1,845 glass potatoes

Escaping famine a timeless element

Posted 7/24/19

Exhibited in the former women’s jail of the city of Port Townsend, artist Paula Stokes’ “1845” connects the famine-driven diaspora out of Ireland to this year’s immigration crisis at the southern border by confronting viewers with a small mountain of glass potatoes.

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1,845 glass potatoes

Escaping famine a timeless element


Exhibited in the former women’s jail of the city of Port Townsend, artist Paula Stokes’ “1845” connects the famine-driven diaspora out of Ireland to this year’s immigration crisis at the southern border by confronting viewers with a small mountain of glass potatoes.

America has been built by immigrants, often arriving here to escape food insecurity at home, said artist Paula Stokes. Such was the case for the Irish in the mid-19th Century as well as the Central Americans seeking refuge today.

“Why are people fleeing these countries? Who wants to leave their home willingly?”

Stokes, who was born in Ireland and now resides in Seattle, has created “1845,” an exhibit currently on display in the basement cells of the Jefferson Museum of Art and History in Port Townsend.

The exhibit, open through Aug. 26, consists of 1,845 hand-blown glass potatoes and is a memorial to the Irish Potato Famine. Stokes will provide a public presentation at the Museum of Art and History at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 25. The exhibit can also be seen during regular business hours.

“I have created an installation made of 1,845 hand-blown glass potatoes piled into the form of a cairn,” Stokes said. “A cairn is a pile of stones that serves as a land marker, but in this case, it suggests a burial monument, and instead of stones, I am piling potatoes. ‘1845’ references the year that the potato blight came to Ireland, marking the beginning of a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration.”

Stokes said the connection with the current immigration crisis, people coming north from countries in Central and South America plagued with poverty and reports of serious criminal activities, is palpable.

“People were flooding in from Ireland escaping poverty and certain death. They were going across a body of water to a land of hope and better opportunity.”

The immigrants were often rural farmers who moved into huge urban centers, Stokes said, and many didn’t speak English.

“They spoke Irish, their natural language. I think there is a major correlation with people and it is not just about the famine. It is about politics.”

At first, the Irish were not openly welcomed and even were persecuted, Stokes said, similar to what is happening today.

“It is not like today’s current political situation is unique because it is not. It is very vitriolic and there is a lot of tension. This happens all the time. It happened in the 1800s and the Irish were not welcome.”

Now, more than 170 years after “No Irish Need Apply” signs were common in American business windows, the Irish are an integral part of the American tapestry, Stokes said.

“What are the contributions the Irish, the Germans, the Chinese and the Mexicans have made to the economy and to make this a better country?”

Unless a Native American, everyone in this country is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant, Stokes said.

“At the end of the day we are all just people and we have to remember to not lose our humanity, our compassion.”

Current migration crisis

Currently, the U.S. Government detains tens of thousands of immigrants under the control of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Immigrants are detained for unlawful entry to the United States, when their claims for asylum are received, and in the process of deportation and removal from the country.

During Fiscal Year 2018, 396,448 people were booked into ICE custody: 242,778 of whom were detained by CBP and 153,670 by ICE’s own enforcement operations, according to the Fiscal Year 2018 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Report.

Shelly Leavens, Jefferson County Historical Society executive director, is excited Stokes’ exhibit intersects art, history and current events.

“Just because this happened 150 years ago doesn’t mean the same things present in Stokes’ production of this work, and her sensibilities around this work, are not relevant to our community now.”

The difference between the immigration of the Irish to America during the 19th century, and that of Latinos today, is there is so much more information available to the public, Leavens said.

“Now we can have an understanding of what is happening in South America and Central America and how that is affecting our country and our borders and how it affects specifically our community.”

Leavens referenced a June 12 protest in Port Townsend during which about 230 people gathered at Adams Street Park to oppose the treatment of immigrants in detention facilities on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We saw the protesters out there feeling very strongly about what is happening with children on the border,” Leavens said. “It is a funny thing to connect glass potatoes with the border, but we can get there.”

Such a connection is where museums play a great role, Leavens said.

“Part of what museums can do is provide a pathway for people through art installations like this that connect with history and personal stories. I don’t know if we need to spell it out for them. Letting people come to those conclusions themselves is part of the way that it works, and it is beautiful.”

Connection through time

On Stokes’ maternal side, during the famine, her family was living in County Kerry, located in the southwest of Ireland.

“It was very badly affected by the famine,” Stokes said.

