Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “Have you lunched at the Jumble Shop Inn? If so, then we needn’t tell you that it one of the tophole places for your noonday meal,” and, “Miss Anne Sally of Portland is the house guest of Miss Cornish for a few weeks.” In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”
“All quiet along the Avenue,” the Town Crier notes, “and no place to go but home. That haven has had considerable responsibility thrown upon it, along with an unexpected attendance of husbands, all on account of the flu, as it is called for short.” The story continues, “The movies have ceased from moving and the vaudeville is at rest.”
The Spanish Flu was the deadliest disease outbreak since the Black Death roiled through Eurasia in the 14th century. Worldwide mortality estimates were between 50-100 million.
Washingtonians were largely spared, though approximately 5,000 died in the epidemic. Elsewhere in the October 12th issue, under the headline “Common Sense,” they write, “The only thing fear will do to you, if you give it rein, is to lessen your power to resist the epidemic of influenza. Don’t allow any one [sic] to frighten you to weakness with the thought of a ‘hoo-doo.’” The paper then offers suggestions about how to prevent the spread of the disease and how to treat it if you have it.
A century later, Town Hall encourages those who are still curious to join our friends at the University of Washington. There, Associate Professor of Population Health and Disease Prevention Andrew Noymer invites us to a retrospective on the Spanish Flu outbreak as part of UW’s free Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology Seminar Series.
Marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic
Noymer offers us an illuminating lecture with a focus on the experience in the United States, and on the medium-term impact of the historic pandemic. The UC Irvine professor in the Department of Population Health and Disease Prevention shares insight on “Marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.”
The adventure began, as many adventures do, with Indiana Jones. Dylan Thuras was infatuated with the globetrotting hero. Thuras was 10-years-old, watching Indiana Jones movies and thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. His conclusion — an archeologist. “Then my mom told me what an archeologist actually did,” he says. “So then I wanted to direct movies. And then I wanted to illustrate comics. I’m 35 now, and it’s interesting that aspects of my work touch on all of that.”
Thuras is the co-founder and creative director of Atlas Obscura, an online magazine and digital media company that catalogs unusual and obscure travel destinations with features on travel, exploration, history, science, and more. It has over 1 million page views each week. “Our mission,” the Atlas Obscura website states, “is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we share.”
Thuras wants to share that incredible world with children with a new children’s book, Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid. Thuras says, “It’s important to look outward at the world. To find wonder. Joy. The vastness and strangeness of the world. We can share this world beautifully together.” Everywhere Thuras goes — and he’s gone to places like Peruvian jungles and cosmopolitan European cities — is a place where magic is. “Almost everyone I meet, no matter where I go, has a deep sense of place, shares a diversity of wonder, and has an acknowledgement of all us sharing a wondrous world.”
That deep sense of wonder occurred for Thuras as a kid – watching those Indiana Jones movies, reading books, and going on summer vacations in the Midwest with his family (he’s got kids of his own now). “Perhaps the Ur-moment for Atlas Obscura happened when I was 12 and visited the House on the Rock. It was insane. It’s difficult to describe how amazing it is.” A tourist attraction in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin, the House on the Rock is an architectural revenge of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a 200-foot model of a sperm whale-like creature hanging from one ceiling. It’s got an “infinity room.” It’s got the world’s largest indoor carousel. “The world is vast,” Thuras states, “and is filled with so much to discover.”
Thuras, who grew up on those summer vacations and pouring over the 33-volume Time Life series Mysteries of the Unknown (titles include Earth Energies, Psychic Voyages, Secrets of Alchemists, Alien Encounters), hopes kids will now pour over his book. “What I want kids to get out of this book is to ask questions. About everything. This book is just the tip of a very large iceberg.” His book highlights such places as the lost city of Heracleion in Egypt and the root bridges of Cherrapunji in India; the hanging temple of Hengshan in China and jellyfish lake in Micronesia. “It’s just the smallest glimpse. I want kids to see everything they can with the widest eyes.”
