In Denver, Colorado, a voter walks up to a massive steel sculpture of an American flag towed behind a truck to write on one of the flag’s red stripes: “We can always do better, but I think we are trying.” That sentence takes its place among the sentiments of hundreds of other Americans seeking healing and catharsis from the past year of campaign rhetoric.
Artist and sculptor Ira Hill is towing that steel recreation of the flag across the country with the goal of encouraging Americans to share their thoughts on the country in this way — by writing their thoughts on the flag to allow for moments of political consciousness and community fellowship.
Hill, an Indiana native, started his sculpting career at the University of Alabama and at Sloss Furnaces. An artist by trade and profession, Hill typically deals in graffiti, sculpture, and other means of publically oriented art. “[Graffiti] is for everyone, whereas the gallery is a cloistered space of money, power, and position,” Hill said. “The project, American Expressions, encourages people to practice voicing their opinion, however potent it may be, around people in public who might disagree with you.”
His concept for the American Expressions sculpture originated in 2011. That attempt failed to launch prior to the 2012 election. Early in 2016, Hill resumed the ambitious project through crowd-sourced funding to mobilize a 10,000-stop tour across the country, exhibiting American Expressions from New York to New Mexico. His journey began in Birmingham, his current residence, on July 4, and will end in Birmingham on January 20 for Inauguration Day.
“I’m showing an example of how you actually make America great again,” Hill said. “You do actually do the work and you get along with others.”
As Hill arrives at each stop, he first invites the community to paint over the marks of the previous city to make a fresh canvas for expression. “I was never out to change people’s minds,” he says. “I was only out to absorb.” He finds that participants appreciate the opportunity to read over the markings of the previous town before starting fresh. American Expressions works as a pseudo-art therapy experiment for those involved. “People have to let it all out,” he said. “I’m giving them a way to do it among their fellow Americans.”
According to Hill, compassion is the core of patriotism, and the hope of the project is to remind participants of the importance of seeking parity with fellow Americans. “We believe what we hear on the TV more than we believe our neighbors, because we think they’re different,” he said, adding, “That’s an erosion of the public trust and what makes the country great — the diversity and unity despite such.”
Public access to the piece is important to Hill, as much of its central function lies simply in the communal process of creativity. Hill hopes to inspire local-level responses to political issues to motivate change on a small scale. “You have the responsibility,” he said. “You have the access and the power… Don’t just wave your flag and say things need to change. Do it.”
Contributors will occasionally write over things they disagree with or mark out the words of others, but American Expressions tries to take these disagreements out of the online comments section and into face-to-face conversation. “You can say whatever you want online. You can be as ugly as you want, and that has changed the dynamic of personal interactions,” Hill said. “Compassion is what bridges our respective realities. We can see things differently and still find we use compassion.”
Hill hopes to use American Expressions to renew a sense of optimism in the country after the divisive election. “Out of all of our complaints [regarding America], when you level them against a global situation, we’ve got it good,” he noted, “…and we are still unsatisfied.
“There’s a lot of hope and love in this country. The mass media feeds us fear and, in all our minds, we know that’s not the answer. We know that hope, love, and compassion are. I’m not changing the world with this, but I am maybe changing a few minds, which is good enough for me.”
American Expressions will be displayed outside Charm on Second Avenue North from the morning through the afternoon on January 20. Later in the evening, it will be outside Saturn in Avondale from 5 p.m. onward. A virtual flag will be accessible on Facebook all day.