Twenty Feet of Wall

Alice and I attended a very nice concert at the university performing arts center last night. We don’t get out and do such things very much anymore. Part of it is we are very content being home with each other. Part of it is we just don’t have the pep we used to. We were both glowing after last night’s performance though. We saw many of our friends from our careers at Michigan Tech, and reestablished some important and long-lost ties.

Before the show, we wandered downstairs to the art gallery, and walked inside an art installation that had been put together by a young and enthusiastic couple. I was unable to stay long, but from what I could tell, the theme of the installation was interactive, light, and sound.

On the way home in the car, we talked about it. Alice had been able to go through the whole thing, and said she found it somewhat interesting. I started thinking about the offer the young couple must have gotten for some space in a gallery, and their thought process in deciding what their display would be like. If I were offered a similar chunk of space, what would I do?

I put together a scenario. An official from the local museum calls me to say there is 20′ of wall space at the gallery just past the place where tickets are taken. Every person that buys a ticket and walks inside the museum will walk past this space. The wall is plywood, will be painted any single color I want, and whatever I’d like to attach to the wall can be done with screws or any other fastener. I’ll have 24 hours to load in my work, it will stay up for a month, and I will have the help of two people from the museum staff if I choose. My load-in slot is one year from today.

What will I do?

I’m not an artist, so don’t have a shop full of paintings or sculpture to display. I’m a woodworker, but a bookcase or piece of trim I’ve built probably wouldn’t engage the attention of the museum-going public. Nor would they likely find my abilities to solder copper pipe, frame a building, or run a sewer pipe underground worth pausing for. I think I’d tell a story. And as I have thought about it for the past hour or so, I decided on the story I’d (try to) tell.

Using 5 4′ floor to ceiling panels, I’d tell the story of the Indian Dormitories. This was the forced removal of Native American children from their parents in order to assimilate the natives into Western European culture and habits. These children were forbidden to speak their language, their native names were removed and replaced with western sounding ones. In a letter to George Washington in the 1790s, Henry Knox wrote, “…that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended.”

The powers that be thought they were saving the Native Americans from extermination by reeducating them. The Native American families had their children forcibly removed from their families, with the object of making these children aliens from their way of life when they returned. That is the complicated story I’d try to tell.

If you were given 20′ of plywood wall and a year to prepare, what would you do?

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