Slave ship installation connects the past and present at Akron's John Brown House

One of the rooms in the John Brown House in Akron has been transformed for "Embarqued: Stories of Soil," providing a visual representation of slave ships as part of its narrative.
One of the rooms in the John Brown House in Akron has been transformed for "Embarqued: Stories of Soil," providing a visual representation of slave ships as part of its narrative. [Kabir Bhatia / Ideastream Public Media]
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Abolitionist John Brown lived in Summit County for much of his life, including from 1844-54 in a house that's today near the Akron Zoo. It's been preserved as a museum on the Summit County Historical Society campus that also includes the Perkins Stone Mansion.

Now through Labor Day, part of the John Brown House has become “Embarqued: Stories of Soil.” The art installation originated as a dance work at New York-based SBB.

“We work regularly with materials and textiles as performers inside of our performances,” said SBB Artistic Director Stefanie Batten Bland. “[It] allows you to be immersed inside of a space, with all of your senses being awakened. That's really what's going on here.”

Batten Bland used set pieces and fabrics from the original stage work to transform parts of the John Brown House into the atmosphere of a boathouse from 200 years ago – including a representation of the sails on a slave ship.

“[It’s] a room that allows people to use rigging: They can pull sails up; they can let them drop down,” she said. “[They] invite reflection, perhaps of past sailing experiences that ancestrally brought us to moments of today.”

She’s referring to this moment in history, framed by the murder of George Floyd and – this June in Akron – the shooting of Jayland Walker following a police pursuit.

“I'm, of course, very focused on the present tense right now,” she said. “How do those past eras inform what's going on right now? Why are we still choosing similar behavioral patterns? What hasn't changed?”

Batten Bland said she hopes visitors contemplate that when they visit the John Brown House.

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Actress and singer Reva Golden volunteers at the Summit County Historical Society, and shows off the room 'Traces' as part of 'Embarqued: Stories of Soil.' The drawings represent the traces we leave behind in life. [Kabir Bhatia / Ideastream Public Media]

“The way that they've allowed this exhibit to be not only visual and tactile, but also to be interactive... will allow people to express themselves in a way that works best to help them with their grieving process,” said Leianne Heppner, head of the Summit County Historical Society.

One way to do that is in another room, entitled “Traces.” It’s covered in brown paper and represents the soil. People can use chalk to draw and contemplate the traces they leave behind in life.

From movement to moments

The historical society and dance company worked on adapting the dance into an exhibit with the National Center for Choreography at the University of Akron, since the original stage production was a work to be performed by dancers. Christy Bolingbroke, the choreography center’s executive director, said reimagining a dance piece as an art installation is a natural, organic progression for pieces like this one.

“It's something that's been inherent in the creative process and how Stefanie and so many artists [are] always making,” she said. “It's a very cyclical, agile work and not always a linear process. And it also came back to how the Summit County Historical Society and the John Brown House so beautifully hosted us: It is in dialogue with history, it's not always looking forward without reflecting back.”

Bolingbroke and Heppner said they hope to partner on more presentations at Historical Society venues – whether art installations or performances after “Embarqued” closes on September 3. The John Brown House is open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 1-3:30 p.m., and on Saturdays by appointment.

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