Jeffrey Schrier’s soft, clear voice could easily by heard by the quiet, respectful audience who came to Alumni Hall on March 22, to hear him speak about his Wings of Witness program.
Dressed casually in a shirt and striped vest, Schrier was topped by a mane of nearly untamed salt and pepper-colored hair and beard to match. His limpid eyes behind large glasses held people with their sympathetic gaze as he told his story.
In 1996, Kevin Daugherty, a high school social studies teacher in Mahomet, Ill. was teaching his class about the six million Jews that died in the Holocaust.
In order for his students to fully grasp how large a number six million was, he asked them to start collecting the pull-tabs from soda cans.
The project took on extra significance when Eva Mozes Kor came and spoke to Daugherty’s class. Kor had survived the Holocaust and the inhumane experiments of Joseph Mengele.
She brought along 109 pull-tabs representing all of her family members who were killed in the Holocaust.
She said each name out loud as she added the tabs to the pile.
With renewed purpose and the help of the internet, Daugherty’s class eventually collected the original six million tabs and another five million to represent other minorities who were also killed.
Schrier has long held an interest in discarded items and the idea of transforming trash into something with significance.
In the 1980’s he started a series of projects that would lead him to explore his heritage and more specifically, events surrounding the Holocaust.
In 1997, Schrier heard about the pull-tab collection and realized that they would be the perfect material for a winged sculpture he had been contemplating.
The tabs were rescued from a recycling plant and given to Schrier.
After five and a half months Schrier came up with a design that transformed stiff metal into an oversized feather. Realizing he would never be able to complete the thousands of feathers required for his sculpture alone, Schrier started a traveling workshop visiting audiences and asking them to helpfinish the project.
At the beginning of his speech on Friday, Schrier held up a partially completed feather that looked, not surprisingly, like a metallic silver boat.
He told the story of his interest in discarded objects and his eventual commissions to make a Holocaust memorial. The audience listened with rapt attention to the history of the Wings of Witness program, although the mention of Mengele brought a quiet hiss from a few members of the audience.
He then showed several television news reports that had covered his project.
The reports contrasted footage from Nazi death camps and beautiful images that had already been made with the completed feathers.
The feathers have occasionally been arranged into different temporary sculptures ranging in size from the floor of a school classroom to covering a large field.
The final sculpture will be in the shape of a butterfly, inspired by the poetry of Pavel Friedman, a child who was killed in the death camps.
At the end of his presentation, Schrier asked the audience for its help. There was some apprehension as the audience realized that he was asking them to help build a dozen more feathers. Most stayed, and soon they were smiling and enthusiastically completing the repetitive tasks of stringing the tabs through the wires and then onto the steel rods.
Schrier estimates that as many as 50,000 people will have participated in building the sculpture before it is done.
When all of the feathers are completed they will be shipped to a site that specializesin finishing sculptures too large to fit into an artists studio called a foundry.
When finished the butterfly will be approximately five stories tall and 150 feet wide. The final location of the finished sculpture has not yet been determined.
For more information visit www.wingsofwitness.org or contact Hillel at 582-6603.