A locker crammed full of white supremacy books and a defector who brought them into the light will be the focus of Travis McAdam's presentation this week on a Missoula art exhibit. McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, will tell the tale behind the thousands of books currently being used as art by the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
"It's an interesting story and sounds kind of like a spy movie or something the way we got the books," McAdam said. "The exhibit itself is pretty amazing and the background story behind it makes it even more impressive."
The lecture, "It Started with 4,000 Copies of ‘The White Man's Bible,' " is the most recent event being held in conjunction with the "Speaking Volumes" exhibit on the University of Montana campus. The presentation starts at 7 p.m. Friday in the Masquer Theater in UM's Performing Arts and Radio/Television Center.
The exhibit comprises books confiscated from a Superior area white supremacy group, and makes art out of hate, McAdam said. Before, the books were stacked in an empty room in the organization's Helena office.
"Somebody came up with the idea of giving the books to artists to create pieces promoting how dangerous racism can be," McAdam said. "We've transformed this idea we had into the actual art exhibit."
The art show, which opened in Helena in 2008, has been traveling the state. The exhibit has one more stop, in Billings, after Missoula. As part of the exhibit, McAdam gives community presentations telling the story behind the books and the racist group that once owned them.
It all started, he said, in Superior with a member of a white supremacy group, the National Creativity Movement, who wanted a way out. The man bartered the group's supply of reading material for a few hundred dollars in gas money that could get him out of town and give him a fresh start. The human rights group eagerly took the books, hoping to cripple the racist movement by stopping the spread of its literature.
The books then sat for several years until the art idea arose, creating a chance to make something constructive from the hate. The Jeannette Rankin Peace Center jumped at the opportunity to help bring that hope to Missoula.
Betsy Mulligan-Dague, executive director at the center, which is sponsoring the display's stay in Missoula, said the art was a great way to show the importance of dialogue in solving problems.
Among the most memorable and moving pieces in the exhibit, according to visitors, is a child's tire swing, hanging from the ceiling in a noose. One of the largest pieces, a 10-by-10 foot house constructed from nearly 3,000 books, was made as a symbol to show that racism and hatred begin at home and people aren't born that way, said Dana Boussard, the home's creator.
"The exhibit is, No. 1, a great example of art as activism," Mulligan-Dague said, "and second, a reminder that whatever it is we see, we each have the power to transform it. The exhibit moves people to be visually aware of the hate."
Elaine Winslow, a retiree visiting the art exhibit from Columbia Falls, said that "it's interesting so much art could come out of a negative thing. It's educating and making awareness."
Winslow, who came to the showing with friends from Missoula, said the exhibit fulfilled an important need by bringing to light the white supremacy movement. She stressed that an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach only creates pockets of racist ideals.
According to the Montana Human Rights Network, the art show aims to promote discussion about racism and get people thinking. Museum visitor and volunteer Mary Porter had exactly that response to the art, she said.
"It makes me wonder about people," Porter said, "like how they think and why they think about the things they think about. I was curious and had a kind of disbelief when I first came in. I had never really thought about the white supremacy movement. It's really educational and expressive."
The Montana Museum of Art and Culture will host another lecture in the Masquer Theater by Katie Knight on Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. Knight is the curator of "Speaking Volumes," which runs through March 6 in the PAR/TV building and Mansfield Library at the university.
AJ Mazzolini is a junior studying print journalism at the University of Montana who is interning at the Missoulian. He can be reached at 523-5251 or at aj.mazzolini@ missoulian.com.