“The fastest shortcut in putting your mind in a state of curiosity is to travel. It pushes yourself into new areas of discovery.” But he notes that you don’t have to go to some village in Kenya, or some gleaming palace in Europe to discover something new and wonderful. It might be just around the corner from you. “If you put your mind into that space of inquiry, it’s an amazing thing!”
Maybe around the corner from you are mysterious Mima Mounds or maybe an old cave filled with glow worms. Maybe get up from your chair and see what’s going on outside right now. Grab your fedora. Become Indiana Jones — books in hand, eyes wide open.
Every week the Town Crier blog will look back at Seattle’s near forgotten Town Crier magazine to see what was happening then and talk about what’s happening now. One of the largest sections of the original Town Crier was “What People Are Doing,” highlighting things like, “There was a large attendance at the Women’s University Club patriotic luncheon on Saturday,” and, “Clara Bicknell Ford, whose ballet and interpretive dancing has delighted Seattle audiences, is now studying with Kosloff of New York, probably the most famous teacher in the country.” In this new series we’re revisiting the old column and tying it to our community’s current happenings, asking: “what are people doing?”
Town Hall prides itself on keeping ticket prices low, and in some cases, free, so that anyone can participate in our city’s dynamic conversations. That’s why we took note of the $1 to $2 tickets for a concert that was being put on in early October 1918.
Anna Fitziu, soprano with the Chicago Opera Company and Andres de Segurola, bass baritone with the Metropolitan Opera Company, would be in a joint recital at the Metropolitan Theatre on October 7th. It was presented by the Ladies Musical Club.
Some things stand the test of time. The Ladies Musical Club still exists. In fact, it is Seattle’s oldest musical organization. First gathering in the home of Ellen Bartlett Bacon in 1891, 22 women musicians decided to form a new musical entity. The founding members were mostly middle-class, married women who also happened to be trained musicians. Over a century later, the Ladies Musical Club of Seattle is a non-profit, comprised of approximately 150 women, fostering classical music amongst its members and the Seattle community.
Their next concert is October 7th at 2pm at the Frye Art Museum. It’s even cheaper than it was in 1918. It’s free. For a full calendar of events, visit their website.
“It was always my belief that rock and roll belonged in the hands of the people, not rock stars,” Patti Smith once said. Evelyn McDonnell is doing her part to put rock and roll in the hands of the people with her new book, Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. McDonnell, associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, will be at MoPOP onFriday, October 12th to discuss women who have defined musical history.
But before taking our stage, she took a seat with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss having a crush on Michael Jackson, Rhode Island bands, and her vision of an all-female super group.
JS:What was your first introduction to rock growing up? What bands/singers most influenced you as atot?
EM:My parents loved music. I grew up in a house with one room centered around the TV and the other, thestereo. I was exposed from a very early age to a variety of genres: jazz, classical, show tunes, androck. In another life, my mom would have been a musical actress (instead, she was an award-winninghigh school teacher), so we listened to a lot of cast recordings. I have very early memories of standing oncoffee tables and singing and dancing along to “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” at cocktail parties. Wealso listened to the Beatles a lot, and Dylan, and Joan Baez; Mom loved Joan Baez. One of my favorite TVshows was the Jackson 5 cartoon show. Michael Jackson was my first crush, the Jackson 5 Greatest Hits my firstalbum. Motown, the sound of young America, indeed! JS: When you reached high school/college, what bands/singers influenced you?
EM: In high school, I remained a Beatlemaniac. I remember distinctly the day John Lennon was killed. My clock radio woke me up with the news; I woke up crying. Bruce Springsteen was one of the first contemporary artists who really spoke to my life as a kid growing up in an industrial small town in the American heartland. Around the same time I discovered Patti Smith. That was transformational. I was in love with Bruce, but I wanted to be Patti. She was the first artist—a female, a tomboy, a writer—that I could really see myself in. She opened the door to punk rock, which was the defining musical genre of my coming of age, particularly the Clash, the Jam and the Ramones. I didn’t know at the time about the great female punk bands until the Go-Go’s broke through, and Beauty and the Beat provided sweet vindication for my quirky teenage self.
