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Heading Into Election Season, Johnson County Library Starts A 'Witness' Program

Courtesy Sharon Rodriguez
'Howard Johnson,' one of the photos in Sharon Rodriguez's 'Shining Light on Homeless in Johnson County' series in the Johnson County Library's 'Bear Witness' exhibition.

As election season cranks into post-Labor Day fury, the Johnson County Library wants to provoke conversations about democracy and activism.

It's doing so with events titled Bear Witness, kicking off on Thursday with an art opening intended to “bear witness to the events and issues of the past and present, and to postulate those in the future.”

One literal witness is photographer Sharon Rodriguez, who has spent the past year interviewing and taking photographs of homeless people in Johnson County.

“I count myself as a typical Johnson County person, thinking, ‘Wait, we don’t have homeless,’” Rodriguez says.

That changed after Rodriguez noticed a tarp in the trees while she was walking on the trail near her home in Olathe. Rodriguez, who volunteers serving meals to homeless and low-income people at Grace United Methodist Church, mentioned the tarp to the New Hope Food Pantry manager, who confirmed that homeless people were living in those woods.

Wanting to help, Rodriguez at first hoped to photograph people in the camp. Her contacts at social service agencies discouraged that approach, so Rodriguez asked people who came to the food pantry whether they wanted to participate in her project.

The people she photographed, Rodriguez says, were happy to talk.

“I found out there are many definitions of homeless – people who live on the street, or who live with folks for a day or two, or a week or two or a month, and then they move on. That’s been a real education for me,” she says.

“The interview piece seemed to break a lot of barriers,” Rodriguez notes. “That’s why this show is so important to me: to give this group of invisible people a face and a name and a story.”

A more intimate exploration occurs between the father-daughter duo of artists who call themselves Minister of Information (m.o.i) and Sarah Star. They collected cards on which library patrons anonymously answered questions such as, “What unanswered questions have you with regards to your father? Your daughter? What did you want to say to your father that you never did?”

Credit Couresty of the artists
Sarah Star and the Minister of Information recording 'Dear Father, Dear Daughter. This is my confession' at the Johnson County Library.

m.o.i. and Sarah then went into the library’s MakerSpace recording room and, “without any prep, read these to each other as though the other had written it. Then we tried to respond as openly and honestly as if the question/comment came from either her or me,” m.o.i. tells KCUR.

In a culture of sharing, the artists note, "conversational intimacy often drowns in endless waves of social media information. Social media sharing leaves part of the story untold; we share only what we wish to reveal and hold back important, revealing parts of us. Friends “like” our public face but don’t know our hidden personas."

The idea behind Dear Father, Dear Daughter. This is My Confession, they say, is to create “a public space for overhearing the private,” to “give voice to the neglected conversation, the one that should have happened, but did not.”

One of the conversations they recorded is called "Dear Daughter: I Know Your Ringtone For Me Is 'American Horror Story'":

Also interested in sharing personal stories in a public way is Judith G. Levy, who reprises the "Family Memoir" installation of provocative signs originally shown at the Charlotte Street Foundation's la Esquina gallery last year.

Other artists in the exhibit include Tommy Frank, a ceramicist who says his interest is in "the domination of one force over another" and that his work "questions how America's economic downturn has influenced the state of the world."  

His ceramic piggy banks are "a commentary on big banks and capitalism," says Joseph Keehn, the library’s event producer and the exhibition's curator.

Keehn also sought work by Harold Smith, whose abstract paintings, Keehn says, "deal with media representation of African Americans;" Austin Chapman, whose silk-screens and collages "are based on personal memories and experiences in different public situations;" Erin Zona, whose Zz School of Print Media promotes "the democratic art form" of printmaking; and Anthony Rea, a 2016 Rocket Grant recipient for Where We No Longer Gather: Liberty Memorial, Penn Valley Park and Public Queer Looks.

Keehn says the idea for the exhibit came about through meetings with members of the library’s community who participated in its long-range planning process.

“One of the discussions was about activism, democracy, and how does the library respond to that. This group of community members came up with this theme for us to investigate.”

For this exhibit, Keehn looked for artists he knew were already exploring the theme in one way or another.

“This is a small sampling of what Kansas City regional artists are doing in terms of activism through art practice,” he says. “It’s by no means a complete cross section. I call it a random sampling because there are so many voices in the artist community and so many topics being touched on."

In addition to the group show at the Central Library, each artist will have smaller solo shows at branch locations throughout the fall. Also on the Bear Witness schedule are debate watch parties, book clubs and panel discussions on topics such as gun safety.

Rodriguez wonders whether any of the homeless people she photographed will see themselves in this larger context. She has some phone numbers, but at least one is in jail and others had moved to other states or she had lost track of them.

"They’re transient," she notes. "I was hoping to get a hold of a couple for this show, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that or not."

Bear Witness opens with a reception at 5:30 on Thursday, September 8, followed by an author talk with Greg Neri, whose young-adult graphic novel Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty won the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Honor, beginning at 6:30 at the Johnson County Library, 9875 W 87th St, Overland Park, Kansas, 66212.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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