The Moving Wall is a half-scale replica of Washington DC's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since 1984, The Moving Wall has toured the country, having installed itself for public viewing at over a thousand towns and cities. A conservative estimate would put the number of visitors in the millions. This blog is dedicated to getting behind The Moving Wall, to revealing how it was built, and what keeps it standing and rolling along.

On The Road With The Moving Wall

I have created a separate blog for this year's visitors to The Moving Wall. On it, they can directly post observations, impressions, reflections, etc. They can also post images. This new blog has the potential to be a great journal or travelogue of The Moving Wall in 2010. Please spread the word.

Here is the blog: http://rollingwiththemovingwall2010.blogspot.com/

I am also quite honored and pleased that Sharon Denitto has requested that her excellent site, Touch The Wall, be linked here. Please visit Touch The Wall, as Sharon's hard work offers a unique perspective on The Wall, and presents information not readily found elsewhere.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It Takes A Town to Raise This Wall; It May Take This Wall To Raise A Town

It is around one in the afternoon when I make it to the shop. John stands by the work table stirring a spatula round and round in a styrofoam cup filled with with what looks to be white frosting or glue.
“So, that's the paint,” I ask.

No,” he says, with the slightly lost patience of one who's been asked the same dopey question a million times, “it's ink,” he corrects, still stirring, “We're printers. Not painters.”


And so my first lesson of the day devoted to demonstrating just how The Wall gets silkscreened is to learn that silkscreening is printing of a sort. I suppose in part it's the duplicability of it which makes it printing and not painting. Andy Warhol's original Campbell's Soup Can may have been a painting,
but every silkscreen after that was a print.
I get it.

As part of his invitation to the community, to share with them what he and his crew do inside the cavernous warehouse each winter to ready The Wall for yet another summer on the road, John had announced informally around town that anyone wanting to drop by today to see the silkscreening process was welcome to. John's demeanor also suggests that he neither expects anybody to show, nor will he make fanfare if anybody does.

As John mixes the ink, Aaron, Joy, and Lisa ready the panel to be printed. This means that they choose the panel to be silkscreened, freshly coated in a durable, high gloss black finish, and lay it flat on the table. Depending upon what panel they are preparing (it could be any one of 140; 70 West panels and 70 East panels), they will unroll the photographic transparency taken of the corresponding panel on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, carefully align it for margin, edge, and header consistency with the other of The Moving Wall's panels, and then tape the transparency precisely in place onto the panel. This they do.
Now that the transparency is secure, they can align the actual silkscreen – whose names will be printed on the panel, with the names on the transparency.

To make this alignment, they slip white paper beneath the transparency and the panel, so that the black names on the transparency show against the white background of the paper.

Then,by means of clamps and hinges, they swing over the the aluminum-framed silkscreen until it sits flat on stacks of metal spacers, an inch or two above the panel (there has to be a space between the screen and the panel; I forget the actual reason why, though I guess it's because they have to apply pressure to the silkscreen, and if it lays atop the panel the result will be more abstract art than Moving Wall). They then press down on the silkscreen in various spots and eyeball the names on the silkscreen with those of the transparency. 

Using sawed off ax handles and rubber mallets, they lay the handles flat on the table and jockey the panel back and forth with a series of horizontal and vertical taps to the the panel's top, bottom, and sides, so that the names line up perfectly.
That done, the silkscreen is swung back up. They secure the  panel in place on the table, and remove both transparency and paper, leaving the bare panel.

Enter John the Inkman. Ready to print, he puts the ink down for the moment and lowers the silkscreen back over the panel, checking the surface for irregularities (such as a warp) that could produce an irregularity in the print (faintness, blotchiness) if not corrected. He spots a warp, and instructs Joy to apply CPR-like pressure to the panel to get it to lay flat.

John then picks up the ink and pours a thick strip of the goopy ink across one end of the silkscreen.

Again putting the inkpot aside, he picks up a two or so feet long, flat stick whose one end he offers Aaron and the other he keeps for himself. He and Aaron then lay the stick flat against the silkscreen just above the ink and, spacing their hands evenly across the stick, and with what seems like quite a bit of downward pressure, they slowly drag the stick the length of the panel, squeegee-like, in so doing forcing the ink through the free spaces of the silkscreen and onto the panel.

By the the end of the inking they are a little winded, but when the silkscreen is lifted up for a peek, voila!, a printed panel.


I don't know if the ink is expensive, if John is frugal, or if, like me, he is simply conscious of waste (maybe it's all three), but after each panel has been printed, all hands grab the frame and hold tight as he squeegees the stick back and recaptures every last bit of excess ink from the printing and returns it to the cup.
When the excess ink from this panel is back in the pail, they stand the silkscreen up on its side and lean in to inspect the panel more closely. Because the transparencies are old from which the silkscreens are made, and some damaged, whatever imperfections exist on a given transparency will appear on the printed panel. Therefore, there might always be a bit of touch up – dots that are gibbous or crescent but which should be full – which call for a fine paintbrush and a steady hand. On this day Jeff, Lisa's son,  takes up this responsibility, and indeed the crew points out a number of spots for Jeff to touch-up.
As each panel bears two columns of names, a blank panel such as the one they have just printed would need to go through the whole process again to print the second column,
but before the second column of names can be added the first column's ink has to cure and harden. Bake, actually. And so following the just completed printing and touching-up, Aaron carries the heavy, steel-framed panel over to the makeshift walk-in oven John had concocted that has been heated up to between 250 and 300 degree, in which the panel will bake until “done,” about forty-five minutes to an hour.