Her paternal family hails from County Wexford, located to the southeast of the country, she said. “The west of Ireland, the more rural areas, were very badly affected by the famine, but it impacted every part of the country.”

Anyone with Irish ancestry likely has been impacted by the famine, even if they do not know it, Stokes said.

“The famine is really not talked about a lot in Ireland. It is taught in the schools and the curriculum, so we know about it.”

But while part of the country’s history, the blight is not as well known in song as the various rebellions which raged over the years, Stokes said, because it is not as romantic.

“It really decimated society for obvious reasons. For the people who left, it was terrible and for those who stayed and survived, I am sure there was a lot of shame and guilt. Unlike stories of rebellions, which people love to talk about, the famine is a really sensitive topic.”

Although the Irish had already been moving to the New World in smaller numbers before the 1840s, the famine really opened the floodgates, Stokes said.

“It resulted in millions of people moving and a lot of American people can date back their ancestry to that time and beyond.”

Them’s some hot potatoes

Stokes first made glass potatoes about 14 years ago in a Seattle studio operated by Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick of Chimacum, she said.

“I made a little bundle of them and I didn’t really do anything with them. I had this beginning of an idea, a concept, but never really realized it.”

That all changed in May 2018.

“When I decided I was going to execute this project I knew that it had to be something that was visually kind of stunning and large,” Stokes said. “I knew I would need to make a lot of potatoes. I knew 1,845 was a good number.”

The potatoes are relatively easy to make, but are time consuming, Stokes said.

“As a glassblower, I have never been particularly sophisticated. The potato is so simple to make. It has a high threshold for impurities or imperfections. For traditional glassblowers, air bubbles or any flaws in the glass sometimes will make it (unusable). For me it added more character to it and it didn’t matter as long as it wasn’t broken.”

To make the potatoes, molten glass is gathered on the end of a pole.

“You pop your bubble and as long as the thickness of the walls of the glass are not too thick, you just poke those holes in,” Stokes said.

Stokes uses a wood awl to make the potato “eyes.”

“You get the glass nice and malleable and punch it and poke it. It is so simple and rudimentary but is a lovely way of interacting with the material that is very playful. You are not trying to conform it and do this perfect symmetrical form.”

At first, Stokes was working with one assistant and the two were able to make about 60 potatoes a day, she said. Doing the math, Stokes understood making 1,845 glass potatoes would take at least a month, working without a day off, to finish the project. So she recruited fellow glassmakers to help.

A team of six completed the project, “the numbers went up dramatically,” and they were able to make about 200 a day, she said.

The end result is beautiful in its simplicity, Stokes said.

So beautiful a rope had to be set in place to keep visitors from picking up the potatoes.

“People get very emotional and want to touch the work. They just want to grab it. I love that. They are really beautiful objects and lovely to touch, and I love that people want to reach out to that and have that interaction with it.”

Activism through art

While the exhibit has a timeless political message, Stokes’ main hope is for people to enjoy and perhaps identify with the art.

“I want people to have an emotional connection with the work and a very visceral response to it,” she said. “I think there is something very simple about the humble potato and the simplicity of the presentation of it in a big pile.”

The pile could also be seen as a mass grave, Stokes said.

“It is quiet because it is not representing real potatoes. They are not brown. They are clear and sandblasted so they look like a shadow or a memory or ghost of what a potato might have looked like.”

Simply stated, they are the ghosts, and people, of potatoes past.

Perhaps the greatest message is the impact not having enough food has on humanity, regardless of race or ethnicity, Stokes said.

“I think regardless of who we are, we all want the simple things in life. We all want to have a roof over our heads. We want to be fed. We want to be warm. We want to have some basic comfort.”

When viewers observe the exhibit, Stokes hopes it invokes deep introspection.

“When people see that I hope they step back and think about the enormity of that. You can relate to it on a very personal level no matter your background. You could be Irish, you could have come from Russia or anwyere, but you are still somebody who has traveled or your ancestors have traveled to this country. Never forget your past or humanity.”


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  • Justin Hale

    The people being held by ICE or CBP are in this country illegally, once they are processed they are given a court date, a large portion of the illegals fail to show up for their court hearing. Where do you think our government should house these illegals while they process them?

    A large portion of the migrants coming from Central America come here to get on our welfare programs, not to plant potatoes.

    "The difference between the immigration of the Irish to America during the 19th century, and that of Latinos today is there is so much more information available to the public, Leavens said." No, the main difference is that the Irish came here through our Legal immigration process, migrants from C.A. are in large numbers entering Illegally.

    Thursday, July 25, 2019 Report this