When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you 4,000 books full of racist aspersion, make art.
That’s the simple logic behind “Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate,” one of the most ambitious, diverse – and unlikely – art projects in the modern history of Montana. A joint project of the Holter Museum of Art in Helena and the Montana Human Rights Network, the widely traveled exhibit arrives in Missoula this week – the closest it has yet come to where it all began, in a storage locker near Superior.
That’s where, back in 2003, Montana Human Rights Network director Ken Toole was taken by a disaffected member of the white supremacist group, World Church of the Creator. The locker contained thousands of copies of 13 books written by Ben Klassen, the infamous author of the “White Man’s Bible” and founder of the so-called Creativity Movement. All that the impoverished defect or asked in exchange for the books was a bus ticket out of town.
So Toole approached the Holter Museum with an idea: Why not enlist artists to transform all that hate into something good?
That’s when Katie Knight got involved. A longtime social activist, teacher and artist from the Helena area, Knight has devoted her career to addressing human rights issues through the arts. When the Holter Museum approached her about curating the project, she jumped at the opportunity.
“It was such a great concept and so much in line with what I’d been focused on all of those years, so I was really excited,” said Knight. “Of course, it was daunting, too – what to do with these thousands of books.”
Knight began by putting out calls to artists around the country and across Montana. She also initiated a juried selection process, whereby anyone with an interest could create an artwork out of the books, and submit it for possible inclusion in the exhibit.
The response, she said, was overwhelming.
“It was astonishing the range of responses from all over,” said Knight. “We got works that responded to the books in a very broad range of ways.”
Some artists pulped the pages of the books, completely remaking them into something altogether different. Others altered the texts more subtley. New York artist Charles Gute took pages of the books and marked them up, substituting words to create a whole reversal of the message. Faith Ringgold – a well-known African-American artist and writer whose work was featured at the Missoula Art Museum in 2007 – left out the books entirely, and instead wrote and illustrated a story about the first time she was ever called the “N” word.
Despite the diversity of works produced for the exhibit, Knight found herself, late in the process, with literally thousands of copies of the books still left over.
That’s when Arlee artist Dana Boussard came calling.
Boussard had seen the open call for submissions for the exhibition, and suggested to her daughter and husband that they collaborate on a piece for the show. After mulling over ideas for a couple of months, the trio came up with the idea to make a house out of the books.
“They were trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the books, and so I called them and said, give me the rest of them,” recalls Boussard. “We went with a truck and a U-Haul, and picked them up.”
The result was “Hate Begins At Home,” a 10-by-10-foot house constructed largely out of the books – nearly 3,000 in all. Inside the house, a looping video shows Boussard painting words from the books onto her daughter’s back.
“What we wanted to do with the piece was speak to the idea that hatred and racism really does begin at home; you’re not born that way,” said Boussard. “A child is essentially an innocent mind, and it’s what happens with the family and peers that change innocence into prejudice.”
Boussard’s daughter, Ariana Boussard-Reifel, also produced a separate piece for the exhibit, featuring a book with every word individually cut out, leaving only a lacy, white series of spiderwebbed pages. That artwork has since been selected for inclusion in an international invitational show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.
Boussard-Reifel said she was drawn to get involved in the project by her belief in the transformative power – in this case both literal and figurative – of art.
“I think everyone has a yearning to create a more peaceful and inclusive message and I come to the exhibit with that goal,” she said.
Ultimately, some 100 works were produced for the show, which opened at the Holter in early 2008. Since then, a smaller version of the show has traveled across Montana, to major museums as well as small towns such as Sidney, Red Lodge and Anaconda.
That’s the show that makes its way to Missoula this coming week, where it will remain through March 6. Brandon Reintjes, curator of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, which hosts the local exhibit, said he believes “Speaking Volumes” lives up to its name.
“The message of taking those materials and showing the ways in which they can be made positive statements of change or critical statements is a a really important thing to share,” said Reintjes. “The emotional diversity in the exhibition is quite profound, and I think it speaks in a way to the value of diversity in general.”