The last step of the process (for now) sees the framed silkscreen unclamped from the table hinge and carried over to a shower stall shrouded around with reddish shower curtains. There, donning a mask and a squirt bottle, Jeff sprays the screen thoroughly with bleach, the red from the silkscreen dissolving and washing away as he does.
Once cleaned and dried, that screen will be able to be shot with the image of another panel. Tomorrow's demonstration.

Several other panels are printed that day, probably three or four in all. Because the work is so exacting, it is also quite slow. This isn't any assembly line. It is, if not art, than at least artistic.


Throughout that process, which took much longer to complete than for you to read about, I was busy taking pictures, asking questions, generally getting in the way. And so I can't say how many White Piners actually took up John's invitation. Several people came in and out, though how many of them came to see the printing, and how many just dropped by to say hi, I could not tell. I did notice one guy – Jim – who dropped by and hung around for a while. Jim, a master carpenter (he mills his own wood), sat quietly in a chair by the table, drinking a beer and watching from afar.

When the last of the panels had been printed and placed in the oven – around 4:30, we all gathered round the table to have a beer ourselves and wait for the panel to finish baking. Jim, bearded and shaggy haired under a baseball cap, a man obviously more at home in silence than in speaking, quietly said, “I had not idea it was so involved,” and took a sip.

That was all John wanted to hear. “That's my point. Not enough people know what we do out here. If they'd only come out and see, I think they'd get a better appreciation of The Wall, and what it takes to keep this thing going.” He took a sip of his Jack-splash-coke and then stared into the glass. “We've seen what happens when The Wall isn't kept up,” he said, leaning back, looking up. “A few years ago we retired the B wall and donated it to Pittsburgh State University, who built up this really nice memorial to house it permanently. I mean, they spent some money on the design and construction of the site, and we were kind of blown away. I mean, it's really nice. Has all these walkways and such. They must have spent a tone of money on it. But then they put up The Wall and just ignored it. Just left it to the elements. Well, it didn't take long for the Kansas weather to kick the crap out of it. Now, the panels are all kind of gray, and the names, you can barely see them let alone read them.

So now, they're trying to raise all this money to restore them, somehow. I think they're going to try to remake them in granite or something, something I guess they can make and then ignore.”

John, by nature, is slow to criticize, but his expression this moment does little to hide the dissatisfaction he feels toward the way The Wall has been treated out in Kansas. He says no more about it, but clearly he has more to say.

Jim leaves after a while, and other townsfolk come by, sometimes to stay for a beer, sometimes just to check in. Soon, George Thorogood's “Gear Jammer” (my pick) blares from Shanghai Kelly's jukebox, chips and salsa sail onto the table and fly off again almost immediately, and the workshop is on its way to becoming a playroom.

Drinking my beer, listening, watching, like a slow developing picture it's becoming clear to me what this shop means to White Pine, and what John wants it to mean to White Pine. By his design, the shop is as much social space for White Pine as it is workspace for The Moving Wall, and the relationship between the two, between social space and work space offers a kind of symbiosis: each breathes life into the other. Seats around the table are open to any who want to occupy them. The jukebox will play to any who want to push its buttons. The refrigerator opens to any who wants to pop a beer or chill a six. But so too, The Wall employs, in fact, proudly employs, about ten White Piners, making it one of the towns largest employers. And while I know that John isn't just going to hand out cash, I do get the sense that if someone is legitimately looking for work John will, if able, find a way to put them to work, even if for only a few hours a week. That someone who works on The Wall also sips beer at the table is natural; that someone who sips at the table might also work on The Wall is also natural. Chicken or egg.

Maybe I'm romanticizing, becoming melodramatic, but within just one day I got the sense that the shop was to White Pine what levies are to a slowly rising river. That throughout White Pine the tides of misfortune are mounting – lost jobs, lost property values, lost people, an overall lost sense of fortitude, of promise, of pride. Inside its door and walls, the shop holds back those tides. It doesn't erase them, but it doesn't admit them, either. Instead, the shop is kind of a refuge. In it, White Piners, gather in small numbers, and talk and laugh and play music and drink beer and dribble salsa down their sweatshirts, and for the time they spend in that warm chamber, perhaps themselves getting slightly baked, they are not cured of what ails them but their symptoms are chased away for a while.

In a sense, I suspect that what The Moving Wall is to the thousand-plus communities it's visited over the past quarter century, the shop of The Moving Wall is, or is becoming, to the community of White Pine. I will come back to this idea.

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