Tom Hall has been working toward his upcoming exhibit at the Schweinfurth Art Gallery, The Accidental Immigrant, since he immigrated to the United States from England four years ago. An art professor at Syracuse University, he and his family live in Fayetteville.
"(The United States) isn’t the place you expect it to be," Hall said. "It’s much more nuanced than that. What I found was a warmth, an old-fashioned sense of family and community that appears to have moved on in Europe."
During summer 2016, Hall, his wife, and their two sons drove from Syracuse to Utah to get a taste for middle America. "It’s huge!" Hall said. "Yet most of the countryside has been affected by humans. The scale means there’s a loneliness about the place, a harshness about the place. This is the America we don’t see in Europe."
Hall’s current focus on immigrants was sparked by a 2015 image that shocked the world: The body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy whose family was trying to reach relatives in Canada washed up on a Turkish beach.
"I was angry: Angry that it happened, angry that it took an image like that to prick our collective conscience to the situation that immigrants face," he said. "Is that what our morality has come to? That we can only react when we see a horrible image like that? That was the moment I decided to focus on immigrants in my art."
Hall said he could sympathize with the situation that led to the toddler washed up on the beach, but he wasn’t sure if he could empathize with it, if he could truly understand what would make someone risk their lives to try to make it to the promised land, to the utopia of another country.
He decided to look for equivalences in his own life experience, and his artwork reflects that. One piece in his show incorporates iPhones with the bright colors of the instrument panels on the bridge of the starship in the original series Star Trek television show from the 1960s. "Star Trek is the utopian ideal," Hall said, "a sense of hope."
Another piece reflects the essential equipment that an immigrant crossing the U.S.-Mexican border would carry with them: a backpack, a blanket roll, and a jug of water, all covered with tiny mirrors.
The centerpiece of the exhibit are several wooden guns of different shapes and sizes that hang from the ceiling. But the guns aren’t a statement on violence in America. They are a statement about Hall’s childhood, when he envisioned himself as a cowboy and always carried around a toy gun, and people from his life.
"These are ray guns, space guns that represent the alien, the immigrant," Hall said. "I see the guns as people in my life." He pointed to one, a big gun decorated with plaid paint. "That one is David, who emigrated from Burma, carrying a sick, elderly uncle on his back across mountains and through a jungle. He’s the nicest, sweetest, most wonderful anonymous person who is working hard to take care of his family. That’s the potential of every immigrant that comes to this country.
"People walk countries to get to the promised land of safety," Hall continued. "People give all their money to strangers, knowing that so many people don’t make it. Can I understand what kind of situation brings people to do that? No, but I can try to find equivalences in my own life."
Perhaps viewers of Hall’s work can, too. The Accidental Immigrant will be on display at the Schweinfurth Art Center, 205 Genesee St., Auburn, from April 20 to June 17, 2018. The opening is set for 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, and Hall will be giving a talk about his work at 6 p.m. May 4 at the art center.
Schweinfurth Art Center is funded, in part, by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
If you go…
Who: Artist Tom Hall
What: The Accidental Immigrant exhibit
Where: Schweinfurth Art Center’s Davis Family Gallery, 205 Genesee St. Auburn, NY
When: April 20 to June 17, 2018
Opening: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, April 20, 2018
Artist lecture: 6 p.m. Friday, May 4, 2018
Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
Cost: $7 per person to tour Made in NY, The Accidental Immigrant, and Ill Fusions; free for children 12 and under, members, and artists in the shows