Middlefield art installation deals with identity, change, belonging   

reporter photo

MIDDLEFIELD — A one-day art installation next weekend seeks to create a community conversation about identity, change and belonging.

“Hopefully it's going to be a dialogue between the material we collected out west and the material I've collected here in the east…, (and) how we think about who we are and where we live… and the people around us,” said Ellen Smith Ahern, the lead artist and a Durham resident. 

She added that the project, called “East/West” encompasses many walks of life.

The free interactive installation will be open Nov. 10, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the community center, 405 Main St. A family-friendly dance party with DJ Red Supreme will follow.

The display will feature several stations for visitors to interact with the material, including a dance film, audio interviews, and an opportunity to record stories or memories. 

At one station, a local art teacher will lead the making of a paper quilt. Visitors will also be able to markup maps of the east and west locations. Coginchaug Regional High School students are also expected to contribute.

“We really want to offer people an experience with multiple points of access,” Smith Ahern said. “So if dance is not your thing and you want to watch it for a little bit, but you don't feel like it brings you in or it resonates with you, there's four other windows into the work.”

The project was first created about 10 years ago when Smith Ahern and a friend from college started putting together a duet performance piece with a playful take on the west, titled “3D Western.” The piece has since continued to evolve and was filmed while the two did a two-week residency at an artistic foundation in Wyoming about two years ago. 

While in rural Wyoming they interviewed a variety of locals, including wildlife biologists, range specialists, an antique seller and a Native American studies professor. 

“It's been really a very challenging process, but really fulfilling and interesting,” Smith Ahern said. “As the social and political climate has shifted in the last couple of years, this kind of project to me feels really important because we have so many perceived differences dividing us… I think that some of those differences are real and some of them deserve a closer look.” 

Next weekend’s event took life more than a year ago when Smith Ahern applied for a grant from the Coginchaug Valley Educational Foundation.

Nancy Earls, the foundation’s president, said the proposal was unusual, unique and ambitious.

“It's going to be a really thoughtful presentation that people can talk about,” she said.

The local part of the project involved 30 interviews with people ages 6 to 101. 

“I think this is an important story to tell because we're actively questioning our local and national identity right now and we have the opportunity to make social and political choices that are inclusive, that acknowledge that most of us share a connection on some level as immigrants,” Smith Ahern said.

Smith Ahern’s creative partner Kate Elias, who resides in Seattle, will attend the event at the community center.

Twitter: @baileyfaywright

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