Museums tend to be places where the public congregates to ruminate over the reminders of past people, places, and objects. Somewhere between holy awe at the importance of the items around you and an unspoken fear that with a single misstep you may knock over one of these priceless pieces, there is a certain feeling of connection you have when walking through the quiet, dark halls of a traditional museum.
Now, what if you created the work yourself? What if your own handwriting, your own stories, and your own skills created the very objects you held in such high esteem? Suddenly these delicate objects become accessible and create conversation and inspire creative possibilities.
That experience of creation is exactly what Portland performance artist MK Guth provided to those who visited the Contemporary Arts Center during the opening weekend of the “Memories Palace” exhibit. I was among the lucky few who helped take simple strings of fabric and through a few flicks of the wrists helped form a strong symbol of community engagement
A few months ago, I received an email in my inbox asking me if I’d like to volunteer during September for a weekend-long performance art piece. Having had a wonderful adventure last summer with the JR photography project, I practically jumped out of my seat at the chance to get my hands dirty again. Summer came and went and, before I knew it, I was walking from my desk in Over The Rhine down to the CAC on my lunch break in order to learn how to weave ribbon into a strong braid.
The next night we congregated prior to the opening, dressed in all black with smiles plastered on our faces, as we prepared for the deluge of people who would soon fill the room.
There were four colors of rope: Pink (Love), Yellow (Travel), Blue (Loss), and Orange (Celebration). I chose to braid Loss because an incredibly vivacious and honest friend of mine fell victim to cancer earlier this year and, for my own healing, decided to write about her by taking the simple blue fabric and folding it into the blue braid.
As the night wore on, jovial visitors stopped by and shared stories, gave hugs, and asked questions. MK Guth was ready with a grin and a quip to match even the harshest of wits. Our wrists started to ache, but each braid became more and more important as we weaved together these memories of loss, allowing the writer a momentary pause to let go and hand off their pain. We ended the night and parted ways before uniting for a sunny Saturday.
Coming back to the museum after an exhibit opening is much like walking across a college campus the morning after a fraternity party. You can see the wine stains and neglected paper trail of receipts blowing in the wind and the strange echo of last nights DJ music still hanging in the air, but you just know the party is over.
As we sat down to resume braiding, we stopped acting as individuals and started becoming a community. We passed the time by playing games from childhood memories and swapped life stories. I found out nuances about each member of the group and with every knot of the rope we became tighter as well.
The last memory to be shared that Saturday was from a woman who wrote her message in Arabic. Although none of us could decipher her words MK Guth shared her story with us. It was a heartbreaking tale of the true pain and suffering that women and children are experiencing under the ISIS movement and how this woman spent her free time working to save lives from the turmoil of the military death camps.
As I looked face to face to face I saw tears and grimaces. Even while sitting with a live contemporary artist it was storytelling, the oldest art form of all, which brought us together. A story like this is meant to be told, meant to be held by others, and meant to join the pattern of the beautiful stories that led back to the ultimate source of the artist.
The results of this cathartic collaboration are currently on display at the Contemporary Arts Center and were purchased by a local collector and will stay in the city it was created for. Each braid has been sculpted into a large piece that hangs from the vaulted ceiling above the urban carpet. These memories may not have a market value but, to those who participated, they are priceless.