Iwai, Leslie - VM - William Collen
Leslie Iwai: Sounding Stones
by William Collen
In the US state of Nebraska, nestled amongst the trees at the north end of the city of Omaha’s Elmwood Park, lies an unexpected work of public sculpture. If you drive past you might miss it, but if you walk through the park the sculpture becomes the focal point of the surrounding area. It is Sounding Stones, by Nebraska native, Wisconsin state based Leslie Iwai.
The sculpture consists of five concrete blocks, each shaped like some sort of pillow with a hole through the middle. The apertures are big enough to sit inside, and if you do you will notice there is a single word engraved on each stone, in a no-nonsense sans serif font: Humility, Simplicity, Community, Submission, Brokenness.
“Sounding” is an ambiguous word here with two competing meanings: “making a sound” and “taking a sounding,” and Iwai acknowledges both meanings in her artist statement: “Soundings are taken in the middle of a body of water to measure its depth. Likewise, in taking the ‘soundings’ of our community, we measure its depth. The open core of each stone is to be a place for crying out. God purposes for all people to break complacency and praise Him. But even ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’”
I imagine these particular stones like the bells of trumpets – indeed the form of each stone bears a resemblance to the instrument. What kind of music would happen if you blew through the hole in each stone? Imagine them as magical trumpets, capable of amplifying your voice above the roar and whoosh of traffic.
As Sounding Stones is approached from the south, the words on the pieces are presented in a particularly compelling sequence. First comes “Humility” and “Simplicity”—virtues that our culture is very comfortable with. But “Community” can sometimes feel out of reach in our digital age, and “Submission” is certainly difficult for our contemporary culture to value. And in the days of the curated Instagram feed, “Brokenness” is something you will never see in public.
What are we supposed to do with these character traits? Think back to my metaphor of the magical trumpet. Imagine proclaiming a message to the world through one of these stones. Your message will be amplified if you practice the virtues inscribed on the stones.
Anything you wish to say will be given greater force and reach if done with humility and simplicity, in community, and with a degree of submission . . . but . . . brokenness?
One of the more puzzling and counter-intuitive passages of Scripture is found in 2 Corinthians 12, where Paul describes how he was beset by a physical ailment and asked for it to be removed. “No, I’m not going to do that for you,” God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” What a strange passage. How does the strength of God become perfect when it is allied to our weakness?
The strength comes when we know that we are broken and we let the world see that. How much more powerful is a message when we know that the person who delivered it did so against imposing odds and adversities! Even more so: the Christian message of salvation and forgiveness is a message of admitting our own brokenness, and our need to be repaired by a savior.
And of course, the Christian life is one that ought to be lived in humility, simplicity, and community, with a proper submission as well.
If you are ever in Omaha I would encourage you to visit Sounding Stones. Maybe you should even shout a message to the world through one of them and imagine what your message might look like if it were given in the spirit of Iwai’s five virtues. Then, try to live your life’s message like that.
Leslie Iwai: Sounding Stones, 2004, five cast concrete blocks, each piece approx. 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 7 ft. Elmwood Park, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Leslie Iwai is an installation artist and sculptor, fascinated with unlikely connections and hidden narratives. She lives and works in Middleton, Wisconsin, USA where she makes her art, teaches and untangles knots. She says, “Two important questions I ask when I am making something are "How is it?" and "What is it?", usually in that order. Through this I am inevitably led to new connections and uncovered narratives. One of my favorite seminars in graduate school was Craft and Scholarship (M. Arch, Virginia Tech) where I happened upon the threads between the woven, the engine and the feminine. Between the hardness and softness of these three, my work rests.” Iwai is an active member of CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts), founded in 1979 with the vision to help artists, collectors, critics, professors, historians, pastors and arts professionals explore the profound relationship between art and faith (https://civa.org). https://www.leslieiwai.com; https://www.instagram.com/leslie.iwai/
William Collen is an art writer and researcher from Omaha, Nebraska, USA. His writings can be found at www.ruins.blog.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 4 September 2022