By Anna McCarthy
Bob Ellison has lived in Richmond since 1930, and has a treasure trove of stories about the city that have finally found an outlet.
“Some of these stories, I’ve never told anyone before,” said Ellison. “Shannon was interested, so I said, well, this is a good way for me to show my ego off a little bit. I knew I was an old guy, but being an old guy I know something. I’m an asset. A resource.”
Ellison is one of many voices featured in Shannon Flattery’s newly renovated oral history project, Touchable Stories, which opens on Friday this week near the Port of Richmond. The stories featured in the exhibit, which is sponsored mainly by the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, are all about Richmond. And they’re not just “Touchable.” They’re also audible and edible.
“In our Tent Cities room you can walk over to the corner of the room and grab a cold drink,” said Flattery.
The Tent Cities room is literally a large, white canvas tent meant to recreate a night scene from the Tent Cities Peace Movement, a nonprofit organization working to curb escalations of violence in Richmond. Inside the tent, a ring of chairs encircle a large oil drum that crackles as though there is a fire inside. Viewers must sit in these chairs in order to watch a short film about Tent Cities, which is projected on the ceiling of the tent.
In short, this exhibit is more of an experience than an art show.
A typical viewer will join a group of around 15 others and tour 10 rooms in a matter of one hour. Each room has a different theme under the larger umbrella of Richmond’s recent and ancient history.
But Flattery’s show goes further than the exhibit experience, and she says that her mission is to spark dialogue. Not just the dialogue of the voices featured in her show, but also the secondary dialogue that occurs among the people moving through her exhibit.
“If you have local people in the group, they’re so proud that they know the story, and they’re reciting whole other pieces of it along with everyone else,” Flattery said. “It’s one of those rare chances for them to say, ‘yeah, I’m from Richmond, I know that. And here’s more of it.’”
Flattery says that there’s no safe place for people to meet and talk in Richmond, and Touchable Stories is trying to alleviate that problem. In addition to the exhibit space, Flattery hosts dinners at different locations around Richmond bi-monthly that are open to the public.
“The only question at the table is who are you, and what’s important?” Flattery said.
She says that sometimes these dinners are tense because the issues they discuss are often sensitive. But everyone always comes back. As well as taking part in her show, Ellison also regularly attends Flattery’s dinner parties.
Ellison says that both the dinners and the exhibit have taught him quite a bit about Richmond.
“Something has been added to what I was impressed with as a youth,” Ellison said. “Now I have more stories, and different perspectives.”
Flattery says that this Friday’s opening is especially exciting for her because, of the five Touchable Stories exhibits she has created all over the country, she’s trying something new in Richmond.
“This time around, we did something that we have never done before, which is that we opened last spring, ran a series of dinner performances and said, ‘what’s missing?’” said Flattery.
Richmond told her what was missing: Native American history, the Richmond shoreline, and the blues. In response, Flattery has added three new rooms to her exhibit, and completely renovated the other seven rooms.
“Three of the stories, they asked us to go further into. Latino history, toxic legacies, and the Tent City Peace movement,” Flattery said.
In 1996, Flattery began working on her first oral history project in Allston, Massachusetts, with the mission of collecting stories and histories from community members living in marginalized communities.
“The original idea for the project was to get their stories out, the ones they really wanted to hear that were beyond the headlines,” Flattery said. “But it was also to network those communities together because people are working really hard and burnout is really common.”
Her first show sold out.
“Over the years, not only have these communities started connecting with one another, but these exhibits actually bring resources to the communities because they open up this dialogue that’s so real, that funders can’t ignore it,” Flattery said.
She says that her shows have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the neighborhoods they have worked in simply because her organization has actually heard what the communities want, and really know where to target the funding.
“That’s not something I started out with,” Flattery said. “That’s something that happened along the way.”
Flattery found Richmond in 2004 when a trusted friend suggested she look at the community. Fascinated by Richmond’s history, Flattery moved in and began to immerse herself in the city.
“Richmond’s really known for being inundated by outsiders who have all kinds of ideas, but never stay. So they’re really sensitive to it,” Flattery said.
She thought she would get backlash from being an outsider, but found the people she spoke with had an immediately positive response to her idea for the exhibit.
Funders responded positively as well.
Flattery set up a two-year art residency with UC Berkeley’s art resource center. Along with a few other small grants and a building donation from the city, Flattery went to work putting together her first show in Richmond.
It sold out.
As for round two, Flattery expects the show to sell-out again.
“Everyone comes,” said Flattery. “I’ve got calls in from funders, I’ve got calls in from local people, from the people at Berkeley, from arts people. The more mixed the groups are, the more interesting the show.”
Flattery says that her work in Richmond has really just begun. She hopes her exhibit will add to the growing trend of looking at history to unite a divided city, and that new resources to pursue this goal will crop up in the near future.
“It’s a hard city to work in, because they’re used to things not working. They have a bit of a mean edge,” Flattery said. “Mean edge, but a big heart.”