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Art explains America in migrants’ views

Courtesy of Crossing theBLVD.org

Art viewers don’t need to form their own stories when looking at Judith Sloan’s portraits.

Sloan appeared at the Ohio State Urban Arts Space on Saturday to lead an interviewing workshop and talk about her experience making her piece “Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America.”

Her work, “Crossing the BLVD,” transforms oral history into an art form. It features portrait-style photographs of nearly 80 individuals. Personal histories gathered from interviews of the subjects, and audio clips of each telling their immigration story accompany the pictures.

David Fawcett, a teacher from Columbus Alternative High School, said the addition of sound and story to the already present visual angle “makes the experience as close to first-hand as you can have it.”

“You feel like you have met them,” he said.

Sarah Thornburg, another teacher from Columbus Alternative High School, was also at the exhibit and voiced similar sentiments. She said she hopes more students will come to see what Sloan made.

“The more connected we get technologically, the less actually connected we get,” she said. “With this exhibit we actually get to hear the person behind it very quickly and simply.”

Sloan said the connection stems from the ability she and her husband Warren Lehrer, her partner in the project, had to get all of the details from her subjects. She said access was easy, because she lives in Queens, N.Y., an area largely populated by immigrants.

“My grandparents were from another country. Nobody I knew was from here,” Sloan said. “I’m the ‘other.’ We are not outsiders.”

The ability for one person to be able to relate to another was key in both the project itself and the motivation behind it. Sloan said others have treated her as an outsider because of her Jewish heritage, and that this helped her connect with those she interviewed.

Some of the people featured in “Crossing the BLVD” will be easier than others for OSU students to relate to, Sloan said. Yeshey Pelzom, a Bhutanese citizen, was only 19 when she left her home for America, and Sloan said being young and leaving home is something nearly all OSU students can understand. However, it was her first time ever traveling and she was fleeing oppression.

“A year before I was a very innocent, obedient girl, and suddenly my whole life is a political act,” read a quote from Yeshey  beside her portrait.

Another young person featured was Eugene Hütz, a leading member of the Gypsy punk band, Gogol Bordello. Sloan said Hütz will be a hit amongst college students because of the popularity of his band and his strong views of the world.

“The same people will kill you for your Gypsy background, then they’ll go buy your record,” read Hütz’s quote.

Pelzom, Hütz and all of the others look out at viewers from portraits of themselves in front of crisp, white backgrounds. Sloan said the absence of background objects helps to make the experience more real for visitors.

“When you talk to somebody for a long time, you actually don’t see background anymore and we wanted the viewer’s experience to be as close to ours as possible,” Sloan said.

The exhibit currently on display wasn’t the original intent of the creators of “Crossing the BLVD.” Sloan and Lehrer started interviewing people for a book in late 1999 and finished in 2001. She said they are the only project of their kind that includes both pre- and post-9/11 interviews.

The book is for sale at the Urban Arts Space. It includes 79 people and their stories, photos and timelines of historical events important to the project. Sloan and Lehrer later decided to adapt the book to a more artistic approach that would embrace more of the senses.

“There are ways to tell a story other than straight narrative; sometimes it calls for something more poetic,” Sloan said of the exhibit and the collage style of her book.

Sloan said she hopes her workshop will help to draw in more people of different backgrounds, claiming she doesn’t “want to just preach to the converted.”

The exhibit includes a booth in which visitors can record their stories of coming to the United States, or the stories of their family members.

The exhibit will be open to the public at the OSU Urban Arts Space until March 11.

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