The Lichtenstein Theater at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill has a very specific environment: black curtains and concrete floors, with bright overhead lights.In that stark setting, members of the community on Friday discussed their thoughts about the state of America. Called the 2017 People’s State of the Union Story Circle, the public event was one of many held nationwide every year, where attendees ages 15 and older gather in groups and tell stories about their life and feelings about where they stand in today’s America.
The concept of the story circle was adopted by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, an artists’ collective separate from the federal government, which aims to integrate the numerous elements of modern culture and social harmony.
At the museum in Water Mill, five tables were used to split the attendees into groups. At each table, a moderator facilitated discussion, while a note-taker recorded stories and thoughts so they could be posted on the USDAC’s online platform to showcase the wide range of experiences that participants have gone through.
Some of these experiences included visual moments. Dan Kelly of Southampton spoke about watching CNN early that afternoon and seeing South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, President Donald Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, arrive at the UN building in New York City. It made him think back to the funeral of his great-uncle, a veteran, and his burial at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, next to his mother, Mr. Kelly’s great-grandmother.
Mr. Kelly said that generation of his family were immigrants from Ireland, which gave special meaning to where his great-grandmother and great-uncle were buried.
“Where they were buried, you could see the UN building across the bay,” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s when my uncle said, ‘This is a good place for an immigrant to be buried.’ That really stuck with me, because immigration is still an ongoing issue today that’s still breaking through barriers.”
Joffre Contreras of Springs, 19, talked about the difficulty of breaking through language barriers while growing up. After immigrating to America at age 6, he talked about the loneliness he felt as the only Hispanic child at his school, one who could barely speak English. Today, he sees improvement. “I think language impacts a community greatly,” he said. “I hear about a lot of bilingual teachers helping kids, which is great. And there can always be more.”
Others talked about how much more there is to know about other people. Erika Heilmann of East Setauket talked about her time teaching farming techniques to school kids in the Corona neighborhood of Queens last year. She made friends with a janitor named Mary from Oaxaca, Mexico, and they had frequent talks about farming techniques, with Mary clearly having the upper hand when it came to knowledge.
“She joked that ‘I should be doing your job,’ and I joked back, ‘You should be doing my job!’” she said. “I thought about the audacity people like me had about teaching farming to kids. It made me feel disconnected, but in a healthy way. It would be ridiculous not to ask these people for their insight and spiritual connection to farming. Maybe society doesn’t have enough empathy and compassion for the other side.”
At the event on Friday night, a group of East End poets listened in and took notes, as they plan to write poetry inspired by the stories they heard and read them aloud at the Parrish’s Poetry Night on April 7. One of the poets in attendance, Joe Lamport of East Quogue, was attentive throughout the night and seemed to walk away with plenty to work with.
“Poetry is all about voice, and this event tonight is an exercise in finding a collective voice,” Mr. Lamport said. “A poet doesn’t really have to add much with this collective voice present here.”
“I think the reading on April 7 with the poets adds another, deeper layer to the Story Circle,” said Corinne Erni, curator of special projects at the museum and organizer of the event. “The power of art to create a collective truth that will resonate with a larger audience.”