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Art Exhibit Transforms Racist Books Into A New Canvas

Back in 2008, artist Lisa Jarrett was excited when she was asked to create a work for the “Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate” exhibit at Montana’s Holter Museum of Art.

Then she received her canvas.

“Getting that box of books and opening it up -- kind of this unmarked, brown box, and having it contain titles like ‘The White Man’s Bible’ and ‘RaHoWa,’ which is shorthand for racial holy war -- was a completely undoing experience in many ways,” said Jarrett, a professor of art and social practice at Portland State University.

The books originated from the Creativity Movement, formed when a defecting member of the white supremacist organization offered the Montana Human Rights Network a deal: two storage lockers full of the books for a bus ticket out of town. $300 later, the books were theirs. They decided to send the books to artists like Jarrett.

The charge: Take those books and their hate-filled content, and turn them into something positive. Something empathetic. In order to do that, Jarrett felt it was important to get comfortable with the material, which led to some decisively uncomfortable moments for her.

“Especially at the time living in Missoula, Montana, as a black woman in a fairly white place already, carrying around ‘The White Man’s Bible’ for example, was a — it made me feel hyper visible,” said Jarrett, adding that she found herself hiding the books in tote bags, always concerned about who might be looking to see what she was reading.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
'In Equality' by Lisa Jarrett

Jarrett turned her box of books into a triptych of ‘cross-out’ poems titled ‘In Equality.’ The three panels feature pages from the books, layered to create images of chains and Ku Klux Klan hoods. Over that, she crosses out large sections of text leaving behind only certain words, conveying a new meaning.

The art in “Transforming Hate,” on display at the Fort Collins Museum of Art and Lincoln Center Art Gallery, is anything but safe. Some of the imagery — such as swastikas and a portrait of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh — triggers a feeling of unease, at least initially, said exhibit curator Katie Knight.

“The idea was to transform the books into something that would turn the message around and have a positive impact toward promoting social justice and greater awareness of prejudice and discrimination and how we can heal from hate,” Knight said.

A take on a traditional mourning sampler by Seattle artist Scott Schuldt features a black woman being lynched. Knight called it unsettling in more ways than one.

“It’s one of those pieces that you recoil and yet the beadwork is so rich and beautiful that you’re drawn in,” she said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
'Unbound' by Scott Schuldt

The phrase stitched underneath is a unique call for patrons to break the usual rules of museum exhibitions: “Mourn for me. Mourn for you. So lay your hand upon my dress, two souls as one through your caress.”

“He wants people to touch this work and feel connected, and to feel empathy,” Knight said.

Even with an invitation - it was a strange concept for patron Kaitlyn Cherry.

“I can see the importance of touching some of the things here, and I think having stuff that you can touch makes everything more visceral,” Cherry said.

Artist Lisa Jarrett hopes viewers will take it a step further.

“I always hope for art that it can have a life that extends beyond the walls of the museum or gallery that you might encounter it in,” Jarrett said. “And that you take what you experience and it begins to affect the way you act in your day to day.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.