JS: Did you gravitate towards male-led bands or female-led bands? Did that matter to you? In what ways?
EM: I listened to anyone. I was what they now call a poptimist, but I just called populism (which is still the name of my blog). But I always paid particular attention to female artists, because as a woman in the world, I knew we needed each other’s support. I also could often relate to what they were singing about in gendered ways. My first paid article was on a new local band called Throwing Muses. That pretty much set the tone for everything to come.
JS: Have you ever been in a band yourself? If so, what kinds?
EM: I have been in a couple of one-off bands, “off” being the operative word. Both were in Rhode Island. One was a band of music critics that played a benefit every year; I was a backing singer. It was a pretty generic bar band. The other was with a group of friends for a farewell show for a cross-country road trip two of us were embarking on. We were named the Fiendish Thingees.
JS: What was the impetus of this book?
EM: So many important, genius female artists have emerged in the past decade, but no book has gathered or acknowledged them. We also felt it was important to connect today’s women who rock with the ones who paved the way for them. The last book to try to connect all these threads in a big, multi-voice, illustrated fashion came out in the 1990s—Trouble Girls—and so much has happened since then. At the time we started putting this book together, we also felt like it was a historic time for women, what with the U.S. about to elect its first female president, and we wanted to acknowledge our female sheroes. Of course, the context for the book quickly changed, and in a sense, it became more important.
JS: With the women’s marches, you mean? The #MeToo movement?
EM: The book was completed before the #MeToo movement became huge, before the Harvey Weinstein articles came out. So in a sense, it was prescient. But the point is really that assault, harassment, and discrimination have been hurdles for women in the music industry since the beginning, and yet, we’ve persisted. Since Ma Rainey mentored Bessie Smith, women have also been passing each other the torch, which is a lot of what this book is about—sometimes explicitly, as when Alice Bag writes about June Millington, and Peaches salutes Sinead O’Connor. This book was conceived in one political environment and is being published in another one, but because these stories have eternal truths, it remains just as relevant.
JS: Who would be in your all-female band super group? What would you name the band?
EM: Wow, that’s hard. Sandy West on drums. Carol Kaye on bass. Poison Ivy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe on guitar. Bjork on vocals. Aretha on vocals and piano. Sheila E on percussion. It’d be a stylistic mess. I’d call them Girl Genius.
“A city’s streets to me are like the wrinkles on an old face,” wrote Margaret Bundy, the editor of Seattle’s Town Crier from 1930 to 1934. “They depict the comedy and tragedy of the life that has passed there; in short, they reflect character.” Town Hall has reflected the character of Seattle for 20 years. As a shared stage for Seattle’s cultural producers and civic groups, Town Hall is where Seattle comes together—to express our creativity, to listen and be heard, and to consider what sort of future we want to create together. And housed in a 102-year-old landmark building, we feel a deeply rooted connection to our town’s history.
That said, welcome to our new blog, the Town Crier, harkening back to our past while propelling us forward.
The original Town Crier was a weekly magazine, published between 1910 and 1938. It focused on Seattle’s news, arts, and culture. It represented a diversity of local voices, featuring artists, musicians, photographers, actors, and more, alongside reviews of local performances and discussions of local, national, and international events. The parallels to our own bustling, broad calendar are undeniable, and as we revitalize our century-old building (its set to reopen in March 2019!)—giving new life to an old name feels especially appropriate.
Town Hall strives to capture today’s voices, just as The Town Crier did a century ago, in fresh and illuminating ways. Through our blog, we’ll profile Town Hall’s speakers past and present—visionaries and thought leaders in the arts, sciences, and civics. We’ll interview Seattle’s policy makers and culture shifters. We’ll invite our community to contribute their own words and experiences. We’ll have a little fun. We’ll ask questions, and by doing so, hopefully we’ll all learn something new. Because Town Hall is a place to reflect—and inspire—our best impulses: creativity, empathy, and the belief that we all deserve a voice.
