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Ubjects II: Exhibit shows unique objects and tells family stories

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 24, 2009 - Home is just an ordinary place with a little something extra. That extra something is coming to the Schmidt Art Center at Southwestern Illinois College.

The fall 2009 exhibit of extraordinary objects and stories from area homes -- complemented with the work of a regional artist -- will offer fresh perspectives on life in the heartland.

This exhibit, the second installment in a five-year series, comes from the college's ongoing collaboration with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. It all springs from a basic idea.

Here's how it works:

  • Introduce college students to older adults who have stories to share.
  • Prep the students to ask a question: What single object in your home is unique to living in southwestern Illinois?
  • Record the interviews and photograph the objects.
  • Then make selections, put the actual objects on display, and invite everyone to a gala opening.

Two years in, this plan has become a roadmap for crossing cultural boundaries.
Take, for instance, the boundary between a museum and its community. Building on the art center's mission, one goal of the multi-year project is to get out into the area and make connections with people, says Libby Reuter, executive director.

Then, there are the boundaries between universities and community colleges. Here, SWIC teamed with SIUE and UMSL, merging the backgrounds, ideas and efforts of students, faculty and staff, as well as mixing folks from both sides of that regional dividing line: the Mississippi River.


They called their project Conjunctions: Ubjects, Stories and Places (CUSP).

That u-word is no mistake.

Ubjects blends the words unique and objects. The team hoped that getting unexpected ubjects into a museum, along with each ubject's unusual, deeply personal story, would prove to be an über attraction for folks who wouldn't otherwise step foot in the door.

And it worked.

"In 2008, we had a lot of people come from far away to see the first exhibit," says Reuter. "Some wouldn't have made the trip otherwise. This project introduced them to the art center."

At SIUE, Laura Fowler, assistant professor of history and director of museum studies, got her students involved in CUSP because she sees it as a way to get at what it means to be part of a community.

"It's a way to understand our environment by the things we keep around us," Fowler says.

Meanwhile, an academic on the Missouri side of the river was looking for better ways to turn students into teachers. At UMSL, Jacquelyn Lewis-Harris, assistant professor of education and director of the Center for Human Origin and Cultural Diversity, was especially concerned about her students teaching social studies, which is all about understanding a community.

"But they had no clue," she says. "Their idea of community was the mall."

Eventually, everything came together -- people, ideas and resources -- in CUSP.

The annual program adds perspective by featuring the work of a local artist. This year it will be Edd Kueker of Waterloo, whose life experiences range from horseman to harness-maker, auctioneer to artifact collector, author to self-taught artist. He makes multicolored models, small enough to fit in the palms of his hands, of the region's historic log buildings. This, too, will push a boundary, the one between art and craft, as Kueker's works invoke the full-size handmade structures hidden along rural byways.

The 2009 CUSP interviews took place in the Illinois towns of Granite City, Troy and O'Fallon. Most participants were older, active adults, members of clubs and organizations with historical interests. The conjunctions that they shared -- ubjects, stories and places -- form pieces of the patchwork quilt landscape of southwestern Illinois.


Everyone's got stuff. But this stuff is special. These talismans -- some of which have been around for generations -- are those that families have gone back to again and again, things that have survived decades of housecleaning, de-cluttering and garage sales.

"Immigrant families have had a tendency to Americanize, to get rid of everything from the old country," says Reuter. "But these are the objects they continued to value."

And some ubjects, Fowler suspects, will have lasting value.

"Maybe in 50 or 100 years these are the types of pieces we will need to understand this era," she says. "In fact, we have a couple of pieces that I think have been waiting all their lives to be in a museum."

The 2008 exhibit put the stuff of everyday life on pedestals under spotlights, showcasing items such as a quilt and a clock. A wedding album and cake-topper dolls tolled ritual and commitment. A sheriff's gun and badge blazed power and authority. And an Irish shillelagh and some English horticultural medals unearthed deep roots across the ocean.

"People came in and said, 'Ah, I have one of those,' or something like that. It got them thinking, gave them a sense of community," says Lewis-Harris.

The patina of age -- cracks and dents, dust and dirt, fading and fraying -- made those ubjects seem anything but "museum-quality." Instead, those well-worn and practical things shed pretensions of artistry.

