Reading Together 2013 Blog

Some Reflections on Art as an Expression of Grief

Anyone who has struggled with grief may share in the disconnected and disorienting place it can be. The death of a loved one or good friend whether it is impending and expected, or tragic and sudden, can bring emotions that seem impossible to navigate.

This presentation looked at the variety of ways art may serve to navigate that experience and move through grief individually and as a community. The panelists wove a common thread through how art, whether a community memorial or a personal pencil sketch, may facilitate the grieving process.

Death and dying is such a phenomena that human beings no matter how matured are left dumbfounded; art as an expression of grief acknowledges the loss. This may be the first step to acceptance and healing. Art has the ability to acknowledge and share the grieving experience. Studies have shown that communities where people feel connected and supported have higher qualities of life and health. Perhaps there is a correlation between those societies and communities who create memorials to commemorate and thereby acknowledge the grief experienced by those directly affected. In so doing the memorial, the sculpture, the painting, by acknowledging the life and death experienced we are creating greater connection and a deeper sense of community.

~ Norm Hamann Jr, Reading Together Steering Committee

Knowing that not everyone is affected by tragedy in the same way it was important for me to find a balance between sentiment and honor. I feel it’s important for people to be able to mourn in their own time, openly if they need to, and for a community to acknowledge its history and its tragedies.

~ Brent Harris, sculptor, commissioned to create the Eric Zapata Memorial in honor of the Kalamazoo Public Safety officer shot and killed in the line of duty in 2011.

Reading Together Steering Committee

Public Art and Controversy

On Thursday evening, March 28, at 7 pm in the Van Deusen Room of the Kalamazoo Public Library, the Kalamazoo County Public Arts Commission will collaborate with Reading Together by presenting a panel of its past and present members to discuss how it is that public art could engender controversy.

All the internal discussions an individual might have with her/himself about a work of art—I like it, I hate it, I get it, I don’t get it, my kindergartner could do it, it offends me, etc.—have the potential to be heightened when it’s a work of public art. Here in Kalamazoo, classes are taught and conversations – formal and informal, are held on this subject. Who knew?!

And questions arise:

  • What is art?
  • What makes art public?
  • What’s the purpose of public art?
  • Who is the public?
  • What input does the public have?

Big questions. The panel (speaking from the members’ own perspectives rather than on behalf of the Public Arts Commission) won’t be providing definitive answers. But it will delve into the questions, and provide some insights into those factors which influence the individual and community perceptions of public art. The moderator will be Sarah Lindley, a practicing visual artist and Associate Professor of Art and Department Chair at Kalamazoo College. She discusses these issues in her classes at K College.

The panel is composed of:

  • D. Neil Bremer, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo. He is a nationally known consultant in museum management and has been a performer since his undergraduate days at Western Michigan University.
  • Lisa Brock, Academic Director of the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. She’s a historian with a PhD in African History whose previous experience includes 20 years in two arts institutions in Chicago.
  • Billie Fischer, an art historian and semi-retired Associate Professor at Kalamazoo College. She’s been a highly regarded member of many local arts activities, including her membership in the Public Arts Commission since its inception in the early 1980s until 2011.

I hope you’ll be able to join us.

~Martha Aills, Member, Reading Together Steering Committee
Member, Kalamazoo County Public Arts Commission


Public Art and Controversy
Reading Together Steering Committee

Maya Lin’s Masterpiece

In 1981, a competition was announced for the creating of the Vietnam War Memorial. Over 1,400 artists, architects, architecture firms, sculptors, landscape designers, community groups, and everyday citizens anonymously summited posterboard concept drawings for consideration. A blue ribbon panel of architects, artists, scholars, and historians culled out 1,000 of the entries in the first cut. A day later, they winnowed the entries to 200. After debate and consideration, one submission rose to the top, a minimalist slash of polished black stone wall featuring the names of all the 58,272 soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. The name and address of the selected designer was summoned. One of the professors on the panel recognized the street address of the submitter as undergraduate housing at Yale University. The creator of the winning entry was a 21-year-old architecture student working alone in her dorm room: Maya Lin.

I’m glad I read The Submission before learning the history and controversy surrounding the design and installation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I better understand Mohammad Khan’s unwavering character in The Submission after watching the 1994 documentary, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision. Lin, diminutive and soft spoken, had to stand up to fierce congressional hearings with her strong, clear vision of a memorial focused on the true costs of war: human lives. Opponents to her design felt her memorial was a black hole in the ground hidden away from an embarrassed nation. Instead, they said it should be towering, pure white with American flags and bald eagles rising. The young Lin calmly stuck to her ideals, insisting that art sometimes pushes the boundaries of tradition. In the end, a compromise came about, not by changing Lin’s original design but by adding a subtle gateway entrance featuring an American flag and Frederick Hart’s sculpture The Three Soldiers.

As an elementary student in the 1970s, I was not taught about the Vietnam War. When I was in middle school in the rural Midwest at the time of the 1981 memorial development, I was unaware of the controversies of the Vietnam Memorial, let alone having an understanding of what that war was about. Since then, I’ve visited the memorial, commonly called The Wall, three times. The first time was with a gaggle of high school classmates. We approached The Wall not from its intended entrance but from a vantage point where I could see the whole wall from a distance. It didn’t move me.


The second time I visited The Wall was on a sightseeing hike as I tried to cover as much ground as possible to experience Washington, DC via some kind of see-all-the-sights checklist.

