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John Lamb, Published November 13 2010

Moorhead artist sews stories of immigration and humanity

Postville, Iowa, is 415 miles away, but what happened there in May 2008 struck close to home for a Moorhead woman. Lana Suomala remembers hearing about the immigration raid on a meatpacking plant in the small northeastern Iowa community. It made national news at the time as the largest single raid on an American workplace, resulting in nearly 400 arrests.

Suomala saw the news, but hearing from her sister and brother-in-law in nearby Decorah, Iowa, added another level of intrigue. Like many of those arrested, Suomala’s brother-in-law is Guatemalan. Unlike those arrested, he is a legal permanent resident of the United States.

Suomala’s sister and husband began working as advocates for some of the detainees and their families. Through her family connection, the artist heard more and more of the detainees’ stories.

“Their situations were so tragic once I got to know them,” Suomala says of those affected by the raid. “So much was unjust in their immigration process and work conditions and legal treatment.”

The situation drove her to get involved in a very colorful way: by sewing.

The Moorhead High School Spanish teacher took needle and thread to fabric – felt, to be precise – and created vibrant wall hangings explaining aspects of the lives of the immigrants.

The pieces hang in her solo show, “Humans on the Move,” at the Spirit Room in Fargo through Nov. 28.

“It’s so multilayered with different textures and dimensions,” Dawn Morgan, executive director of the Spirit Room, says in praise of the show.

Playing the game

Inspired by cards in the Mexican board game of chance Loteria, the 37-year-old fashioned panels that speak to the migrant and immigrant experience for a part of the show called “The Game.”

One shows a traditional smiling face in the sun. Another is less warm, depicting a traffic sign warning of a family of skeletons running above the word “prohibido.” Below is the translation: “prohibited.”

Another shows a girl crying in bed, surrounded by dolls, three of them running down a road. Stitched onto the piece are letters spelling out “muñecas quitapenas,” translated into “worry dolls.”

On the one-year anniversary Suomala visited with some of the women whose husbands had been jailed in the Postville raid and showed them prints of her loteria set.

She said many of the women were used to working with their hands and could relate to the stitched work. Some became very emotional and cried and opened up with more stories.

“It was exciting to make something about them and share it with them,” she says. “I think they were very surprised that someone cared and took so much time to convey their stories.”

Across the border

Suomala’s show is divided into three parts. The loteria pieces tell the ordeals of some immigrants’ journey to the United States, relying on smugglers, or “coyotes,” and the dangers of crossing the border, like the traffic sign warning of families crossing.

The next stage for Suomala was exploring boundaries in the portion called “Barriers: Real and Imagined.”

One felt wall hanging shows the Statue of Liberty looming on the other side of a bullet-ridden wall with “Bienvenidos,” or “Welcome,” scrawled across.

Another shows a red heart split in two, symbolizing families separated by borders and immigration policies.

The next phase was to study “push factors,” or “what compels people internationally to move,” she explains.

“I grew more aware of our broken immigration system and, worldwide, how so many people are on the move for reasons beyond their control,” she says.

Poverty, war, injustice and land degradation are all major reasons and all featured in 11 “Human Migration Mobiles” she constructed of discarded household objects.

In a piece called “War” she shapes an old belt to look like a machine gun, with the buckle as the trigger. Another, “Uneven Distribution of Wealth,” shows fat pieces of pie on a serving platter, but hanging from forks on the fringes are scraps of food.

Not trying to preach

Suomala used felt for the base of her art because it was a common household material that is cost-effective. But, as an educator, she also knew the value of having tactile works, like her wall hangings.

She used mobiles as a medium to encourage interaction with the work.

“Usually you think of mobiles as something like a child’s decoration, something beautiful and most of these are not beautiful, but harsh realities,” Suomala says.

Suomala says she’s not trying to preach and doesn’t see the show as being too political. Instead, she just wants to emphasize the human aspects, help people see those who are involved as more than just “illegals.”

Barry Nelson calls the show “very powerful” and says it helps the viewer imagine what it would be like to walk in another person’s shoes.

Last Saturday Nelson, a social activist in Fargo-Moorhead, talked about his experiences with the “Cass 23,” the 23 itinerant Indian workers arrested in 2008 for obtaining counterfeit Social Security cards, though supporters insisted they were the victims of human trafficking.

Dawn Morgan, executive director of the Spirit Room, says the three talks about migration and immigration held in conjunction with the exhibit have been very popular.

Today at 4 p.m., Andrew Conteh, a professor of political science at Minnesota State University Moorhead, will discuss human trafficking and possible solutions to combat it.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533