Building community and bridging divides through portraits and personal stories.
Taking our time
We are easing into this new lifestyle of being mobile and gathering new stories.
Our month-long residency in Parkersburg, West Virginia was a model for what I hope we can do more of going forward. Of course, COVID is going to have to play out and it will impact the way we are able to engage with programming, but in this case, we were able to operate safely and remain distanced as we did our work.
We spent four weeks building relationships, making connections and sharing stories. It was a pace that allowed us to dig a little deeper and have the sort of conversations that take time to develop.
It started with installing our American Stories exhibit at several venues along Market Street, the town’s arts district. The art was spread out so that people could be as well, taking in the stories at their own pace while maintaining social distancing.
I spoke to Rotary and Lions club meetings. I led Zoom workshops on photography and storytelling. I did interviews for local newspaper, television and radio stories.
We coordinated a series of small studios, where people could share their own stories of resilience as they answered the question, “When have you found strength in the midst of struggle?” People shared stories of faith, family and perseverance. Again, the pace was slow so people could maintain social distance.
We gathered 109 local stories and I’ll share some of them here.
Then we worked with the print shop at West Virginia University – Parkersburg and we printed all 109 portraits and hung them in the storefronts along Market Street.
We projected the stories on the exterior wall of the historic Smoot Theatre.
And we closed with a keynote for a virtual think tank for the Institutes for Historically Underserved Students.
It was a chance to see community in a new way, even as we continue to keep our distance.
Senta Goudy, Executive Director of the WVUP Foundation had this to say about the engagement in her town: “Our community identity has been shaken over the last few decades as we’ve lost population, jobs, and purpose. John’s visit shone a light on who we are today. Through his lens, we saw that we are strong, we are loving, and we are compassionate.”
Our next stop will look very different. We will spend much of December in Charleston, SC and the vicinity. We have no programming lined up. We will just be gathering new stories and editing a few long-form interviews that we have done recently.
It’s an odd time to be traveling. I am certain COVID related restrictions will impact our plans and where we can go over the winter, but we will continue to take precautions wherever we are. We will wash our hands, keep our distance and cook our own food.
As this wears on, we will continue to seek out and amplify what is good. May we all continue to see ourselves as strong, loving and compassionate.