A guest blog post by Barbara McMichael about a small, community-building project, that 4Culture recently funded in Des Moines:
“I may be the only vegetarian who’s ever come to one of your meetings,” I joked, but the Trout Unlimited members made me feel right at home. In fact, they were enthused about the matter I’d brought before them – the first public art project I’d ever attempted.
I’ve frequently enjoyed public art as an interested passerby. But I never thought of myself as someone who could create a public art project – until this year when 4Culture put out a call for art projects and specified that it wanted to reach underserved communities in the county.
Why not someplace like my hometown of Des Moines?
The challenge was, how to give people in underserved communities the encouragement to express themselves? And, in an increasingly diverse society, how to create common ground for that expression?
I hit upon the idea of reinterpreting the ages-old Native American custom of celebrating the return of the salmon. My Czech-Scotch-Irish-American parents came here from Nebraska in the 1950s, so I don’t have deep roots in the Pacific Northwest – but even so, I am wowed by the story of the salmon’s life cycle.
My notion was to create fishtail banners on which people could write messages or draw designs to welcome the salmon home. We’d string these up like prayer flags across the pedestrian bridges crossing Des Moines’ salmon-spawning streams. It might prompt people to pause and take a look – at the banners, and for any returning fish. It would be an exercise in environmental awareness as well as creativity.
I set about dyeing muslin, designing a fishtail template, and cutting out hundreds of banners.
The fellows at Trout Unlimited and a King County stream biologist provided valuable information. School librarians and the Des Moines Parks Department’s after-school program distributed the banners to students. Staff at KCLS’ Des Moines and Woodmont Libraries created a salmon-related reading list and let me conduct banner-decorating workshops for library patrons. The Des Moines Senior Services staff welcomed me to two senior lunches – one catering to Des Moines’ Hispanic population. Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center (MaST) let me set up a table at the aquarium’s weekly open house. The Arts Commission hosted my project at its booth at the local farmers market.
When all was said and done, more than 350 folks — bikers and grandmas, politicians, tots, scientists and more — all picked up markers and bent over banners to create their own unique messages and designs. A Native American elder in a wheelchair reminisced about her father’s customary fishing spots as she drew on a banner. I chatted with longtime locals and with new residents from Pakistan, Peru and Russia.
We talked about salmon and the health of local streams. We contemplated the effects of global climate change and compared notes on the waterways where we’d grown up. And together we created a work of public art that expresses – in a myriad of ways – what it means to come home.
Banners created for the Words of Welcome Salmon Homecoming Project are on display for the rest of this month along McSorley, Massey and Des Moines Creeks. Easiest viewing is at Saltwater State Park and Des Moines Beach Park/Des Moines Creek Trail.