Even so, Reuter says that things not necessarily created with artistic intent are often viewed as art.

Art, Fowler reminds viewers, can be very broadly defined -- a definition that changes with time. Despite the humble origins of ubjects borrowed from people's homes, the CUSP team wants people to see them as aesthetic objects as well as carriers of history.

Students from SWIC, SIUE and UMSL plan and organize the CUSP exhibits under the direction of their professors and the museum staff. But everyone soon learns that gathering ubjects demands flexibility. "We start off the class not knowing what we have until we do the interviews," says SIUE museum studies student Stephanee Smith. "You're depending on the community to bring you things and attach a story to them."


"What's endearing about this project," says Lewis-Harris, "is it helps a person realize that some object that's been sitting on their shelf for years all of a sudden has a value because it has a story, and no one really thought about it this way before."

Ubjects, therefore, serve as jumping-off points for storytelling.

Norma Asadorian, president of the Lincoln Place Heritage Association, arranged CUSP interviews with residents of that Granite City neighborhood as a way to anchor family stories with something that can be displayed in a museum. She sees CUSP as a more interesting approach to history than just getting an interview on tape.

But taping the interviews is essential, Asadorian believes, because otherwise something gets lost when stories are passed from generation to generation. For immigrants, that something may be the emotional memory of a devastating crisis followed by a turn toward hope.

"Oral history projects record the American experiences of people who were escaping war, genocide, and ethnic persecution, and searching for economic opportunity," says Asadorian.

The power of stories gives CUSP its impact as a teaching tool. "The neat thing about students doing the interviewing is that it really brings the history home for them," says Reuter. "History changes from an abstract concept into real stories about real lives."

Smith, recalling the CUSP interviews she did as her student project, remembers one thing in particular.

"Pride -- in their families and in their backgrounds," she says. "That came out as a theme for everyone."

Some regional family histories begin elsewhere -- Ohio, for example -- whereas other families have traveled widely through the military, bringing with them items from around the world.

"All in all," says Reuter, "we have these really cosmopolitan connections that haven't been exposed, made visible. That's what we want this to do."


Southwestern Illinois is more than just somewhere south of Chicago or southeast of St. Louis. The region resists a one-size-fits-all identity, as shown by this year's trio of featured cities. Consider, for example, the diversity of just one local neighborhood, Lincoln Place in Granite City.

At a recent fundraiser called "A Taste of Lincoln Place," the menu featured Mexican tacos, Macedonian white bean stew, meat-stuffed Armenian grape leaf dolma, Italian lasagna, German apple strudel, fruit-filled Hungarian cookies, Scottish whiskey cake and more.

All those different cooking pots tell the story of an American melting pot.  "During one of our historical celebrations we counted 37 different cultures," says Asadorian.

Since the early arrivals were mostly Hungarian, uptowners first called it Hunky Hollow. This morphed into Hungry Hollow during the Great Depression. But when the residents finally named their neighborhood, they called it Lincoln Place.

"The immigrants felt that Lincoln stood for everything that was the American dream," says Asadorian.

Asadorian's grandparents -- Armenians -- were early immigrants here.

She says that her parents, like others of their generation, "grew up with one foot in the immigrant experience and one foot in the American experience."

"These Europeans arrived in America with the hope that they would be able to make a new start," Asadorian says. "It took perseverance and hard work, the kind of work that seems unimaginable today, under circumstances that people would no longer tolerate."

Although still neatly kept, the neighborhood has changed. Lincoln Place's array of once-thriving small businesses faded along with the closing of the graniteware plant that gave Granite City its name. American dreamers moved on, looking for better jobs, better lives.

"All of the original immigrants are gone," Asadorian says. "And their children are slipping away."

This gives pause to an anthropologist like Lewis-Harris. "There are so many people whose stories need to be told before they pass on," she says.

Lewis-Harris recalls one student's reaction to Lincoln Place.

"At first, she said it looks just like her home -- Gary, Indiana," says Lewis-Harris. "But once we started the interviews, she was stunned at all the variety, all the different groups that were there."

That's the sort of reaction the CUSP team hopes for when the second annual harvest of heartland ubjects -- storytellers all -- find new life in their home away from home.

Eric S. Young is a freelance writer.