scene of genuine community. Participants were truly a part of something magnetic and worthwhile. Lots of laughing, teens and young adults along with the elderly. A retired woman, a lifelong textile designer who had just moved back to town regaled us with her wit. “If I’d ‘a known how much fun this was going to be I’d ‘a started doin’ it years ago!”
I set the piece in its little tent to dry, with fans and bricks and boards and tarps and heater all working in unison.
Following the main event, I joined in with another dinner along with members of the Museum Board and friends – it’s been essentially one very long 72-hour- day. What comes next?
It’s clear to me that the hard part is ahead, even though this wonderful LaGrange experience has given me a great foundation. Will we be able to put this piece and the community experience into context with similar projects from other places? Will we ever find other similarly inspired communities to work with? As we do more of these will the results start to feel banal/skew toward a predictable middle ground? What if a (perceived) worn-down, beaten-up community (based on factors such as poverty-level incomes or undocumented-immigrant-percentage) produces a work that reflects only on the hardships of the community, as opposed to a vibrant look at who they are: encompassing all aspects of life in this Georgia community?
All ahead, all unknown. What is clear is that after three exhilirating days (and a few more days tweaking with plaster and tints in upstate Georgia at another residency there) is a tiny down payment, a preamble, an ante, for the real job ahead. The real work is getting several of these events in a wide range of communities to start building the outlines of a new story, generating fresh insights into places we think we know but never visit, uncovering a way of helping everyone involved find something new and valuable, perhaps something about what it means to truly be an American.