Uprooted artist's installation challenges tendency to remain distant from refugees' experiences

The family farm was the last place Brian Reaume expected to be. The artist had been working and living in Columbus for 17 years, finding here a place he could call home with a supportive, encouraging and progressive community.

But after his father suffered a stroke and a recurrence of cancer, Reaume “made a life choice. Now I'm a farmer and an artist,” he said by phone from the barn he had converted to a staging space to work on “A Gilding Denial,” an installation on view at Blockfort. (A reception and complete installation was held Aug. 5, but much of the work remains on view through the end of August.)

Reaume knew the arrangement would be a challenge. He had to tell his parents, “Between planting (750 acres, thank you very much) and harvest, you're not going to see me much.”

“They've always been supportive of me [and] come to my shows, but seeing me work is a journey for them,” Reaume said. “I'm like a method actor. I have to completely inhabit this realm.”

Despite the love and encouragement from his parents, Reaume knew from an early age that farming wasn't his calling. At age 12, he witnessed his brother die in a farming accident, and it “kind of beat the farm out of me,” he said. The rural northern Michigan community also proved a difficult one in which to spend his adolescence and young adulthood.

“Growing up in this area and being queer was not conducive to happiness,” Reaume said. “I was always a little bit more out there.”

That said, Reaume has always had choices of where and how he chose to make his home. Both leaving the farm and returning, while difficult for different reasons, were his choices. For “A Gilding Denial,” he was inspired by stories of those who haven't had that luxury.

“I wanted to focus on the human crisis of refugees uprooted, having their lives torn apart,” Reaume said. “I was noticing, as I was thinking about it in greater detail, that we gild the whole experience. These terrible ordeals are portrayed on the news while we're eating dinner. We're inundated with instant knowledge and resources for news, but [these stories] mean nothing to us.

“The new ‘I'll pray for you' is ‘I'll post for you.' As an atheist, I don't know what either is worth. In our unwillingness to do anything, we deny that there's anything we can do, and in that we're gilding something ugly.”

The installation includes quilts, fabric sculptures, dolls and other materials covered in barnacles, which addresses the land and sea by which refugees travel and also the concept of static-ness — of life in a refugee camp where life becomes stationary, covered in metaphorical barnacles. Photography and video are also used to address our shared humanity.

“[Refugees'] unwillingness to give up grips me in my sternum,” Reaume said. “We feel like we have to do something grand, but we can all make small gestures. I want people to bring their ideas to this work, to start connecting the dots and to start a conversation.”