It wasn’t until my third visit, properly not in a hurry, at night, entering through the traditional entrance that the power of The Wall hit me full force. Such a simple concept: walk along the wall where it starts out knee-high then see it rise above you at the height of the conflict. It had a similar effect on me to walking a meditative labyrinth, slowing casting away our outside world as we step in to the depths of contemplation, nearly swallowed by the power and presence of The Wall. I’ve never been so moved by a memorial.

I encourage you to visit the National Mall to experience Maya Lin’s masterpiece and appreciate this tribute to our fallen citizens and to American values of fairness to all who choose to enter submissions.

~Jim Ratliff, Librarian,
Kalamazoo Valley Community College
Arcadia Commons Campus


Maya Lin - A Strong Clear Vision
Reading Together Steering Committee

Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction

Last fall, Amy Waldman won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction. Those of you who were able to take part in Waldman’s visits to Kalamazoo last week will certainly understand how she became the winner of this prize sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony Institute that promotes promising new authors. As the winner of this prize, Waldman joins quite a prominent collection of previous winners including Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Toni Morrison. So if you haven’t read The Submission, I encourage you to do so and discover a promising, new author who just might become a favorite.

~Judith J. Bosshart, Library Director
T. F. Reed Memorial Library
Davenport University

Reading Together Steering Committee

The Loss of Innocence

I think we can say with a high degree of confidence that the loss of innocence to one degree or another has been the collateral damage for all of us following 9-11. Maybe innocent is not the word that would spring to mind when those around the globe would think to describe the US. But I’m thinking of all the people who left their homes to go to work on that morning in September thinking that as on any other average day, they would return.

In my mind, as I read Amy Waldman’s book, this brutal tearing away of innocence was illustrated through her characters over and over again. We are no longer the Norman Rockwell nation of the four freedoms if we include being tucked in bed with the freedom from fear. This is now a world where a garden isn’t just a garden, hijabs are torn from women’s heads, and even Claire who led the charge for Mo’s design trips up against the complications of that truth in this new world of fear.

Mo grew up believing and living a life as any privileged American young man with great expectations of achievement and the assumption that the constructs of the country we live in “has our back”. Only such a blind spot of innocence would have enabled him to presume he could submit a memorial design judged on its merit alone, irrespective of his new post 9-11 self. Could that pre 9-11 Khan imagine that his design could unleash the spiral of events that would lead to Asma’s stabbing? Is this where we assess guilt and innocence? Or should we lay this at the feet of the media (“The press! They killed her!”) ? Alyssa, making her way as a young scrappy journalist, is telling the story, or any story just to keep her job. Did she have the least idea of what power she had to change the course of lives?

An image that I felt very compelling near the end of the book describes men in prayer (p318) – “rears hoisted in the air and their socked soles exposed had made him wince for their dignity…” the ultimate submission.

Being a child who grew up in the 50’s I can remember being in a similar position in elementary school, under our desks, we all were covering our heads in a futile position against a potential nuclear attack. How innocent we were, and now as we submit to the indignities of travel, peeling off clothing, exposing bare feet and submitting to crucifix style xrays believing this too will keep us safe.

~Jeanne Grubb, Donor Relations Officer
Kalamazoo Community Foundation

Reading Together Steering Committee

Amy Waldman in Kalamazoo

I hope you had a chance to hear Amy Waldman this week, either at her thought-provoking talk on Tuesday evening about writing The Submission, or perhaps at Kalamazoo College on Wednesday when she dug a little deeper into the topic of writing fiction versus writing as a journalist. Maybe you even had the opportunity to ask her questions during the live web chat she graciously agreed to do at MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette. Whether or not you were fortunate enough to hear her speak, I’m happy to report that Kalamazoo is the richer for having had Amy in our midst.

Her authenticity, her sense of humor, her vulnerability, and her honest approach to writing fiction and continually learning something new in the process, all affirm what the selection committee has always known to be true: that our community conversation about a specific book, the hallmark of Reading Together, can only be heightened by having the opportunity to meet the author and learn more about her motivation and life experiences. Amy Waldman is no exception.

Amy’s visit is the springboard for many more events coming up in the next month. Please keep the momentum going and join us!


Amy Waldman in Kalamazoo

Amy Waldman Live!

Amy Waldman will be arriving in Kalamazoo today and speaking tonight at 7pm in Kalamazoo Central High School Auditorium. Hopefully that’s not the first you’re hearing of her visit, unlikely if you are reading this blog, but if it is, what great timing!

The Reading Together author event kicks of a month of great programming and has always deepened my understanding of the selected book and how and why it came to be. I’m sure this year’s event will not disappoint. Each year I look forward to learning more about the authors writing process and hearing how they talk about and present the book and how their perspective tweaks my own. I also look forward to hearing unexpected details from the author. There is usually some hidden aspect of the publishing process or unforeseen literary challenge that is brought up during the talk that surprises me. These unexpected moments are often elicited by great questions from the audience at the end of the prepared talk and that spontaneity is part of what makes the Q&A one of my favorite parts of each year’s program.

One area of publishing that you don’t often hear authors talk about is book jacket design. But like it or not, the wrong jacket can doom a great book from the beginning, and so jackets matter. As a teaser in anticipation of tonight’s unexpected moments you can read Amy Waldman and designer Rodrigo Corral comment on The Submission’s cover. See you all tonight!


The Submission