The saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me” has always struck me as hopeful but distinctly improbable these days. Why do some people think being called “pretty” is not a compliment? How do people describe themselves and others and why do they choose those words? How do the words we use change over time or depending on to whom we are talking?
This interactive project asks participants to use stones with descriptive words written on them to explore questions of identity and community. It can be used by groups and at events for community building, identity exploration, mediation/self-esteem exercises, and word exploration for students and adult writers, including playwrights and poets. The installation includes a 6-foot seesaw and restaurant bins marked “clean” and “dirty” for sorting the words—offering opportunities to literally “weigh words” and consider how carefully we select the words we use when we describe ourselves and others.
With about 1,500 crowd-sourced words, and growing, this project is a collaborative effort. Participants are invited to be as creative as they wish with the stones – making cairns, writing poetry, taking selfies, or simply selecting words that speak to them.
I hope visitors to this site and those who interact with the installation itself will enjoy the process of thinking about and sorting the stones and words. This is just a jumping off point for many discussions about identity, language, and human interaction. I look forward to hearing visitors’ reactions and thoughts, as well as getting feedback about the installation itself. What works and doesn’t work? Is it art? If not, what is it? You know… the usual….
The installation includes:
River stones covered with paper, each with a descriptive word written on one side. I started with about 700 words, and as of August 2021, the list is about 1,500 words long. Yes, I could have just written on the rocks and avoided the time and effort of covering them with paper. But I am a paper artist and I love covering things with paper—it abstracts objects, in this case making the stones more uniform, and references the children’s game Rock, Paper, Scissors.
The stones vary in size. Because each person will have a different interpretation of which words should weigh more, I tried to pick the sizes randomly. Some more common words are on larger stones, if only to make them easier to find. For the list of words, follow this link or see the Word list page. If you think that a word is missing, let me know, and I will add it.
A seesaw with bowls on either end into which people can put rocks that describe themselves to see how they compare – literally see which side has more weight. Among the many possible ways to use the seesaw are: One person can fill both sides of the seesaw – one side with what they consider positive attributes and the other with negative, or one side with how they see themselves and the other with how they think people see them. Or two people can fill the bowls, each describing themselves or each other. See the Seesaw activities page for more info.
Two dish vats for sorting “clean” and “dirty” words. These were fairly self-explanatory. I hoped people would think about why they designate some words as “clean” and others as “dirty.” How do words change in different contexts or when used by different people?
A recycling bin for “used” words. This was mostly an excuse to remind people to recycle, because it is one of my obsessions, and hey, it’s my installation….
A trash can for words that you want to remove from circulation. Perhaps you find them offensive. Perhaps you have a young child with you and you don’t want them to see “bad” words. As long as you tell me (either personally or by writing in the notebook on site) why you removed a word you may put it in the bin. But know that anyone else is allowed to take words out of the bin if they want to, and they have to tell me why they want to take words out.
Some extra bowls for sorting and moving stones/words around.
Previous venues – I have presented the project publicly three times – first at at Artomatic 2012 in Crystal City, VA (blog entry here), then in the outdoor arts festival FIGMENT NY in June 2013 (blog entry here), and most recently at the Atlas Intersections Festival in Washington (DC) in early 2016 (blog entry here).
The project is available for diversity training sessions for corporations and non-profits; and I am looking for opportunities to work with prison communities, returning military veterans, and other populations dealing with issues of recovery and self-awareness. I have worked with teachers to develop exercises for students from early readers through college, sometimes using more focused groups of words, to explore topics such as empathy, identity, and bilingual language learning.
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