We look forward to sharing this all with you in Town Hall’s official blog, the Town Crier.
It’s a funny thing—the skinny guy with the turban, glasses, and big beard wandering around New York City dressed up like Captain America. People are smiling. People are laughing. People are joyously putting their arms around him to get a selfie. Sikh Captain America is a popular guy in the streets with that charming outfit, that disarming smile, that shield. Hashtag superhero. Tweet. Retweet. Instagram heart. Facebook post. Heart emoji. Hashtag America.
Sikh Captain America’s name is Vishavjit Singh and he’s had a mob come to his house to murder his family. He’s been called names: “clown,” “genie,” “raghead.” Singh wears a turban. He has a beard. He has brown skin. After 9/11 he didn’t leave his house for two weeks, afraid to. Once he did he was eyed, ridiculed, made fun of, yelled at, derided. Once, not five minutes after taking off his Captain America outfit and getting back into his street clothes, someone yelled at him across the street, “Osama bin Laden!”
Singh started writing cartoons of Sikh characters soon after 9/11. He himself grew up in the Sikh faith (the 5th largest religion in the world) and wanted to start making Sikh characters known. One day he drew a Sikh Captain America. Drawing the Sikh superhero he thought we should relish our diversity and understand our commonalities. Then, in 2012, a mass shooting took place at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A white supremacist opened fire, fatally shooting six people and wounding four more.
The shooting affected him. Perhaps, he thought with much cajoling from friends and associates, he should don the Captain America costume and step out into the streets. Those horrible tragedies led him to this—the smiling people, the laughing people, the people eager to take their photo with him. “My palms were sweating,” he says on that first foray into New York’s streets. “I was scared out of my mind.” He got hugs. Cops came up to take pictures of him. A fire station invited him in. He was pulled into a wedding. “I quickly realized I was onto something good.” Ever since, he’s traveled throughout the country, and beyond, to fight intolerance. “We all have stories to tell,” he says. “We just have to reach out to people and ask what theirs is.”
I asked Singh for his story.
He was born in Washington, DC but moved to India as a young child. He left India and came back to the states soon after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. The news spread fast the day of Gandhi’s death; the assassins were her own bodyguards and those bodyguards were Sikh. Mobs, eager for revenge, roared into the streets looking for Sikhs. The Singh family was terrified. They survived, with the help of their neighbors, but thousands were not so lucky. Sikh men and boys were burned alive. Sikh women were victims of sexual violence. Sikh businesses, homes, and houses of worship were gutted. He’s drawn these experiences into his cartoons. “We need to read our history, tell our stories, and make more connecting points.”
He returned to America and attended college, turbaned and bearded. People laughed at him, and told him to go back to where he came from. He’s an American citizen. “I began questioning why I needed to stand out. People look at me wherever I go.” He took off his turban, got a haircut, and shaved his beard. After he did it, “No one was looking at me! People thought I was Hispanic and started speaking to me in Spanish. I told them I didn’t speak Spanish. They asked, ‘Then what are you?’.”
Singh’s return to his Sikh roots took years. He’s grown his hair long again. He’s grown his beard back. He wears a turban. Also? He wears a superhero costume. “I’m trying to confuse peoples’ initial perceptions. Confusion leads to exploration, exploration to learning, and learning to understanding.”
“Why can’t we all be Captain America?” Singh asks. “We all can be Captain America. Why can’t a girl be Captain America? A black person? A woman? An old man? A child? We’re all Americans. We should not be defined by labels…I am more,” Singh says, “than what you see.”
An introvert by nature, Singh has certainly stepped out of his comfort zone and he suggests that we all take a few steps outside of our own comfort: “We need to create a safe space for each other. We can learn so much from each other.” As Captain America he goes to comic book conventions, camps, retreats. He lectures to children and adults, and he exhibits at museums (including WHAM! BAM! POW! Cartoons, Turbans & Confronting Hate, now showing at the Wing Luke Museum).
