SPRINGVILLE — Thirteen books standing upright, with titles that read "The White Man’s Bible," "Nature’s Eternal Religion" and "RAHOWA!" — an acronym for racial holy war — are displayed with 13 knitted hats, each a different color with a different stitch, carefully placed on top of them, as if to protect them.
At first glance, such an image might seem like a promotion of these books, but as Katie Knight, museum curator for the Holter Museum of Art in Montana, explained, “People come up with many different interpretations, but a lot of people are led to reflect on something that was created just for them and how that made them feel … It gives insight into the (neo-Nazis) perpetrators and the need for compassion.”
This display of books by artist Jane Deshner is just one piece in a large exhibition titled "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" that will be housed in the Springville Museum of Art through June 2 and then at the Ogden Union Station from June 15-Sept. 3 thanks to a collaboration with Utah Humanities.
Knight began curating the exhibition over 10 years ago, and it started in a way she could never have predicted.
Books exchanged for safety
In December 2003, Christine Kaufmann, the network co-director at the Montana Human Rights Network, an organization that works to counteract the activities of white supremacist and other racist groups in the Montana area, received an unexpected phone call.
It was an individual from a group called the Creativity Movement who went by the initials JR to protect his identity. At the time, JR was second in command for the northwest faction of the group.
In their brief initial conversation, he said he had recently experienced a change in his ideals and was looking for help getting out of the state of Montana and away from his involvement in the Creativity Movement.
Along with his request for help, JR offered an intriguing proposal.
JR explained that he was in possession of a storage locker containing around 4,100 copies of the Creativity Movement’s “bibles” — books written by the Creativity Movement’s founder, Ben Klassen. JR offered to sell these books to the MHRN for the sum of $300, just enough to help him get out of the state and away from the Creators (the name for members of the Creativity Movement) safely.
As Travis McAdam, research director for the MHRN explained in a recent interview, getting out of a white supremacist group is never an easy task, and it can be even more complicated for people when they hold positions of power within their organization.
“(JR’s) whole world had become wrapped up in the Creativity Movement,” McAdam said.
It is rare for someone so embedded in an organization like the Creativity Movement to leave, so the MHRN approached JR’s proposal with great caution.
JR initially made it seem like he had simply woken up one day with a change of heart, said McAdam. But through further discussion, they realized “the reality was a little more complex,” McAdam said. McAdam explained that the mother of JR’s children had expressed concern over raising their children with the influence of the Creativity Movement and that her concern seemed to have sparked a slow change in JR that led to his decision to defect.
"I think it’s a bit hard for those of us who aren’t in the movement to understand what that means (to try to leave),” McAdam said, explaining that it would be like "(cutting) off all communication and relationships with everyone that I normally see socially at any level.”
Additionally, McAdam explained that in most cases, individuals who leave such groups are labeled as race traitors and run the risk of being threatened or killed by the other group members.
In an effort to help JR and knowing that the books served as the main income stream for the Creators, the MHRN was eager to pull these books out of their possession and out of circulation. At $10 a copy, the stockpile of books would remove a possible $41,000 from the Creativity Movement’s funding.
After a careful review of the legalities involved, ensuring the protection of the MHRN as the new owners of the books, the directors of the MHRN and law enforcement from the area accompanied JR to the storage locker with two U-Haul trucks where they purchased the books for $300. They then helped ensure that JR got safely out of the state and away from the Creators.
McAdam explained that the network also was interested in the books for research purposes. Copies could easily be purchased through online message boards and even Amazon.com, but they had been unwilling to buy copies because they didn’t want to support the group by contributing to their funds.
“Being able to evaluate and talk about what these groups really believe, in their own words when nobody is looking, is a really valuable part of helping communities understand them and organize against them,” McAdam said.
With a few thousand copies in their possession, the MHRN sent out copies to various academics, researchers and law enforcement agencies so that the books could be analyzed and evaluated. But even after sending out many copies, the MHRN was still left with around 3,500 books, and unsure what to do with them.
Making art out of hate
McAdam said the MHRN joked about the idea of burning the books, but felt that doing so would betray its ideals of education. In a staff meeting, someone posed the idea of turning them into art. McAdam said initially they had envisioned using the books to make paper mache heads of Martin Luther King Jr. or something of that nature.
