World-renowned artist invokes a conversation about conversation

Sheryl Oring’s “Writer’s Block” is on display in the Stanier Gallery in the Lenfest Center of the Arts

Frances McIntosh

Internationally acclaimed artist Sheryl Oring engaged the Washington and Lee University community this week in a conversation about art, politics and activism.

On Sept. 26, Oring spoke about the role of artists in activating the public. Oring discussed her beginnings as an artist, explaining her background in journalism and her fascination with censorship.

Her installation, “Writer’s Block,” is featured in the Staniar Gallery this month. Oring said she was inspired to create this work when she visited Berlin’s Bebelplatz, the site of Nazi book-burnings in 1933.

While Oring was pursuing her journalism career overseas in Germany, she collected hundreds of typewriters from the 1920s and 1930s and placed them in rusty, steel cages. The aging typewriters, she explained, symbolize censorship, provoking her audience to contemplate their own views on freedom of speech.

Oring said she officially left her journalism career behind and began to follow an artistic path.

“[Oring] was in a place where she couldn’t understand the language, so she sought to find a common ground culturally and linguistically. Art bridges that gap,” said Annie Talton, ‘21, who was a student in the audience.

“Writer’s Block” premiered in Berlin in 1999 and was displayed in cities around the world, such as Budapest, Bryant Park and San Francisco.

Oring’s stance on censorship cultivated a conversation globally, and Oring was prepared to listen.

In 2004, she started her project “I Wish to Say,” during which she and other volunteers type letters from the public to the president of the United States.

Oring and her team sit down with typewriters at small tables in public parks and on bustling street corners, inviting those walking the street to sit down and say something to their president.

Oring described her love for conversation to the audience.

“Listening is an integral part of the work, giving people your attention” Oring said.

Listening, Oring argued, is an action that many people have forgotten in today’s political atmosphere.

“I Wish to Say” is an opportunity to explore people’s backgrounds and actively listen to public.

“The fact that one person desires to hear so many stories and perspectives is really interesting,” Joey Dickinson, ‘22, said.

Oring has transformed “I Wish to Say” into multiple different works, hosting a Chancellor edition in Germany and creating A Collective Memory in 2011 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

Oring hosted “I Wish to Say” in Lykes Atrium on Thursday, following her talk from the previous night. Both students and faculty sat down with Oring and dictated their own letter to President Donald Trump.

Oring is an assistant professor of new media and design at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She encourages her students to participate in activism.

“Sometimes when you think about changing the world it can be a bit overwhelming,” Oring said. “Pick one issue that you care about and research it. For me, it was free speech.”

Although still involved in the I Wish to Say Project, Oring continues to adapt her works and develop new projects.

Look out for Oring’s new work “Agitype: Changing the World One Letter at a Time.” The title, a combination of the words agitate and type, defines her attempt to evoke public feelings through writing letters.