Shaun Leonardo’s ‘You Walk …’ sets quests at Mass MoCA

Two women are talking together, one elder and one younger, and their voices are confident and clear and touched with laughter. The elder woman repeats the word for blue heron in Apsáalooke (Crow). The word moves low and gentle like morning air on a lake. “He uses his feet for a rudder or tail feathers,” she says.

I have come to Wendy Red Star’s exhibit many times now, and this is the first time I have heard her language aloud — I have to thank Shaun Leonardo.

He is a multidisciplinary artist from Brooklyn, N.Y., and this afternoon he is leading me through Mass MoCA. He keeps slowing me down and bringing me into rooms in this vast, familiar place in ways I haven’t seen before. His new exhibit, You Walk …, begins in the hallway near the Hunter Center and sets out from here to play with the place like a game and bring up memories.

In a way it’s like walking through the galleries with a friend, following each other’s free associations, and it’s like the familiar pleasure of a writing workshop when someone hands you an idea and you turn it over to see it in your own way. It’s my kind of treasure hunt. He’ll offer a thought to get the conversation moving:

‘You pause … remembering the joy of that last gathering.’

And where does that take you? What time with friends comes up, right now, while we’re all longing for gatherings like water on a burning hot day? Looking out the window, I remember my sister and brother-in-law coming here with me years ago, sitting in the café and re-creating Star Wars plots, walking through Bibliothecaphilia and talking about how libraries could evolve in the 21st century … Right now, looking out the window, I see in the street across the river a boarded up house with a message painted across the plywood: It will get better.

Leonardo keeps on leading me to look from new angles. The first part of his show is getting a touch-up of some kind (and the museum says it should reopen early next week), but he has set hidden prompts around the museum. He’ll offer a photo, a glimpse of some corner of the place, and if you can find it, you’ll find a message there.

The first clue in Building 6 takes me to Erre’s Them and Us and the deep red wall that shimmers with Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again. “Oh let my land be a land … where equality is in the air we breathe.” And just as I find the QR code on the wall that will reveal the message, Deon Jones’ voice comes through the door behind me, tenor and clear, luminous and sad — how long must we sing this song. He’s singing U2’s Bloody Sunday in Glenn Kaino’s In Light of a Shadow. Two men almost a hundred years apart, and they’re raising the same protest with the same passion. And I ache.

Up the hall, the search goes on into the prow of the building. The wall of windows look out over the fork in the river and the flood chutes, and in a small panel beside the sill I find Carl Robare, a North Adams old-timer, reflecting on the town.

“You can remember the past,” he says, “but you can’t re-create it. And what one person remembers as being great, another remembers as being terrible. … If you look at the old utility maps of North Adams in the late 1800s, you can see that the sewers came up the streets, and there were three or four places where they all just dumped into the river. Looking at the improvements in the river and the air and other things, I would say North Adams is a thousand percent better than it was then.”

It feels as though he could be joining in the conversation this walk is turning into. Outside the river is running low in its flood chutes. In the bridge between buildings, the lights of Cosmic Latte gleam on the ceiling and reflect in the windows as though the birch trees are strung with lanterns.

Back where I began, I walk through Wendy Red Star’s show again. She looks out from her self-portrait, straight into the lens, so that she seems to be holding my eyes as I stand there, looking back. She looks solemn to me, clear, direct — compelling. She rests her chin on her hands, her shoulders straight, one hand firm over the other. She is sitting beside her daughter in a vividly colorful room, surrounded by art and traditions Apsáalooke mothers have taught and teach their daughters, in a photograph I know she created in every detail.

Women are standing around me from black and white historical photographs, all taller than I am, and I look into their eyes and look for their names. I realize for the first time how many of them are identified only as someone’s wife. How would the woman looking at me here, with firmness in her gaze and a striped cloth over her arm, have introduced herself? She looks my age, maybe younger, experienced, adamant, and I can imagine her standing in this gallery holding impassioned conversations about the artwork and the election.

Good Medicine Pipe is written on the back of the photograph — someone’s attempt at an English translation of her name? From the descriptions on the photographs around her, it sounds the name of a diplomat, a leader and negotiator, a visionary, and I see her now as all of these.

I walk all through the room before I find the QR code here, and when I finally do, it holds me still.

‘You pause … noticing, for the first time, the ground underneath your feet.’

I remember my mother when I was a child, telling me about the people of the nations who lived and live here, giving me some my first glimpses of understanding that history is far harder and more painful than school often taught me and that knowledge and beauty come in many forms — and mornings years ago, my dad would come home from an early run and tell me he had seen a blue heron on the pond. As far as I knew then, I had never seen one, and they seemed like magical birds that only flew at dawn.

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