“Dear next President, don’t embarrass us,” Cyrus and Albert McDonald, a father and son from Raleigh, asked the presidential candidates in November. “Make us proud. We love our country.”
In postcards dictated to Sheryl Oring before the election, others asked the president-elect to keep the Affordable Care Act, legalize marijuana, reduce gun violence, address climate change and expand maternity leave. Some expressed excitement; others, heartbreak.
Gesche Wurfel from Chapel Hill asked the president-elect to “be inclusive of everyone.” “Thanks for the reason to fight,” a woman from Greensboro said.
“As long as you are kind and genuine, you will succeed in everything you do,” Emily Trotta, a young woman from Raleigh, dictated.
I wanted to emphasize the importance of free speech and get people to express themselves. The response was amazing.
Sheryl Oring, assistant art professor at UNC-Greensboro
During the 2004 election that pitted George W. Bush against John Kerry, Oring, an assistant art professor at UNC-Greensboro, launched “I Wish to Say,” a public art performance. She set up a portable office with a typewriter and invited passers-by to dictate postcards to the president or presidential candidates.
“I wanted to emphasize the importance of free speech and get people to express themselves,” Oring said. “The response was amazing.”
Grants and commissions enabled her to take the project around the U.S., from California to New York to North Carolina, and she also included some of her students in the project. For the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Oring is setting up shop in Greensboro, where she lives, on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m. and inviting people to dictate their thoughts to her.
“North Carolina is an important state nationally, and now we have a new governor,” she said. “The state is quite diverse in many ways – politically, racially, philosophically. It’s a good time to think about what you want to say.”
Since beginning the project, she has sent more than 3,200 postcards to the White House. Oring is working on creating a digital archive of the postcards, which she posts on Instagram, and a kit for schools to use for similar initiatives.
The performance is often intimate, with people sharing their hopes, dreams and fears about the future of their country. On multiple occasions, people started crying while dictating their thoughts, Oring said. After a divisive election, she hopes her project will help people heal and recuperate.
“One of the things that surprised me about the project was how intense it was for people to have this experience of expressing themselves and being listened to,” she said. “It’s a great way to bridge gaps and bring people together.”
The medium Oring chose – postcards and typewriters – for her performance also appealed to people, she said.
“We have become so accustomed to communicating through our cellphones or laptops, and sitting down with a stranger is not common,” she said.
Oring recently finished “Activating Democracy,” a book about “I Wish to Say” and political engagement featuring 20 essays from artists and scholars. After Trump’s first 100 days in office, she plans to continue the project but is still finalizing plans for the next location.
“I’ll keep typing,” she said.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler
Want to dictate a postcard?
For the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Sheryl Oring and her volunteers will set up shop at Elsewhere, an art museum at 606 S. Elm St. in Greensboro, on Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m.