For Katie Knight, an artist and museum curator in Montana, a journey to turn hateful speech into uplifting art started with a stash of 4,000 books.
Knight said she’s surprised that she’s still working on the “Speaking Volumes” exhibit so many years later. “I am often dismayed by current events that are heartbreaking,” she said, noting that the exhibit is as relevant as it ever was.
The day after nonprofit agency Utah Humanities signed a contract to bring the exhibit to Utah, a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., prompted street violence and led to the death of anti-hate counterprotester Heather Heyer.
Knight was education curator at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Mont., when an anti-bigotry group, the Montana Human Rights Network, came into possession of the books, donated by a man who had defected from a local white-supremacy group. They were copies of a dozen titles by Ben Klassen, a notorious white separatist whose books included “The White Man’s Bible.”
About 500 copies were donated to organizations that research hate groups. That left the museum, which had partnered with the human rights network, with 3,500 copies on its hands.
“A person might be tempted to torch them,” Knight said this week. “But people like us who support freedom of expression, we don’t burn books.”
Art, she decided, was the answer. “Rarely does a group of artists have a chance to get their hands on materials that they can manipulate for art,” Knight said.
She invited a dozen artists whose work covered social-justice themes to create art that turned the hate speech in Klassen’s books on its head. She also opened the doors to any artist who wanted to submit a work.
“Some artists actually manipulated the books themselves,” Knight said. “Others worked with the text. Other artists didn’t touch the physical material, but touched on the issues of xenophobia and profiling.”
By the time the original exhibit opened in Helena in 2008, 99 works by 60 artists were chosen for display. (The touring show features work by 30 artists.)
“The work is emotionally compelling and opens us up to talk about different issues,” Knight said. “It appeals to different types of personalities. Some of them are intellectual, some are more visceral.”
Sometimes the serious topic is handled with a bit of whimsy. Take Miguel Guillen’s “The Cooling Table,” which shows a kitchen counter with cookies just out of the oven and being decorated. The cookies are in the shape of letters, spelling out the word HATE. In the drawer below the counter, one of Klassen’s volumes sits where a cookbook would normally go.
“It’s so direct and simple,” Knight said. “That’s one that gets a good strong response.”
Utah Humanities is supporting the touring exhibit’s Utah shows in Ogden and a just-completed five-month run at the Springville Museum of Art.
Michael McLane, director of the Utah Center for the Book, heard about the show from a poet friend in Colorado and worked to get it to Utah.
The exhibit, McLane said, “was developed with post-9/11 sentiments.” More recently, though, “the national discourse has been regressing at a rapid pace.”
Response to the exhibit’s run in Springville was “overwhelmingly positive,” McLane said. “We expected backlash of some sort, especially in a small conservative town.” But the only complaint registered, McLane said, was from one man who protested the Springville museum’s permanent exhibit of Soviet-era paintings.
Knight heard about one incident at Springville, where a young woman brought her racist relatives to the exhibit. “She couldn’t quite tell them in advance what they were going to see,” Knight said. “They had an opportunity to talk about these really difficult, divisive subjects in a way that was not blaming. It was really fertile grounds for her family to examine some of their values.”
Knight said she believes the exhibit demonstrates the power of love over hate.
“I’m an idealist and an educator, so I have this belief we can learn to overcome our weaknesses and our inhumanity,” she said. “I have to believe that through education, we’re going to become more just and fair and peaceful.”
’Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate’
The touring art exhibition “Speaking Volumes: Transforming Hate” includes works by 30 artists that seek to create uplifting messages out of white-supremacist books. Created by the Montana Human Rights Network, supported by Utah Humanities.
Where • Ogden Union Station, 2501 Wall Ave., Ogden.
When • Friday, June 15, through Labor Day, Sept. 3.
Hours • Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Sundays.
Admission • Free.