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The Big Show

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COLUMBUS–I headed west. It was not heading west in the way that that resonates in my mind. Not back to the southwestern deserts of my coming of age and the places and people that helped set my path southward through Mexico and Central America. I headed west to Ohio. Suddenly our new home was in Washington. Not even two months earlier I had been in El Salvador when news of my wife’s new job finally arrived and the time in between had been a blur of packing and errands and goodbyes. The month was measured in hours rather than days and then finally we were gone, heading farther east and now, as it once had been, Ohio was the western frontier and Arizona out of reach.

This exhibit, “The Riches of Central America: The People, Customs and Culture,” was nearly 15 years in the making. Since 2000 when I was a reporter at the Wooster Daily Record and accompanied Central American Medical Outreach on a weeklong medical brigade to Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras, I had been traveling to, obsessing about, planning returns and saying goodbyes to that strange crumpled land between North and South.

I had exhibited photos from these trips in many shows and many forums: art galleries, libraries, churches, community centers, colleges. But the exhibitions had always been fairly specific. They were images from this trip, or working with that group, a documentary project on a group or area. This exhibit was different. It would be photos, large photos for the most part, from any and all of my trips, any country, any project. Accompanying the images would be textiles, carvings, costumes– the various artifacts I had collected along the way. I had dreamed about this exhibit, had planned and visualized it for years. Now it was ready. It was hanging in the McConnell Art Center in Worthington, Ohio, taking up the main gallery and hall outside and space in the entry room.

I arrived back in Columbus the day before the opening. It was overwhelming standing in the gallery. Every image wrapped up in the making of it, of where I was in the world and where I was in life. I could smell and feel every one of them. What the sun was like. Who I was with, what camera I was holding. Who I loved or had lost. To have all that around at one time was intense, almost disorienting. Like windows into my past.

The images are an act of memory and remembering in the moment they were taken. They take and tear a hole in time. Leave it open. Allow you to partially return. I felt dizzy for a moment. I thought of the people I met along the way, who helped me get to those places, to get home safely, who took me on side journeys to other countries on other continents, about those who made this exhibit possible.

And I thought about the Long Central American Goodbye as I called it. The cycle of leavings and returns and how my last trip really had felt like goodbye. For the time being anyway. From Washington we would be going even farther East though I did not know it when I stood in that gallery. So far East that there was not a lot of East left to go. Maybe someday I would return to Arizona from that direction. No backtracking allowed. We were going to the big show.

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