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Visual Arts: San Diegans Write Letters To President Obama

Above: Artist Sheryl Oring taking dictation at the San Diego Museum of Art for her project "I Wish to Say."

Audio

Aired 6/30/10

Local artist Sheryl Oring invited San Diegans to dictate letters to the president at a recent San Diego Museum of Art event. It was part of her ongoing project "I Wish to Say."

"I love you, President Obama. I really do." "STOP SPENDING." "Where's your promise of change and hope?" "You are a good friend, Love, Jack." These are just some of the sentiments expressed by San Diegans (including 6-year-old Jack) at a recent San Diego Museum of Art event (listen to audio postcard above).

They were dictating letters to the president as part of artist Sheryl Oring's project "I Wish to Say." Oring sets up shop in public locations with her vintage typewriter and takes dictation from anyone wanting to express their admiration, scorn, dismay, hopes, and opinions to the president of the United States.

Oring's hosted the project in cities around the country since 2004. "The idea was sparked by my wanting to explore American public opinion during the second Bush election and it just took off from there."

Oring archives the letters on her website, and mails the originals off to the White House. She estimates she's typed over 2,000 letters since the project began. However, she's never heard back from the Bush or Obama administrations.

San Diego-based artist Sheryl Oring at the San Diego Museum of Art, which recently hosted her project "I Wish to Say."
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Above: San Diego-based artist Sheryl Oring at the San Diego Museum of Art, which recently hosted her project "I Wish to Say."

Oring says, "I would hope the president reads these, but even if he doesn't, it's kind of transformative for the person who sits down and talks to me. I think they have to think about what their priorities are and that's a really important aspect of the project."

The letter takes the form of a postcard that is signed by the author. Oring has stamps available for people to decorate their card. Among the options are "RUSH," "Important," or "Past Due."

At the museum's Summer Salon series where Oring was a featured artist, attendees milled about the foyer as Oring and a friend sat in front of typewriters waiting for volunteers.

Oring says once someone approaches, she gets things rolling. "Well, usually I say something like if I were the president what would you wish to say to me. And then it starts a conversation. Sometimes they know right away what they want to say and sometimes it takes a few minutes to think about it."

Authors of the letters can choose stamps to include on their postcards.
Enlarge this image

Above: Authors of the letters can choose stamps to include on their postcards.

A young woman named Van Tran had an especially personal letter for President Obama. She wrote: "Dear Mr. President. In the fall of 2009, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent a colectomy. Consequently, she was unable to return to work as part-time kitchen staff at a public school district and her home was foreclosed. In light of the economic downturn and the millions of Americans that are still unemployed, without health insurance and without a home, where is your promise for change and hope? Sincerely, Van Tran."

Oring says it's not unusual for people to express their opinions with passion and emotion. "People get extremely emotional. And I'm not surprised by it anymore, but it really touches me. There were three people tonight who sat down and they had tears in their eyes as they dictated their letters and talked about really personal issues."

Oring added that people's passion takes many forms. "People do get angry and it's interesting how they express that anger in a typewritten postcard. Sometimes it's with all capital letters or with exclamation point. Though there was not exclamation point on the typewriter I used tonight so we had to write exclamation point in parentheses."

Sue Lakosil from San Diego used all caps in her letter, in the form of "STOP SPENDING." After dictating her letter, Lakosil explained: "This country is going down the tubes very fast...turning into a socialist country, that I don't think any of us can afford. Scary. It's scary for our kids." Lakosil said she often writes emails to the president, but enjoyed the way this process worked.

Oring said San Diegans at the museum talked about everything from the oil spill to immigration to the economy. You can read their letters here.

Oring says one of the valuable aspects of the project is its longevity. "You know, I have questioned whether I keep doing this project, but it's now been going on long enough that I now decide that I’m going to do it at least every four years. And that it is a very long-term way to look at public opinion in this country and I find that very interesting."

Oring announces upcoming "I Wish to Say" appearances on her website.

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