Why? He doesn’t want anyone to feel like he’s felt his whole life: like ‘an other.’ “We write our story every day. Find a way to tell it,” he implores us. “Find your voice. We all have a voice.”
Who is Vishavjit Singh? A Sikh, an American, a cartoonist, a husband, a son, a brother, a writer—more than all that. He teaches us that we’re more than a label, more than the sum of our parts. He’s Captain America, and he’s here to tell us: so are we all.
Town Hall is excited to be teaming with The Common Acre to present the Seattle Pollinator Week Symposium at the Rainier Arts Center on June 19. The symposium takes place during National Pollinator Week—approved by the U.S. Senate 11 years ago—as a time to address the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Wild bees and other pollinators contribute to billions of dollars a year in global pollination service, yet relatively little is known about them. Why are they important? Let us tell you, by the numbers:
75%: Percentage of all flowering plant species that need pollinator for fertilization.
$20 billion: The worth of products produced in the United States, due to pollination.
200,000: Approximate amount of insect species that are pollinators, including bees, flies, beetles, wasps, ants, butterflies, and moths.
1,000: Approximate amount of vertebrate species that are pollinators, including birds and bats.
1,050: Approximate amount of crop plants grown, including coffee, almonds, and chocolate that wouldn’t grow without pollinators.
1/3: Fraction of all foods and beverages made possible by pollinators.
300: The number of fruits, including mangoes and bananas, pollinated by bats.
0.85 ounces: Approximate weight of a Mexican long-nosed bat—the pollinator of the blue agave plant that gives us tequila.
1,000: The amount of pollen grains required to be deposited on a watermelon flower within only a few hours to get marketable fruit.
1723: The year the word ‘pollen’ was first used. (It’s from Latin, literally ‘fine powder.’)
20,000: Approximate amount of bee species.
50%: The percentage loss of managed honey bee colonies in the United States since 1945.
$14.6 billion: The annual benefit of managed honey bees to agriculture.
Join us at the symposium to learn more about the ways our communities can help preserve our precious pollinators. Bee there!
Planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern and astrobiologist Dr. David Grinspoon will be at the Museum of Flight on May 17 to discuss the New Horizons mission. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, became the first spacecraft to pass by Pluto. During its flyby, New Horizons made detailed measurements and observations of Pluto and its five moons. This coming New Year’s Eve, New Horizons will offer up images of the most distant body ever explored, provisionally named Ultima Thule. It is an object in the Kuiper Belt, an enormous asteroid belt that extends from the orbit of Neptune to approximately 50 AU from the sun (50 AU = very far away).
Before an astronomically interesting evening with Stern and Grinspoon, here’s a brief timeline exploring the history of our solar system’s controversial “ninth planet.”
4.5 Billion Years Ago:Pluto was formed at the same time as the rest of the planets around the sun during the formation of our solar system. (The oldest mineral dated on earth is a zircon with an age of 4.4 billion years).
1840s:Urbain Le Verrier predicted the not-yet-discovered planet Neptune was beyond Uranus, based on perturbations in Uranus’s orbit. Observations of Neptune—discovered in 1846—made it clear there was ANOTHER planet besides Neptune disturbing Uranus’s orbit. (Spoiler alert: it was Pluto!)
1894: Astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell founds the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and is integral in the early efforts to find Pluto. (Unfortunately Lowell died in 1916, a full 14 years before the discovery of Pluto).
1905: While observing the orbits of Neptune and Uranus, Lowell believes that they are being displaced from their predicted positions by the gravity of another body. He posits the existence of a possible ninth planet, and begins his search for the elusive ‘Planet X.’
1930: After a week of intense comparison of photographs of the night sky at the Lowell Observatory, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh announces his discovery of a ninth planet.
