By now I’ve had several opportunities to meet the public in front of finished Shared Spaces works, and I’m starting to learn how to discuss the project. I’ve quickly learned that aside from short two-minute descriptions, it is a difficult project to discuss because people have such varied and strong responses to it, which has at times put me in awkward territory. Here are some of the things I’ve been learning:
People want to know how it’s made - artistic process in sculpture is always intriguing. That’s all pretty straightforward and I feel like I handle that well.
People also want to know where else I’m doing Shared Spaces events, which thankfully gets easier to talk about as time goes on and I have more of them under my belt.
The main issue is that people start to wonder what it’s all about. They ask what motivates me to do this project and why I picked their area to visit. Mostly I think they want to know what is being said about them and what I think about the people I am working on it with, or the choices they made. They are curious how this piece will represent them when viewed by other people out there in NY or Washington or wherever the piece ends up being exhibited in the national exhibitions. This is where the trouble starts. For instance, while the work made in Indiana was still being cleaned and tinted, I had the chance to speak to about 25 Open Studios visitors at the Taleamor Park Artist Residency there. Multiple people were remarking on the Dollar General logo in the piece. “Ugh, that ruins it,” one said. For background, 15,000 Dollar Generals dot the country, seemingly at crossroads in the middle of nowhere and certainly in every small or mid-sized town in nearly every state. It’s a handy, modern take on the old general store, filling in all the gaps between Walmarts. I’ve tried to get people to describe their feelings a bit -- it’s not ‘aesthetic’, or it’s low-class, or simply out of step with much of the other children’s toys and other logos in the piece. Perhaps they are embarrassed by it, and worry a bit about having it be seen by outsiders?
Another one that gets commented on in a related way is a Chick-Fil-A symbol included in some of the pieces. Chick-Fil-A has a complicated political positioning, since the founder is on record for opposing same-sex marriages, and the chain also is closed on Sundays for religious reasons. This one seems to engender a bit of pride, though, as people see some of the political implications and nuances this entails - perhaps, and feeling it as a validation, even a bit in-your-face, of some of their own values.
As with many artworks, people are able to simply enjoy the work aesthetically - finding objects in the piece, figuring out what a certain symbol is, enjoying the overall shape of the flag and the relief sculpture. That’s all good, but I’m not just making things that work at the level of ‘wholesome family fun’, so when they encounter some of these ‘off-notes’ in the work it may be jarring. Ultimately that is the experience I’m hoping people can wrestle with and start to own, but what do I say about it when confronted?
Another related area of contention had to do with my personal motivations for making the work. I’ll probably dodge this entirely going forward, because it ends up taking me down a path of justifying why I, a sort of indifferent American through all my formative years, and later a citizen of the never-overtly-patriotic urban-intellectual-elite-bubble, would choose to be creating a work of art based on the American flag. My audiences in places like Georgia and Indiana have been unabashedly patriotic but they sense I might be a newcomer to this, and definitely dig for more, leaving no one very satisfied.
When people ask why I’ve come to their area, my claims to a personal connection through ancestors (true for both the Georgia and Indiana locations and likely for most of the additional locations going forward) provide a quick and satisfactory answer. Eventually though when people ask about what other locations will be on the list I can see feet shifting. Each of the areas visited so far and upcoming, planned visits are somehow ‘challenging’ when seen through any of the historical racial, economic, cultural or political lenses. The list of locations immediately gets people thinking about their own area and how it might be viewed, or what it represents to viewers in the context of that list. “Now we’re a ‘type,’” I can almost hear people thinking - a segment in a national debate, a place people get on TV to complain about and have opinions about. They learn that all the pieces are going to be shown together in a national show, and while at first glad to have their place on the map, this suddenly makes people feel their shortcomings might now be highlighted, their embarrassments turned into something mocked by urban-coastal-bubble-elites. This feels cruel, and while it certainly isn’t my intention, neither is it something I’m looking to sugarcoat or hide from.
Finally I never know who’s in the room-- is it a Republican or a Democrat, a farmer or a professor, a Trump-lover or a Trump-hater? These are divided times, and most people are one-or-the-other and have a firm stance. By trying to walk down the middle, talking about how the piece lets all the animosity-laden symbols ‘duke it out’ with one another, or how one gets a balanced perspective from seeing diverse symbols living alongside each other in Shared Spaces, responses start to get emotional and divergent. On the one hand this centrist stance is appealing to a few old souls who have been looking for support in moving beyond angry narratives, who are seeking a new vocabulary for thinking about our differences and learning to live together in a pluralistic democracy. Yet many others in the room would at that moment feel exposed, caught out, even belittled for their partisanship or their anger or beliefs. They have strong feelings for or against certain things in the piece, and as they realize the piece has placed things mostly all on one level and asks us to consider each thing in its fullness, suddenly they’re feeling awkward.
One last thing: In Georgia, during my residency at Lillian E Smith Center, the daughter of John Templeton, the director, told me that Shared Spaces, and indeed much of my wall relief work, is similar to a Jungian homework exercise called Sandplay Therapy, or Sandtray Therapy in which a person places favorite objects and small children’s toys in a sandbox and photographs it each time. The photographs are kept and evaluated for the symbolic value of what is there, what’s missing, and how they are placed in relation to each other and that evolution over time is considered to be revealing of the working and priorities of the “Unconscious”. If that is true, it could be postulated that Shared Spaces work is a way of bypassing filters and snagging a nice snapshot of the unconscious priorities and values of a place and a people. I hope that’s true - it would be valuable and notable, even if I’m somewhat caught up short by how closely my process resembles this Jungian exercise. Still, when I discuss this, it adds to a general unsettling feeling for people to think that somehow this work and my event has captured something private that might normally have been kept guarded from an outsider, and even from themselves.