From far away, the hallways of the School of Visual Concepts look colorful and bright, thanks to panels of origami boxes hung up on the walls. Take a few steps closer though, and you’ll see the boxes are more than just folded pieces of colorful paper. Each one tells a story — the story of a gunfire victim.
They’re part of the Soul Box project, which aims to bring awareness, through art, to the sheer numbers of people killed or injured by gunfire in the U.S.
Soul Box project founder Leslie Lee, 70, of Portland, had been frustrated with all of the bad news happening in the world and chose to look away from the coverage. However, after the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas in 2017, she came to a realization that turning away wasn’t the answer.
She wanted to help and thought the gun-death epidemic was lacking a visual. She wanted to create something like the AIDS Memorial Quilt where people could more easily comprehend how big the numbers actually are. An artist for the majority of her life, Lee turned to what she knew.
“I’m a creative person. I’m a professional artist,” Lee said of her thought process. She asked herself, “What can I do here?”
Lee chose origami boxes because they were small enough to make a lot of them, but simple enough that anybody could make them. Since starting in October 2017, the project has received more than 60,000 boxes.
The project gives people who are distressed by all the gun deaths and injuries — not just those who have lost someone to gunfire — the opportunity to feel like they are doing something to help, Lee said. Displaying the boxes in exhibits like the one at SVC allows the public to see the magnitude of the problem in a visceral way, she said.
Megan Ingalls, student-relations coordinator at SVC, said visitors tend to take their time to look at each box and process them as they go. She herself was taken aback when the boxes arrived.
“It took a long time for each panel to go up and I was amazed that they would be able to do the whole thing without bursting into tears,” she said.
In the SVC exhibit, 3,000 boxes are displayed to represent the approximate number of people who die by gunfire in the U.S. in an average month. In 2018, there were about 14,770 deaths due to gun violence and approximately 22,000 suicides, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit corporation that compiles data about gun-violence incidents. Every exhibit the project sets up showcases a different statistic from the Gun Violence Archive.
In addition to spreading awareness, the project is also meant to inspire people to do something, Lee said. Whether it be a reminder to lock up their guns, write their representatives, or have a talk with their children, the boxes are intended to spark action, she said. Visitors at the exhibits are also encouraged to make their own boxes to donate to the project.
“The project itself is very community-building,” Lee said.
Although the project is based in Portland, the project has had support from businesses and organizations across the country including Denver; Milwaukie; and Tucson, Arizona.
Ultimately, Soul Box would like to take 200,000 boxes to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for a demonstration; it wouldn’t be their first. In February, 100 volunteers led a procession to the Oregon State Capitol Building carrying bags of 36,000 Soul Boxes to represent every person who died by gunfire in the United States in 2018.
“This is a national movement to create awareness about a really big deal,” Lee said.
Soul Box exhibit, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday- Thursday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, through Aug. 8; School of Visual Concepts, 2300 Seventh Ave., Suite B, Seattle; free; 206-623-1560. The Soul Box project will also have a table, where people can make boxes, at the South Lake Union Block Party on Friday, Aug. 9 from 2-7 p.m. near the School of Visual Concepts Plein Air Printing Parlour. Boxes can also be mailed to Soul Box, P.O. Box 19900, Portland, OR 97280.