1930: In a stroke of inspiration, eleven-year-old Venetia Burney living in Oxford, England gives Pluto its name just one day after the announcement of Tombaugh’s discovery. Venetia suggests that, due to its nature as a dark and remote planet far from the warmth of the sun, the planet should be called ‘Pluto’ after the Greek God of the Underworld. Venetia’s grandfather relays the suggestion to his friend Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford. The name is a hit, and the newly-discovered celestial body is quickly christened ‘Pluto.’ (The name was beloved not only for being fitting from a mythological standpoint, but also because the first two letters ‘PL’ served as homage to Percival Lowell, who made its discovery possible.)
1978: U.S. Naval Observatory astronomers James Christy and Robert Harrington notice that images taken of Pluto show a bump on its surface—and that the bump is moving. Pluto has a moon. Named Charon (the ferryman of the Underworld’s river of the dead in Greek mythology), it is approximately half the size of Pluto. (Four additional moons have since been discovered: Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx).
2006: NASA launches New Horizons, the fastest spacecraft in history, travelling at 36,000 mph. The Principle Investigator is Dr. Alan Stern, making New Horizons the 29th NASA space mission that’s seen his participation.
2006: Pluto is demoted to a dwarf planet. Celestial bodies are discovered on the edge of the solar system in the Kuiper Belt, and one of them—Eris—is found to be larger than Pluto. This sparks a heated discussion: should the solar system have more planets, or should ‘planet’ be redefined altogether? After much debate, the International Astronomical Union decides that Pluto, Eris, and Ceres (the largest asteroid that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter) would be designated as dwarf planets.
2015: After 9 ½ years New Horizons reaches its destination, flying within 7,750 miles of Pluto.
2017: Planetary scientists gather at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. One presentation, ‘A Geophysical Planet Definition,’ stated, “In keeping with both sound scientific classification and peoples’ intuition, we propose a geophysically-based definition of ‘planet’ that importantly emphasizes a body’s intrinsic physical properties over its extrinsic orbital properties.” The presentation continues with the assertion: “A simple paraphrase of our planet definition – especially suitable for elementary school students – could be, ‘round objects in space that are smaller than stars.” Given that definition, Pluto is a planet.
Mary Ann Peters is an artist whose combined studio work, installations, public art projects and arts activism have made noted contributions to the Northwest and nationally for over 30 years. Most recently her work has focused on the overlap of contemporary events with splintered histories of the Middle East.
She will speak about her artwork at our upcoming event on Thursday, April 5th with Gary Faigin, who serves as Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. In the meantime, Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley spoke with her about migration, impossible monuments, and making the ugly beautiful.
JS: When you say your artwork is being informed by the migration crisis, what do you mean by that?
MAP: What I have been doing is researching migration patterns that happened at the turn of the 20th century out of what is what is now current day Lebanon and at that time, was Syria. And I’m looking at the pattern and the footprint of that movement through Europe into the Americas and making artwork about it. I’m comparing that historical record to contemporary events that are happening now and looking at how people are moving now.
I would argue, and I will say this, that there isn’t a migration crisis, there’s a humanitarian crisis and I’ve had enough experiences now being in Europe and also in Lebanon to be able to back that up a little bit.
That’s really what the crux, what the focus has been with my work.
You’re looking at the past 100 years or so, then, of that movement?
Yes. I’m comparing the footprint and the experiences 100 years apart.
What has been the most striking to you doing that comparison?
I’m not a researcher, really, I’m just a pretty good snoop, I guess. What I look for is under-noticed incidents that can, in some way, trigger an image I can make, or an installation I can make that would make people think about what would happen there.
Let me give you two historical differences. Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad – this isn’t a hundred years separation but it’s the lineage – attacked the city of Hama in 1982 and I found this by following the history of Hama. Assad’s father besieged the town of Hama for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against the government. He closed the borders and he closed the media and nobody really knew the extent of it until years later.
The reason I was following Hama is, for one, it’s a really beautiful city. It’s kind of the basis of farming country and it has this river that runs through it. It has an incredible aqueduct system with big water wheels in the river. In reading about that, I stumbled onto a ritual that happens. People go to the river in a ceremony. I think it happens once a year and they pour red dye into the river next to the water wheels and it churns up the water and turns it red. It’s like giving life blood back to the river and commemorating, at the same time, the people that died. That’s the way I’ve read the story. So, I made a painting called Painting the River Red as a consequence of reading about that.
