On Oct. 1, 2017, Leslie Lee heard the news of a shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 people and wounded hundreds more.
“I ignored it,” she says. “I felt I couldn’t take one more piece of bad news.”
When she went to the gym, everyone around her was talking about what had happened. Lee was appalled at her own indifferent reaction.
“I had dismissed it for my own comfort,” she says. “I thought, ‘Is this the new normal, all day turning away from bad news? It can’t happen.’”
Lee is an artist and used her experience to birth the Soul Box Project, a folded origami box representing every person killed by gun violence in the United States.
It is a national community art project raising awareness of the gunfire epidemic by counting and honoring victims.
In the tradition of other national art projects, like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the project is collecting a hand-folded paper Soul Box to represent every person killed or injured in gunfire in the United Sates since 2014.
In her research, Lee discovered that in 2014, 108,000 people were killed by guns. “Add 22,000 a year of suicides by guns,” she says. “That is incomprehensible. I wanted to make this epidemic visible. Data is brain, but the heart is seeing and touching.”
Tens of thousands of these boxes will be displayed together as massive art installations in public spaces around the country.
The first large-scale exhibition will open on Feb. 15 at the Oregon State Capitol, to commemorate the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. While the Legislature meets, Lee will display 74 huge boxes in the lobby.
Community groups are gathering to make the boxes, much like an AIDS quilt, she says.
Every Soul Box honors a single life. Since its launch in October 2017, thousands of boxes have been collected — each one made by a man, woman or child — many boxes bearing the words, “No more. We will not forget. We will not look away. You are loved.”
The idea has gained traction in several states and even in Germany, but that’s what she wants. The idea is to make sense of the magnitude of the issue.
“This is a ‘we the people,’ with people coming together building a community around this experience of making boxes,” she says.
Art cannot change events, but it can change people, Lee says, hoping Soul Boxes will change people’s consciousness about guns, why people have them, how they are used and how they are stored.
“Guns are too easily accessible for inappropriate use,” she says. “I would like to see a shift in people’s hearts and minds. I want deaths and injuries from guns to go down. I want to change our national culture.”
Lee envisions families gathering to make boxes, initiating conversations about guns. She hopes people can feel they are doing something about the epidemic, and that making boxes is a satisfying, gentle way to approach a horrible subject.
Many decorate the boxes and put messages in them. One friend of a victim knew he loved to fish, so she put fish flies in a box.
“It’s intimate and personal, how you approach this experience,” says Lee, who admits her one-woman crusade has become overwhelming.
She secured a $10,000 grant from the Fetzer Institute, and she has other assistance, but to take Soul Boxes national, she says she needs “serious funding.”
She also needs office space and staff to take the idea nationwide. Lee hopes someone might donate an empty building for her use.
“We are so much in need of a workshop space,” she says. “We need significant funding for traveling exhibits throughout the country.