A menorah. A video filled with remembrance. An aluminum panel covered in colorful handprints.
All are ways to remember events from 20 years ago that can easily fade away. All will be open to the public as part of the upcoming Not in Our Town national conference in Billings next Friday through Sunday.
On Friday morning, Julie Dial, executive director of the Western Heritage Center, gave a tour of the exhibit titled “Who Are You, Who Are We? Billings Stands Against Discrimination.”
The exhibit, designed by 23 West High students, will be unveiled at a Friday evening reception to those who attend the conference. It will remain on display until the end of the year, Dial said.
The multimedia project, part of the Community Storytelling Partnership, was a collaboration between School District 2, the Western Heritage Center, Montana PBS and the Billings Public Library.
The students’ work included gathering a lot of artifacts, many which they digitized for a video feed, and interviews with people who recall that time. One of the things the students learned, Dial said, is that a story can have many points of view.
“Through interviewing all these people they learned that there were multiple perspectives to this story that hadn’t occurred to them before,” she said.
The exhibit has a number of hands-on displays, including windshield wipers mounted on the wall that hold racist fliers that were placed on the vehicles in early 1993. It was the day when local people walked in a march for Martin Luther King Day.
Dial said when the project first began, organizers specifically chose a class of students who hadn’t been born when the events happened in 1993, so they would be forced to figure out how to relate to it.
“And they got to talk to original sources, which doesn’t happen that much in the study of history,” she said.
The students re-created the broken window that held Hanukkah decorations. Behind the window is a banner photo of the students holding signs decrying racism and hate.
They also designed a colorful piece of artwork on siding that stands as a counterpoint to a Native American couple’s home that was defaced by vandals in 1993.
While the exhibit inside will tell part of the story of 1993 in Billings, another one outside will recall another moment when people united against hate.
Three aluminum panels covered in colorful handprints will be placed on the sidewalk outside the WHC during the conference. Back in the spring of 1994, four panels, two painted bright pink and the other two orange, were tied to the side of Level 504, an artists cooperative owned by Billings architect Rich Clawson.
The undulating aluminum panels previously were used as bowling alley back panels in Laurel. They all fit together, and Clawson, who did a lot of interior design work, intended to reuse the panels in a building project.
One day he noticed they had been tagged with black paint, with words such as “weirdo” and “fag” defacing the panels. Community organizer Sara Anthony, who had been involved in efforts against the hate crimes, asked Clawson if he needed spray paint to cover the words.
Clawson, who at that time used a handprint as a logo, decided to take another route. He wanted, he said, to turn a negative into a positive.
He invited a number of people who themselves had been tagged by hate to come and join in the project. In one afternoon, the group covered the panels in turquoise, purple and orange handprints.
“The first thing they went after was the graffiti,” Clawson said. “I said the idea was to make it look like a piece of art, and people took it seriously.”
The panels got one public showing, at the first Festival of Peace at Rocky Mountain College, he said. Since then they’ve gotten grubby with dust and grime.
So Clawson spent Friday using eucalyptus soap to rejuvenate three of the four panels. He wants to display them, in an effort to remind people of what love can do.
“I think handprints are the best way to work with graffiti,” he said. “It’s like covering hate with love.”