As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Lee.
Leslie Lee is a purpose driven, passionate artist and the founder of The Soul Box Project, a national community art project that collects and exhibits thousands of hand-folded origami boxes to raise awareness of the U.S. gunfire epidemic. Each Soul Box holds space for one life lost or injured by gun violence, defense, accident or suicide. In only a few short years, The Soul Box Project has inspired a national movement focused on people — not politics. More than 146,000 Soul Boxes have been made so far, with more being folded everyday. Soul Box Project installations have been displayed around the country and in an Online Exhibit since the COVID-19 pandemic. The largest event to date — an exhibit of 200,000 Soul Boxes and procession involving hundreds of volunteers — is planned for The National Mall in Washington DC in October 2021.
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Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been an artist my whole life — a designer, illustrator, sculptor and painter — in that order. My husband is also an artist and we share adjoining studios and make a living making art. My work has gone through many incarnations and the older I got, the more I was creating art with a social message, looking to affect positive change. But, unless you’re really well known, not that many people actually see your sculpture or paintings, so there’s not much chance to make a societal impact.
All that changed on the morning of October 2, 2017 when I opened my phone and a news story about a mass shooting in Las Vegas popped up. I swiped it away. It was too much. My sister was in hospice. My niece, a filmmaker, had just been arrested for covering the climate issue. I didn’t want to read about yet another dreadful shooting — I needed to take care of myself. Later, I went to the gym and all six of the TV screens in front of the treadmills were tuned to news talking about the 59 people who had been shot dead, the 422 who had been injured by bullets, and the 399 who had been injured in the panic when bullets rained down on a music festival not far from the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
I was appalled — not only by the massacre, which was horrible, but by the realization that I had turned away from it for my own comfort. Worse, I knew I wasn’t the only one doing this. I suspected a great majority of people in this country were doing the exact same thing. Not because we don’t care, but because we don’t know what we can do about any of it. And I thought: how is this ever going to change if we all turn away?
I was moved to look up statistics on gun deaths and injuries and found numbers so huge they were incomprehensible. As an artist I knew what was needed was a visual — a way for people to SEE the gunfire epidemic, to FEEL the losses in a visceral way — in their hearts — and be motivated to DO something positive. I wanted to create a visual so beautiful and engaging that people would not turn away — something that would count and honor gunfire victims by literally holding space for them. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. There needed to be a huge number of some kind of unit — something small, lightweight, easy for anyone to make, for everyone concerned to engage in.
I’d recently learned to fold a lidded origami box and thought that would work. From there it was a short jump to Soul Box. I visualized each one representing someone killed or injured by gunfire and we could raise awareness by displaying thousands and thousands of them in public places. My idea solidified, I put up a website, rented a PO Box and within weeks Soul Boxes began arriving.
As people responded I realized we were creating something similar to the AIDS Quilt, which was spectacularly successful with its influence. We were building a national community art Project — an ARTivism movement. This movement has expanded so much, I’m now focused solely on the Soul Box Project and my own art will have to wait. My painting studio has become my office; my easel replaced with computer screens connecting me with others who care.
Like the AIDS Quilt, the Soul Box Project is about individuals finding solace by making art and contributing to a larger cause; something bigger and more beautiful when united, more impactful and memorable than what any single artist could create. Through this Project my long-time goal of art influencing society has started. The goal now is to carry it through by touring Soul Box exhibits all around the country and reaching as many hearts and minds as possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I knew from the start that people would appreciate folding origami and embellishing their Soul Boxes with names and messages. Creating Soul Boxes is satisfying. The Box is easy to fold and personalize. Making them is quite calming — even healing — requiring mindfulness and creativity. I hoped folding Soul Boxes could help the makers as well as holding space for the victims.
I had an opportunity to introduce my idea right away because my husband and I were scheduled to participate in a citywide Portland Open Studio Tour. I created flyers describing my Soul Box idea and showed people how to fold the Boxes. We had lively conversations about the power of art to activate change. When the tour was over there was nothing to do but wait.
About a week later there was a knock on my studio door. I opened it to find a woman I didn’t know standing there with a whole armful of Soul Boxes she had made. She was smiling as she handed them to me — and thanked me for the opportunity to be part of the Project. That was the moment I realized my idea might actually help heal by offering people something tangible to do.
But the power of exhibiting this Project really hit me when we took 36,000 Soul Boxes to the Oregon state capitol in February 2019 — one Box for every gunfire death in the U.S. the previous year. A hundred people reverently carried clear bags full of Soul Boxes in procession following me, and a nervous high school kid with his snare drum, into the Capitol building. It still gives me goose bumps to remember how it felt to stand at the top of the steps and watch them enter to that funereal drumbeat. The stack of Soul Boxes in the lobby ended up being 10 feet by 16 feet and 8 feet tall. As I saw police officers, staffers, legislators and random people passing by with tears in their eyes, I realized — this really works. People are seeing the impact of this gunfire epidemic and it is powerful.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This Project is about revealing the gunfire epidemic and that’s a very solemn focus so I don’t have a funny story, but I can give an example of how naïve I was starting out. I’m an artist, not an administrator, so there was a steep learning curve ahead of me. When I created my first mailing list, I didn’t know what I was doing so when the data field asked for first names — I entered ‘yes’ thinking — yes, I want to include first names. Every first name on our mailing list became ‘Yes’ and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it.
The lesson I learned was — as a studio artist now running a non-profit, I needed competent staff and volunteers to do all the things I can’t do. Thankfully the Project has attracted those people and they are absolutely essential.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The social impact of the Soul Box Project happens in two ways. First, each individual Box represents one life cut short, one person no longer with us, and one family now grieving. Those individual stories are heartbreaking and showcase the people behind the statistics. Each Soul Box becomes a memorial, whether it’s named for a specific person, has a heartfelt message or image or even if it’s unadorned, because those Boxes represent victims, often suicides, whose names we may never know.
Folding the individual Boxes also gives people a way to get involved in this issue when they are conscious of the problem but not personally affected. Sometimes Box-makers request names of those who have been killed, and they look up those people online to understand who they were and what their lives were like. This can be a real eye opener for a person of privilege and helps build empathy.
Secondly, there is the collective social impact when many Boxes are gathered together in a public art installation. These are incredibly powerful because it’s a way for people to get a sense of the depth and breadth of the losses and how many lives have been impacted by gun violence, defense, accidents and suicides. Our online exhibit, which we started during COVID, adds 3,000 Soul Boxes every month representing the number of lives lost to gunfire every 30 days. There are now over 15,000 Soul Boxes in that virtual exhibit — one for each of those lives. Viewing it can change the way you feel about this issue. At our in-person exhibits we always have boxes of tissue handy; people are often moved to tears with the realization that they hadn’t fully appreciated the scope and scale of human loss. These massive art installations are truly heartbreaking and provoke a desire for action to diminish the bloodshed.
Whether we reach people with hundreds of thousands of Soul Boxes online or in person, we want to inspire change. We want people to have an ‘aha’ moment where they realize they don’t have to wait for legislation — that they, as individuals, can make an immediate difference. One way is by supporting the Soul Box Project to help heal our collective grief and contribute to an inspiring national movement working to save.