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Jun 5, 2021

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's a cliche - but no less true because it's a cliche - that the U.S. is politically divided, you know? Red states and blue states, Republican and Democrat. But artist Ann Morton is trying to counter that division with something she calls "The Violet Protest." Reporter Anthony Wallace of member station KJZZ in Phoenix visited the installation and sent us this report.

ANTHONY WALLACE, BYLINE: In 2020, Ann Morton put out a call on social media, asking people to create 8-inch-by-8-inch textile squares that use equal parts red and blue.

ANN MORTON: That combination of red and blue on the color wheel is violet. What I like about that word is it's one letter away from violent.

WALLACE: More than 2,000 people from all over the country responded. They sent nearly 10,000 squares that are on exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum.

MORTON: As you can see, there's just a multitude of creativity here. But within that framework, it all fits into the larger picture. That's how democracy works.

WALLACE: Morton is still receiving textile squares, some knitted, woven or sewn. And all of those submitted by the end of July will be divided and sent to every member of Congress. She says the exhibitions already had an impact on some local politicians who've seen it, including Phoenix's mayor.

MORTON: I hope that we can move some people to maybe reconsider or consider more carefully how they're approaching their decision-making.

WALLACE: "The Violet Protest" is being exhibited in a room in the back of the Phoenix Art Museum down in a basement area, a refuge from the stress and conflict of the real world, almost a sanctuary. Museum patrons are greeted by a stack of thousands of submitted textile squares as tall as a child. They're arranged in the shape of the letters U-S, for us and the United States. Two walls are covered floor to ceiling with squares, displaying images like state birds or civic buildings and messages like compromise or vote. Thirty-five-year-old Savannah Gordon from Oregon contributed more than 20 squares.

SAVANNAH GORDON: I kind of focused more on the Earth and nature, a little bit of history. I did a square that had a Native American on there and a ship. And I love people, and I love our planet. I don't want to be divided. It's terrible. It affects all of us.

WALLACE: Kitty Spangler, from Pittsburgh, has made 90 squares and counting.

KITTY SPANGLER: This one says the word unity. And this woven ribbon across the bottom I think of as people being mixed together and intertwined.

WALLACE: Many museum visitors find the installation powerful, like 20-year-old Shanna Bragg.

SPANGLER: I just kind of think it's amazing that so many people have a different idea of what unity is, but, like, as you can see, they're still together.

WALLACE: And New Phoenix resident Nivea Green.

NIVEA GREEN: I'm from Mississippi. So the quilt's just like a really big part of our history that dates back to slavery. So it definitely kind of reminds me of, like, telling a story.

WALLACE: Christopher Federico, professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, says political polarization means people's positions on logically unrelated things, like COVID-19 restrictions and voter ID rules are often aligned. So there's friction and widespread disagreement.

CHRISTOPHER FEDERICO: So it's not so much that people are more extremely liberal and conservative than they used to be; it's really that partisan identification. Whether you identify as a Democrat or a Republican, that's aligned with a lot more things to a much greater extent than it used to be.

WALLACE: Each "Violet Protest" square is its own individual expression. The thousands of ideas on the wall represent many unique interpretations of common problems, not just two. And they come together to form a powerful, singular statement - unity.

For NPR News, I'm Anthony Wallace in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYLE'S "PINKTREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.