Monday, November 1, 2010

On opening night for the community memoir/public art project

So on Saturday night, after ten months of work, the community memoir and public art project for the Carroll County Historical Society was unveiled to the community. We installed the luminaries outside the Owen Miles Museum in Mount Carroll on Saturday morning. At 5:30 in the afternoon, we went over there to start setting up. At 6 pm, people started arriving. And more and more kept on arriving. Honestly, we had no idea how many people would come, despite the fact that we sent out nearly a hundred invitations, and had articles published several times over in the local press (and also, apparently, the Chicago Tribune). We were steeling ourselves for a turn-out of about ten people, but by about 6:20 it was clear that all the chairs we had put out would be filled, and that people would have to stand in an adjacent room of the Museum (looking through an arched doorway). By my count, there were between 40 and 45 people there in the end.

Sue Appel, the President of the Historical Society, opened proceedings by welcoming everyone and introducing Patty. Patty then thanked a few people, and introduced the first of 10 participants from the project, each of whom read one page of the memoir material that they had written. I had set up a digital projector which showed a slideshow of participants' photos on the wall besides the readers, which was a nice touch.

After the readings were over, I gave a speech about community, memory, and the things that I remember which led me to this point: studying American literature and culture at university; visiting the States for the first time when I was 35; meeting Patty in 2000, then moving here in 2002; buying the house that same year, and growing to know and like the community in which we had bought our weekend house. I might have laid it on a little thick, maybe -- probably too much 'America the great' for British tastes, perhaps -- but it seemed like the right sentiment for the occasion. At the end of my speech, I presented Sue Appel with a specially-printed hardback book containing the photos and text that were used for the luminaries. And then I invited everyone to join me outside to witness Mayor Carl Bates help Patty and I take the white sheets from around the luminaries.

There was one slight hitch: the solar lights had only gained a faint charge during the day, so there wasn't the great 'Ta-DA!' moment that I'd hoped for. But as the following slideshow makes clear, they still looked good, and people milled around them for more than an hour. Angie from the local newspaper was there taking photos throughout the whole event, so there might be still one more article to come. On the whole, it was a great climax to nearly a year's worth of work. People even donated money on the night to the Historical Society. It was particularly gratifying that 91 year old project participant Lois Nycum came along, and got up to read a page from her material.

It's the end of a long process of collaboration, promotion, and publication, and it all went pretty smoothly, without major hurdles or huge rows. The final pieces are part documentary, and part artistic. The pairing of one sentence and one photo introduces an element of mystery to the idea of a memoir: some of the lines read almost like lines from poetry ("I remember lying in a field of buttercups"; "They gathered watercress from the clear cold water"). The gathering on Saturday night surprised even the people who were there with the idea that writing about yourself, and sharing what you wrote together with your private photos, produces an idea of community that they might not have experienced before. Something to do with the fact that small town life boasts about these values of communality, sharing things in common, helping out, but that very often these values remain very private, to individuals, or localised to families and neighbours. This project in some way brought those things into a public realm in a different way for this particular community. It showed that the values specific to the humanities can have meaning to farming communities as much as to city dwellers. For that reason, and for many other reasons, I will allow myself to say that this project was a great success.

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