In regards to your process – you read something like the red river – what inspires you to make a painting versus an installation versus a sculpture?
Which way can I best convey the narrative that I’m trying to suggest?
I have been doing a series, that I will be showing several pieces of during the event, called ‘impossible monuments.’ Those are based on contemporary information. Reading about Aleppo. Reading about the White Helmets. Reading about this incredibly beautiful historical site, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it’s being destroyed. That story got me.
But when you fly on an airplane and you look down it just looks like a beautiful pattern in this ground. You don’t necessarily see the destruction. That piece that I did about Aleppo that I named Ghosting, was about how people hold onto the memories of spaces that then, in turn, informs their holding onto their cultures.
I want to talk about the migration crisis, at the event, as a point of reference for the resilience of cultures that are in forced movement. I want to talk about footprints of cultures in various places that take a stronghold. They don’t move. They just get incorporated into the cultures that they have found themselves in.
You translate information and turn it into art.
I am an interpreter. I am not duplicating something that happened. I am interpreting something that happened. I am pulling up into the consciousness and into the visual framework for people things that they would not access, not see, not realize, and give it a physical form for them to take away with them to think about.
The very first ‘impossible monument’ that I made was I bronzed a set of pita breads. The reason I did it was because one of the big contributors to what’s happened in Syria in the beginning was drought. I don’t think people understood that. I don’t think they know that there was an uprising; that there was a protest by the farmers for the government to help them because there was a drought and their crops were failing. Most of those crops were tied to wheat, and wheat is what bread is made of and then there was a bread shortage. In the full range of people moving from rural settings to urban settings or moving onto refugee camps, this staple, this thing – it has so many layers of meaning, bread – was in jeopardy. It wasn’t a given that you could get a loaf of bread.
Your artwork seems to be shifting. Previously, it seemed to be of natural disasters, apocalyptic. Now, it’s more focused on a more personal and human element.
I think you’re right. The difference is there’s more of a sensitivity now about the source. The pieces that alluded to disasters are true. They were there but they were much more abstracted.
I went to Lebanon and Syria in 2010, just prior to the Arab Spring. When the Arab Spring happened and then collapsed it just became clear to me that I had nothing to lose by upping the ante on how I was talking about these issues. I thought I had a moral obligation. My family has alignments there. A lot of people of Arab descent were being maligned on a daily basis. The terrorists of the hour. If I can do something with this I really should.
I had no idea I would be doing this work at this point in my life. I have nothing to lose.
If you feel like it’s your moral obligation to make this artwork, what do you hope someone takes away from it then?
I would hope they wouldn’t take for granted these scenarios. The world is in a calamitous state right now, or it, at least, seems that way, since we’re reminded of it all the time. I think it’s really hard for people to process all this stuff and one way to go is not to think about it at all. But you can’t see what’s good in the world unless you take into account how things have gone haywire.
I purposely make things that are quite beautiful. I understand it as a device that I use.
You mean making the ugly beautiful?
Yes. I really think there’s a place for beauty in these seemingly unbeautiful things and calling attention to them. It’s kind of a seductive way to get at that but that’s what I want. I don’t want people to think they’ve seen this. I want them to walk away with an afterimage.
Afterimage. What does that mean to you?
An afterimage implies that you still remember but the event is over. In terms of me as an artist, it’s a way, under my hand, of resurfacing things that happened. It’s not the thing; it’s the reference to the thing.
There’s no telling what we’re interested in until we’re interested in it, but do you see yourself continuing doing this politicized artwork in the foreseeable future?
I think of it as political but mostly cultural. For me it’s as much about elevating cultural records as it is about the politics of that. They’re different but, sometimes, the politics can’t be avoided.
