A large procession led by a woman in a walker with a large bag of paper boxes was the first sign of the event that took place at the Oregon State Capitol on Feb. 15 at 10 a.m. The woman was followed by a long line of about 100 volunteers, each carrying their own bags of 500, 250 or 100 paper “soul” boxes. The group slowly and quietly proceeded down State Street and into the Oregon Capitol building, along with a snare drummer from South Salem High, who played a solemn cadence throughout the procession.
The founder and director of the Portland-based Soul Box Project, Leslie Lee, explained what it was like to have the drummer, saying, “I can’t even tell you how much that added to it, added to the drama of the whole thing.” After walking inside the Capitol, volunteers filled the stairway of the rotunda, quietly holding up the thousands of boxes.
Featured as a one-day-only exhibit at the Oregon State Capitol, the Soul Box Project is a national community art project aimed at revealing the large number of victims of gun violence since 2014. “This is not a rally; we’re not here to make a bunch of noise. We’re here to very respectfully carry these 36 thousand souls into the Capitol,” said Lee.
According to Lee, this project was a result of watching the news about the Las Vegas shooting in Oct. of 2017. “I woke up that morning and looked at my phone, and this shooting came up, and I didn’t want to look at it. I just thought, I can’t take in one more piece of bad news. I just thought, wow, if I turned away from that, for my own comfort, if this is the way our country is going to handle this is just by looking away, we’ve got a big problem.”
As a visual artist, Lee wanted to do something to raise awareness for the gunfire epidemic, especially after discovering how many victims of gunfire violence there have been. “People can’t comprehend these kinds of numbers. Our brains aren’t made that way, and what this conversation about guns in our country needs is a visual,” she said.
The Soul Box Project is aiming to help people understand the impact of these issues. “I knew that it had to be something small, something lightweight, and easy for people to send them in,” said Lee. “It had to be something that was easy for anybody of any age to make. I had learned how to make these little origami masu boxes the year before and I thought that would work. We can put a little soul inside each of these boxes.”
Boxes are now coming in from all over the country, although mostly from Oregon because, according to Lee, this is where the project is talked about the most. People make boxes with their own groups, such as book clubs, or even individually.
“This project provides solace for people who are grieving, and for people who are just frustrated. People are responding to this project because they just want to do something. And this is a very beautiful way to address a very distressing issue,” Lee explained.
After doing another project at the Cerimon House in Portland and now at the State Capitol, the Soul Box Project is looking to set up exhibits in other public places in the future. This desire for visibility is why the Capitol was chosen for this exhibit.
“From the very beginning I had envisioned these exhibits happening in public places,” said Lee. Lee also wanted to make legislators aware of the issue. “We gave a box with an invitation to every single legislator in the building last week. I know a lot of them have come down to see what we’ve done,” she explained.
Not only is this project significant to the epidemic of gun violence, but its date is important as well. “Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Parkland Shooting, but when I booked the venue, the Parkland shooting hadn’t happened yet.” Lee added, “So that added a lot. There’s a panel in there for Parkland kids and for Oregon victims.”
That wasn’t the only thing that happened that made the exhibit special. Just before the initial procession, Lee said, “The cloud went away and the sun came out. It was such an affirming karma kind of thing.”
On its website, the Soul Box Project explains that this is a call to action, meant to bring awareness to those killed or injured by gunfire in the United States since 2014.
“We would like to be able to bridge the gap in conversation between no-gun and pro-gun because grief is grief,” said Lee. “And this is an honoring of those who were lost, and it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-gun or against guns. When you lose someone to gunfire, that’s what this project is about.”