“We had third-grade level art projects in mind,” he said. “But we thought if there was a way to take these books and talk about the content that is overtly racist and white supremacist, and turn it into something that could help promote dialogue and thinking about why (such ideas) are dangerous to our communities … that could be really neat.”
It was that line of thought that led them to partner with Knight.
Through their partnership, they were able to send copies of the books to artists all over the country with the request to transform the books and their message of hate. When the artists started sending their work to the Holter, both the museum and the MHRN were amazed by the results.
“I don’t think any of us conceived of the kind of beauty that would develop from the books,” Knight said in a podcast interview with Leni Holliman on "At Large."
After seeing some of the pieces, McAdam said he was amazed by how the art could influence people to think and talk about issues in a very different way. And that’s exactly what Knight said she is hoping people will be able to do when viewing the exhibit.
“My belief is that education and enlightenment will help us have greater justice in the world, but it’s a struggle,” Knight said. “The idea of using art to address social content, which is ultimately political content. … Some people think that art should stay out of that realm. But in fact, I think art that doesn’t address the issues of our time is art that is merely decorative and safe, and ultimately props up the status quo.”
"Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate" debuted at the Holter Museum in 2008, and addresses social content and current political issues. As the curator of the show, Knight has often been asked to contextualize the show by offering parallel exhibitions in comparison. But she said that “there’s almost nothing I can find in which a diverse group of artists had the opportunity to begin with the same raw material" and ended with such “visually diverse pieces.”
In other words, this show, much like each of its pieces and artists, is one of a kind.
“That’s kind of the strength of the show,” Knight said.
The exhibit has shown nearly continuously for the 10 years since its opening in Montana in 2008. It toured first to various museums around Montana and then in 2011, it began a national tour. Now, it lands in Utah, thanks to a collaboration with Utah Humanities, stopping first at the Springville Museum of Art and then at Ogden Union Station.
Springville's museum director Dr. Rita R. Wright said, “We are in a time in our cultural, social history where we’re just trying to make other people aware of some of the ways that we divide ourselves according to race, religion and gender. We’re just hoping to give the students — and all the visitors of this exhibition — an opportunity to self-reflect and consider how they treat other people.”
“A lot of what we’re trying to do with this show is to humanize our sentiments and policies toward everyone in a very inclusive way,” said Knight. “It’s difficult for example, especially for some of us who are social justice advocates, to feel compassionate toward neo-Nazis.
"But there are a couple pieces in the show that people have had some really profound engagement with, that have helped them see the humanity in even the author of the books."
A worthwhile investment
The exhibit is all about transformation by taking negative, ugly things and turning them into something positive and beautiful. As Wright explained, many of the experiences and themes expressed by the exhibit are relatable for children who experience prejudice and discrimination with bullying.
“We want to be able to start very young with encouraging the children to transform these feelings of discrimination and anger … into something positive in their world," Wright said. "They can become a force for good, just as these artists in the exhibition who transformed hateful violent literature into these works of art.”
Another insight that Knight hopes people gain from the exhibit is that there is a difference between prejudice and discrimination.
“Part of my motivation is to help people understand that we’re all prejudice, we’re part of a certain group (that) we feel more comfortable in … that’s the prejudice that we maybe have a personal struggle with," Knight said. "But discrimination is rather a societal problem in which there is systematic oppression of specific groups. So we’re trying to help audiences recognize this spectrum between personal prejudice and the societal impact of valuing some groups over others.”
In the beginning stages, no one could have predicted the success of this exhibit, but those who were involved in its creation couldn’t be happier about its success and widespread reach.
“Some people are like, oh, it’s amazing that you got these books and turned it into an art project … but for us, that idea came so much later,” McAdam said. “The work we do is important stuff, but it can be a little depressing, and I think that one of the things with 'Speaking Volumes' is that it is such an overall positive exhibit and program.
“Considering what our primary interests were at the time of getting the books … just being able to help JR and get the books would have been a big win. … But I think if you put it in terms of, 'have we gotten our money’s worth from that $300 we gave to JR?' Absolutely. It was definitely worth it, for a lot of reasons.”
If you go …
What: "Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate"
Where: Springville Museum of Art, 126 E. 400 South, Springville
When: Jan. 17-June 2, 2018
Special Event: Evening for Educators featuring exhibition curator Katie Knight. Wednesday, March 14, 6-9 p.m.
Where: Ogden Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave, Ogden
When: June 15-Sept. 3, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.