I’m looking a lot right now at the architecture of war. There actually is a way to be trained to make structures that accommodate war. That’s everything from refugee camps, whose schematics can be quite beautiful, to calculated tactics like the Israeli government dictating that new settlements have red roofs so that when their Air Force goes out on maneuvers they know what not to bomb. There is software that examines incidents and recreates the sites to better understand factors beyond relying on eyewitnesses.
I have no idea where I’m going with this inquiry, but something will surface that I hope will be informing.
What we love about this series is the subject of the artist’s role in society, something we constanstly grapple with. Every interviewed artist, from John Grade to Mary Ann Peter’s, take on Big Ideas — they are fearless. https://t.co/YXnyX4KGYV
Peters will be joined onstage by realist painter Gary Faigin, who serves as the Artistic Director at the Gage Academy of Art. Sit in with Peters and Faigin as they discuss the shift in Peters’ work, and how through research, intuition, and gut feeling, her pieces come together.
Keshena is $50,000 in debt; she’s filed for bankruptcy. Her husband and step-father are serving time in prison, leaving her to care for her two young boys. She has served time herself, and has found it immensely difficult to raise a family and readjust to everyday life on top of paying Washington’s Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs). Michael is a disabled veteran. He served a five-year sentence in prison and was ordered to pay $11,000 in LFOs. Despite the $75 a month he’s paid for the last five years, he now owes $17,000 due to interest. Sue suffered from poverty and abuse in her early life, and soon found herself the victim of domestic violence and drug addiction. She served 15 months in prison over a decade ago, and is still paying off legal fees to the state of Washington—most of which are accrued interest.
Deborah Espinosa knows Keshena, Michael, Sue, and many others in our state saddled by crippling debt due to fines, fees, and victim restitution costs. Espinosa’s research on debtors’ prisons in Africa (and in the US) has made her eager to humanize these legal issues—eager to put a face to the problem. That’s why Espinosa founded the visual storytelling project “Living With Conviction”, composed of her photos of individuals suffering from the seemingly inescapable financial burden of Washington’s legal system. “It’s a visual storytelling project about how the State of Washington sentences people to not just prison, but to a lifetime of debt.”
“My intent with this project is to amplify the voices of formerly incarcerated individuals who are struggling to survive, and thereby bring an end to the imposition of such costs on the poor and marginalized.” She believes the purpose of law is to serve communities and level the playing field, creating a more just society. And according to her, Washington’s LFO policies do the opposite. She sees the LFO policy as designed to fund the criminal justice system on the backs of the poor and racial minorities, perpetuating cycles of incarceration and poverty. On her website, Espinosa decries this cycle as fundamentally unjust and asserts that Washington’s LFO system “represents institutional discrimination and structural racism at their finest.”
“Living With Conviction” is Espinosa’s way of introducing us to the people in Washington who are suffering from LFOs—showing us their faces and enshrining moments from their lives in photography. “It is about formerly incarcerated individuals as they struggle to re-enter their communities following prison, burdened with substantial debt, as well as obstacles to finding housing and jobs.” Espinosa’s work has appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Foreign Affairs, O Magazine, and the Harvard International Review, among other publications. Her work is currently in a 10-year exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.
“Visual storytelling makes us all realize that we are talking about real people,” says Espinosa. She uses the hashtag #VisualizeJustice to catalog her work, and to illustrate the inequality issues of LFOs not as abstract legal concepts but in terms of the people they affect. “As an attorney, an officer of the court, I feel a sense of responsibility to correct legal and structural wrongs.”
“A goal of mine is for people to open their hearts to this population.” This population includes Keshena, Michael, Sue, and all those Deborah Espinosa has photographed—and all those still faceless in the state’s criminal justice system.
Deborah Espinosa will be joining Peter DiCampo—Town Hall’s Inside/Out Neighborhood Resident for the U District and Ravenna—to discuss Living With Conviction and the power of documentary photography as a tool to oppose poverty and inequity. Join us on March 27 at University Lutheran Church and explore Espinosa’s photographic struggle against injustice.