The Peace Fence

Over Mother's Day weekend, a controversial fence that bisects two neighborhoods in Ashland, Oregon became the temporary home for an art installation entitled "The Peace Fence."

The fence itself--which sits on a 20-acre parcel of land owned by the Union Pacific Railroad Company--was installed in 2006 after a decision to postpone clean-up of 58,000 tons of soil contaminated by a rail car repair and maintenance facility sited there for nearly 100 years.

While walking along the fenceline recently, Ashland artist Jean Bakewell suddenly saw the fence in a new way--as a potential canvas. She proceeded to put out a call to friends, artists, authors, poets, and organizations--inviting them to submit cloth panels of art that reflected their personal hopes and visions regarding peace and the planet. The response was enthusiastic. Within just a few weeks, nearly 70 panels were contributed--mostly from people living within the Rogue Valley, as well as several contributions from people and organizations in California, Washington, and Canada.

What follows is a Q & A session with the artist who dreamt up the idea one morning just a few weeks ago.

Debi: What inspired you to use the fence as a canvas for creative expression regarding peace?

Jean: Having been a child of war, I've been a peace activist my entire life, protesting in one way or another. And then I read Sharon Mehdi's book, "The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering," (Viking Penguin 2005). It was so wonderful, so simple. It showed me that just one person can make a difference.

Several weeks ago, walking along the fenceline and thinking about my brother and sister-in-law who had both recently died, I suddenly saw that the fence--which has been so controversial and considered such an eyesore--was actually a gift. I saw that we could use it as a place to creatively express our visions for peace and the well being of the planet. I shared the idea with friends, and it was a ripple effect from there. I started getting calls and emails from people I didn't even know, people wanting to contribute. So many people have helped make it happen, and the panels are just absolutely incredible.

Debi: You say that you're a "child of war." Could you explain?

Jean: I was born in May of 1939 in the seaside resort of New Brighton, England. The bombing started in September. New Brighton is located directly across the River Mersey from Liverpool--which was a primary target for the Germans. Our little town just happened to be in their path, and consequently received rather heavy bombing. The first word I said was bomb. "What do the Germans do, Luv?" my mom would ask. "Bomb," I'd answer before running with my doll to the makeshift bomb shelter in the cupboard under the stairs. I was two.

My growing up was: neighbors dying, blood in the streets, our roof being blown off, playing on bombed out sites and in burnt out buildings, living with food shortages, collecting wood from wrecked ships to use as fuel, and yet . . . to have experienced it all feels like a gift. To have done without, be hungry, cold, make do, share--brought us all together.

Debi: You said that you've been a peace activist your entire life, could you elaborate?

Jean: In the late 1970's, after reading the book "Nuclear Madness" by Dr. Helen Caldicott, I got involved in protests at Diablo Canyon, Lawrence Livermore Labs, and the Concord Weapons Station. Then in April 1983 I went to the Peace Camp in Greenham Common, England, where 50,000 women came from all over the world to protest the siting of cruise missiles at the United States Air Force base located there. There was a 14-mile long fence around the base, and we formed a human chain, five people deep in spots, all the way around it. Due in part to our action and the almost 20-year presence of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp, the missiles were eventually sent back to the US and the fence came down.

Actually, I also now recall a massive Mother's Day protest at the Mercury, Nevada nuclear test site in the 1980's. (May 12, 1987) The event was attended by Carl Sagan, Daniel Ellsberg, Jessie was absolutely amazing.

Debi: So, you've been involved with fences coming down in the past, and are now choosing to see them as opportunities. As a canvas. What do you envision happening next with the Peace Fence project?

Jean: I would love to see fences everywhere covered with art and poetry. Would love the idea to spread, for people to be inspired to create something similar in their own communities--be it on a public fence or in their back yards. We are currently working on a plan to help other communities get started with a project of their own, with the idea that each community will send the idea on to other communities--and send two or three panels as a starter. Sort of like sourdough starter. Except this is Peace Starter! One day, we'd love to see thousands of these panels, coming from communities all over the country and world, installed on the fence around the White House.

I believe many forms of protest are needed, and can be effective, but this project is about encouraging people to put their creativity to work; it offers them an opportunity to give voice to their hopes and dreams for humanity.

I'm currently reading Malcom Gladwell's "Tipping Point," and the way I see the tipping point is that you do the work, keep doing it and doing it--in this case, the work is waging peace--and then suddenly there's a massive paradigm shift. And that's where I think we are right now in the global peace movement.

A video presentation of the 'Peace Fence' project is available here. Debi Smith lives in Ashland, Oregon--about a block and a half from the Peace Fence. Not an "artist," she nevertheless decided to contribute a panel. The entire day she spent creating it, and thinking about people everywhere who want peace, was surprisingly meditational as well as very cathartic. She has photos of the fence, as well as a video of the planning, installation, and dedication of it at her blog:

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