MARQUETTE - People can usually tell when Mary Wright has been in town.
Over the last few years, the Upper Peninsula-based artist has used public participation to create large, collaborative works of community art. In her wake, she has left hundreds of blue and white chairs, dozens of wooden doors and a handful of totem poles.
This time around, Wright is hoping to leave behind a story. Or, more accurately, thousands of stories.
Bothwell Middle School teacher Jean Lawless, right, and student helper Tyler Boyle work on a hot press to transfer stories to sheets of fabric recently in the classroom. (Journal photo by Andy Nelson-Zaleski)
Her newest undertaking, the Story Line community art project, involves school children and citizens from around the central and western U.P. telling the story of an ancestor.
"Mostly, I'm focusing on schools, but anybody is able to submit a story and a photo and have it produced," said Wright, who is working with school districts in eight U.P. counties on the project.
The project is intended to go hand-in-hand with the premiere of "Rockland," an opera focusing on the struggles faced by underpaid, overworked Rockland miners who went on strike in 1906. The opera, written by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola, will premiere in July in Houghton and Nivala, Finland.
The Story Line project, funded largely by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, will complement the opera's theme, which Wright said she believes is strength in the face of adversity. She said the miners overcame a great deal.
"As a result, their descendants' lives have been better," she said. "It's my belief that each of us comes from a string of ancestors whose lives illustrate that theme."
Participants are directed to identify an ancestor that embodies the theme and to write the story of their life in the first person. The story is accompanied by a picture or drawing of the subject.
Next, the story is put into digital form and printed out on special paper. Using a heat press at more than 400 degrees, the story is transferred onto a piece of fabric. The stories are then strung end-to-end on a cord for display.
Jean Lawless, a seventh-grade teacher at Bothwell Middle School in Marquette, has been coordinating the efforts at her school. She said that with volunteer assistance, she has run hundreds of stories through the heat press.
"The kids have been so excited to see the final products," she said.
Seventh-grader Tyler Boyle has been staying after school to help Lawless with the work.
"They're all amazing stories because you didn't really know what people had to overcome to be here," he said. "Then you get to read these stories as you're pressing them."
Wright said some of the stories she has seen so far have been simple, like that of the Croatian immigrant woman who in the early 1900s bought and cleared 80 acres of land along with her husband. And some have been stunning, like the story of Abraham Lincoln's childhood, written by his great-great-great-niece, a student at Bothwell.
However, all are inspiring, said Wright, who added that the stories will be archived after the project is over.
"It's important that these stories never evaporate."
While she is only actively recruiting stories in the U.P., Wright said she will accept them from anyone and she hopes to have 6,000 to 8,000 by the end of the project. She said she would like to display them somewhere in Marquette before they are hung up at Michigan Tech University this summer.
Anyone who would like to contribute to the project can submit a story online at www.thestorylineproject.com.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.