By Michele Bourdieu
Artist Mary Wright's Story Line community art project is now being displayed in and around the Rozsa Center. Michigan Tech students Karmen Vrooman, left, of Lansing and Danielle Poma of Durand, Mich., walking near the Rozsa, stop to read stories on the cloth panels. Both are working at Michigan Tech's Summer Youth Program. (Photos by Keweenaw Now)
HOUGHTON -- Michigan Tech students Karmen Vrooman of Lansing and Danielle Poma of Durand, Mich., both involved with the Michigan Tech Summer Youth Program, happened to be walking near the Rozsa Center on campus one sunny afternoon last week when the Story Line Project cloth panels hanging outside the Rozsa caught their attention. As they stopped to read some of the stories, community artist Mary Wright, who directs the project, just happened to come along, saw they were curious and explained to them the purpose of the Story Line, an art and history project related to the coming Pine Mountain Music Festival opera Rockland.
One of the story panels, written by a student from Washington Middle School in Calumet, tells the story of Edmond Koskiniemi of Allouez, born in 1909, who worked as a miner for Calumet and Hecla. (Click on photos for larger versions.)
With the help of volunteers, Wright had been working all day -- for several days -- to accomplish the daunting task of hanging more than 7,000 of these cloth panels created from stories that Upper Peninsula residents -- men, women and children -- have written about ancestors who faced adversity in the past. Many of the panels have historic photos or images related to their stories.
Soon Michigan Tech student Faith Lambert of Dryden, Mich., joined the group to hear Wright recite her favorite story -- about Anna Podnar, the Croatian immigrant grandmother of Kendra Turpeinen of Chassell, who wrote the story.
Artist Mary Wright, holding her hat in the wind, explains her Story Line project, now being displayed inside and around the Rozsa Center, to Michigan Tech students, from left, Faith Lambert, who is working with Michigan Tech's Summer Sports Program, and Summer Youth Program student leaders Karmen Vrooman and Danielle Poma.
"I like this kind of stuff," Lambert said of the community art project. "It's nice to see this on campus."
Mary invited the students to volunteer in the coming week or to spread the word about her need for volunteers to help hang the panels in and around the Rozsa Center in preparation for the Pine Mountain Music Festival's New World Premiere of the opera Rockland, by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola. The opera, which will be performed at the Rozsa Center July 15 and 17, tells the story of a 1906 Upper Peninsula copper miners' strike, during which two miners were killed.
The project is being funded by the Michigan Humanities Council, but many volunteers are needed now to help with stringing the stories on clotheslines, clipping the stories to the lines, cutting the lines and hanging them from a ladder or tying them to trees on campus.
"It's a labor-intensive process," Wright noted. "Many hands make light work."
In fact, Wright said anyone is welcome to volunteer for any amount of time they can give -- even 15 minutes.
Inside the Rozsa lobby volunteers were busy organizing, taking inventory and stringing the cloth panels to plastic clotheslines for hanging both inside and outside the building.
Mary Wright gives her "thumbs-up" gesture for the progress being made on the Story Line project -- more than 7,000 cloth panels with stories of ancestors -- now being hung for the display in and around the Rozsa Center in preparation for the opera Rockland. Pictured with her are volunteers Jo Lorichon of Hancock, left, and Alice Jarvi of Atlantic Mine.
Alice Jarvi of Atlantic Mine, who calls herself Mary Wright's "associate," said she had already put in 300 hours just in the month of June helping with the project.
"Whatever Mary says, I don't say anything -- I just do it," Jarvi said.
Jarvi noted seeing the final results in the Rozsa -- story panels covering the windows -- helped her understand all the work was rewarding and all the cloth panels would be used.
Jo Lorichon of Hancock had also put in many hours as a volunteer.
"When people experience this, it isn't just a single experience," Lorichon said. "It involves memories, inspiration, emotion -- and it ties everybody together because they all feel the same way."
Volunteers Anne Patrick of Hancock and Michigan Tech student Zach Eckert of Battle Creek, Mich., string story panels on plastic lines for hanging in the Rozsa Center lobby.
Anne Patrick of Hancock, who was stringing panels on the very long lines for hanging, said she started volunteering for the project by sewing the panels.
"They were all hemmed on three sides to get a solid border and so we can string them on the lines. It's a lot sturdier than using clothespins," Patrick explained. "On and off, whenever I can, I'll come over and help."
Patrick said one challenge is to keep working without being distracted by the stories themselves.
"You've really got to stop yourself from reading the stories while we're putting them on or we'd never get anything done," Patrick said. "The stories are so fascinating."
Michigan Tech student Zach Eckert of Battle Creek, who is studying chemical engineering, worked with a steady rhythm stringing panels on one of the lines.
Asked why he volunteered, Eckert said, "I was walking by, and they asked for some help."
Houghton High School student Tyler Paakola, originally of Green Bay and now living in Tapiola, was learning about the local history through a real "hands-on" experience.
Houghton High School student Tyler Paakola, originally of Green Bay, Wis., and now living in Tapiola, Mich., strings story panels on lines to be hung on the windows of the Rozsa Center lobby for the Story Line project. Doing the same, in the background, is Michigan Tech student Zach Eckert of Battle Creek, Mich. Both volunteered for several hours last week.
"My Mom volunteered me," Paakola said.
He had already been helping Wright for six hours that day.
Along with the story panels, the following inspirational sayings are spelled out across the Rozsa lobby windows: "There are heroes everywhere and stories to be told and passed on," and "You are alive as long as your stories are told."
Story panels are interspersed with historic photos of the period, like this one depicting striking workers.
Anyone with a few minutes, an hour or more to volunteer is invited to drop at the Rozsa to help today or any day this week except Monday, July 4. It's best to call Mary Wright first at (906) 361-5548.
Read more about the Story Line project, including some examples of individual stories, on the Story Line Web site.
Note: See also our previous story and video of artist Mary Wright, speaking about the project at Portage Lake District Library, "'Story Line' community art, history project exhibited in conjunction with 'Rockland' opera," posted June 21, 2011.
To order tickets for the opera Rockland, click here.