Aja Sherrard quietly walks up to the wall at the University Center Gallery and picks a ceramic tablet, each lined like notebook paper and arranged in rows.
She silently steps over a free-standing sink nearby and begins scrubbing the surface bare. Depending on which tablet she picked, it might be filled with her own journal-like writings about her father, who died of cancer two years ago. It could have the writings of an anonymous gallery visitor: Nearby, she's arranged a small desk with blank tablets and pencils, where people are invited to record their own thoughts and hang them on the wall.
All of them eventually will end up in Sherrard's hands. She'll wipe them clean of their anonymous confessions and hang them on another part of the wall dedicated to the clean slates, although there are illegible ghost lines from the graphite.
For her exhibition, "The Accumulation of Endlessness," Sherrard will go to the gallery every day, Monday through Friday, from noon to 1 p.m. and repeat the ritual. Afterward she hangs the sponge she used for the cleaning, which leaves them quite ragged, on the wall in a grid, one for each day of the show.
On a recent weekday, visitors filtered in. The gallery attendant told them about the exhibition as they walked in. A few looked around. One man filled out a tablet at the desk. Then he filled out another.
Sherrard's father, Dale, died in 2015 of an aggressive cancer that claimed him only two months after his diagnosis. She was one of his primary caregivers, along with her stepmother.
She developed a compulsion to wash dishes while coping with his illness and the aftermath of his death. She also found that she was more open to others. They sought out her help. She turned those observations from a year of mourning and grief – "cleaning as a metaphor for small acts of repair, small acts of resolution" – into a master's show last spring at the University of Montana, which also used tablets with writings of her own and others that she'd wipe away.
"It was through being vulnerable that the generosity happened, both for me as the person who's washing and for the people who contribute. Because as people add their voices they're shielded by the other anonymous voices on the wall, and every time you add something that's a vulnerability of yours to participate," she said.
This semester, Sherrard is finishing her thesis for a master's degree in art history at UM. After it's complete, she'll graduate with an accompanying MFA in visual art. She's mostly teaching classes now instead of taking them.
Her father also taught at UM, in his case it was the School of Media Arts. Dale Sherrard was a sound designer and artist from New York City, who moved here in 2007 with his wife, Prageeta Sharma, a poet, who was hired by the creative writing program.
Sherrard enrolled in the MFA program at UM in 2013 to be closer to him and "repair" her relationship with father. It had become strained by the distance and complications with other family members.
Dale Sherrard had thoroughly embedded himself in his new community. He brought an impossibly cosmopolitan background to western Montana: He was a part of the downtown New York art scene, and had collaborated with the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat and read his work at CBGB's. Here, he worked with filmmakers and musicians and visual artists, bringing a deep knowledge of theory with downtown attitude.
For his students, Sherrard said her dad was a "perfect mix of a cynic and sincere person."
He "gave people permission to be deeply flawed by being cynical and irreverent and brash," she said.
"His impact on his community can never be understated," Sherrard said.
Dale Sherrard died in January 2015, only two months after he was diagnosed with cancer. He was only 53. Six months later on Dale's birthday, her grandmother died.
There are additional drawings and paintings, her original medium, in the UC.
"The Accumulation of Grief" is a sculptural work. At her previous show, the water in the self-contained sink began thickening with the residue of the sponges and the graphite. She strained it through a pillow case, where it took on the shape of parched black earth. "It's just matter," she said. "But knowing that it consisted of this grief and this sorrow and this process made it haunted somehow." In "Studies in Erasure," a triptych of drawings, she painted over writings. Each in the series has fewer and fewer words visible.
Near the entrance, she's hung the worn sponges for the previous exhibition in a line.
Sherrard, who left behind painting for conceptual art, was surprised by the responses to the master's exhibition.
"I felt like people were more personally invested in this piece than anything else I've ever done. In a way, I think the vulnerability on the table cut through a lot of the hypothetical or intellectual response that you can have to the work, and people felt very personally implicated," she said.
To respect the anonymity of people who participated, she avoided looking at visitors when they wrote something and hung it on the wall. One day, she happened to pick a visitor's tablet while they were still in the room and began cleaning it.
"When I looked up, there was a girl watching me wash it and crying. She gave me a hug afterward and thanked me," Sherrard said.
Sometimes she had to resist the immediate response of giving them advice for a problem. Some of the writings were startling, since there's no context for them. They served as a reminder of the burdens people carry with them.
She said expressing her own thoughts about her father's death is a risk, but people respond by giving their own secrets in public.
"I think we are more giving and more generous in our fragility than we are in our austerity or strength," she said. "It's a risk, I think, but I'm creating an anonymous space by giving pretty honestly from myself and whatever people can contribute to that is shielded by my own vulnerability. And what they add as they add, their anonymity blends into a sort of unified act of presence."