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Datebook: Art Installation Underscores The Walls Between Us

"There’s a moment every day where we, as artists, have to stand up and do what we can, " said artist David Dow. "And encourage dialog and encourage thinking about everything that’s going on.”

Dow has teamed up with artist Jim Neeley to create a new, site-specific art installation at the Joe McCauley Gallery at Heartland Community College in Normal. MURO, which is Spanish for wall, utilizes concrete blocks, dowel rods, boards, plaster of paris, leather, copper, wax, beads and more to create a divided gallery space that takes a stand on the issue of the border wall and its impact on those on either side. 

Neeley constructed the wall, which consists of a half-wall of concrete blocks topped by rows of dowels. Separated on the other side are sculpted free-standing figures wearing masks designed by Dow. The figures, said Neeley, have been dubbed "the community of souls."

Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
The community of souls resides just out of reach behind the wall in the gallery.

“They’re the souls beyond the wall,” said Neeley. “My task was to design this installation around this broader concept.” 

“The collaboration between us is seamless and easy,” said Dow. “It’s often how we approach something.  There’ll be a concept, and then a design evolves, and then we split into our individual strengths and tasks to execute it.” 

Inspiration for the installation came from the artist’s frequent travels south of the border, said Dow.  

“There was a personal moment for us when we were down in Mexico on a project. One of our partners there said, ‘I just didn’t know there was so much hatred in the United States.’ And it was kind of shocking.” 

“Because we travel so much, we always feel like ambassadors. And often in our travels, even if somebody doesn’t agree with the particular government at the time, they separate Americans, they love Americans. That’s changing. And there’s less of a separation between our government and our people, and that’s disturbing to me and to us.” 

“And I think the degradation of our values in terms of democracy and cultural tolerance and difference. And not just tolerance, appreciation for other peoples, other colors, other art. Our country is filled with businesses that were founded by and run by immigrants. This us against them mentality is disturbing to us.” 

“We’re using the wall, MURO, as a symbol in this. It’s about the wall and putting up barriers. But it’s also the metaphorical walls we’re putting up, us against them.  We just want to engage people to stop and think.  Does a wall just lock people out, or does it also lock you in?” 

Dow pointed out that due to the wall, it’s impossible to truly see the entire installation. 

“If you really like the child mask in the corner and you want to see what that beading is about, you can’t see it. It’s not just keeping those souls on that side; it’s keeping us, our souls, on this side.” 

The shadows created by the wall and the figures throws in a dramatic element, said Neeley. 

“We had some other plans for projecting a striped pattern on the floor with a theatrical lighting system. As we got in and started to play with the lighting, I started spinning the gallery lights around and it was like ‘Whoa!’ It just emerged, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful details in the show.” 

Another detail of the show are the family resemblances that appear within the masks of the souls on the other side of the wall.

Neeley and Dow
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Neeley and Dow hope that MURO can be transformed into a travelling art installation.

“I love this father and child reference here, up front,” said Dow as he pointed to a tall figure with a shorter one partially concealed behind it. “You see in the masks there are characteristics, the length of the face and the nose and the eyes. So, they obviously represent family characteristics. But the younger child, to me it’s so striking with the placement.  There’s such a vulnerability that comes out. You can’t help but think and feel for those children with their families seeking a better life.” 

“We can all agree or disagree about illegal immigration and the answers or lack of answers for it.  But we can’t forget and have empathy for these human beings that are there. We’re using the masks to speak to the emotion of the situation.” 

“It’s the division that we need to figure out a way to break down.” 

During the exhibition of MURO, Dow and Neeley are collecting public comments on the work and incorporating them into the design. The show is up at the Joe McCauley Gallery through March 6.


Hear curator Danell Dvorak talk about MURO.



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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.