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Everything's Coming Up Peace Bells


By Larry Johnson

Long ago people learned to make bowls of clay, to eat and drink from.  Accident and experimentation taught them that tapping the bowls made sound, and metals, especially bronze, made better sound.  An inverted bowl became a bell to sound danger, or call to meal or meeting.  In times of war, too many bells have been melted down to make weapons of violence to further, in a paraphrase of Eisenhower’s famous quote, a theft of food from the bowls of too many people of the world.

Thanks to the State Arts Board and the voters of Minnesota, thru a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, veterans and activists worked with sculptor Gita Ghei this year to make their own bell of peace.  Our long, hard work of restoring the peaceful symbolism of the 1918 Armistice,  became the backdrop for allowing this to happen.  Over 6 months we built a solid community as we drew designs, made wax molds, mixed and poured a plaster casts, and finally poured the bronze that became each bell.  Bruce Berry, Matt Bockley, Heinz Brummel, Stephen Gates, Ted John, Larry Johnson, Steve McKeown, Lorrie O’Neal, Jim Ricci, John Thomas, Chante Wolf, and Craig Wood, all did the peaceful, meditative, artistic work of creating their own bell to ring out peace.  I also can’t thank our great treasurer, Tim Hansen, enough for managing all the finances of the special arts grant.  The message and the symbolism is so important, but it falls out of sight if the support work fails.  Tim makes it work.

Stephen Gates, veteran and bellmaker, said, “After spending years in denial about the meaning of my military experience, I landed on the desire to create peace on earth.  I’m a visual artist, but always wanted to do some casting.  This project allowed me to do that, helping to make some sound ripple into the pond of peace”.   I’m not a visual artist, and would not have signed on to this, except for what it was about.  I’m a storyteller, a “word artist”, so my own bell has a simple design, good sound, and the words “Ring Out Light”.  I researched the songs and stories, the history of bells.  The Liberty Bell (bell of freedom) was cast 3 times, and each time it cracked, thus Leonard Cohen’s song, “Ring the bells that still can ring; forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in”.  I was thinking of the saying, “First casualty of war is truth”, and the New Testament saying, “Know the truth that will make you free”.  When someone says, “Thank you for fighting for our freedom”, I say, “I’m fighting for the truth that makes us free; the light that shines into the darkness”.  My bell rings out the light of truth.

The peace bells grant called for a culminating public event, so we staged an evening on March 20, World Storytelling Day, at Plymouth Congregational Church.  World Storytelling Day grew from an earlier 1990s annual  event in Scandinavia, and  began in 2003, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq.  Every year since then, on or around March 20, there are events in 25 or more countries worldwide, all in the spirit of “If I can hear your story, it’s harder for me to hate you”.   Our event began with the Plymouth Bell Choir, led by Cammy Carteng, playing Dona Nobis Pacem.  As we gave a Kellogg-Briand Pact banner to Plymouth minister, Jim Gertmenian, we were still putting down extra chairs for the over 125 people who filled the room.  Steve McKeown told the history and deep meaning of our work with Armistice Peace Bells.  VFP member, Wes Davey, rang a bell made from a World War I artillery shell.  We had failed at getting discarded shells to melt into the mix that our bells were cast from, so this contribution from Curt Oliver, former music director at Macalester Plymouth Church, added that element.  Jack Pearson, musician/storyteller, led us in “If I Had a Bell to Ring”, and played music on a jaw harp made from melted down pieces of a crashed B-17.  Rose McGee, storyteller/musician, told the story of her father, African/American World War II Veteran, coming back into life.   Elaine Wynne, storyteller, told the Irish Folktale “Peddlar of Ballaghadreen”, with the old Peddlar’s deliberate “putting one foot ahead of another” to get where St. Patrick said he needed to be going,  so reminiscent of the hard, painstaking work it is to make peace happen.  The inspirational evening ended with words of meaning from the bellmakers, who then rang the bells they made, simultaneously, 11 times.

We thought March 20 was our closing, celebratory event, but even as we were planning it, we were asked to be a part of the annual Festival of Nations at River Centre in St. Paul.  The Festival of Nations is an enormous event, with two days for students and teachers, and two open to the general public.  It’s organized by the International Institute each year, and draws thousands of visitors from the five state area.   The theme this year was “Peace Among the Nations”, and Linda DeRoode, Festival Director, asked us to have a Peace Bell Exhibit and to ring Bells of Peace each day at 11.  Dale Rott, retired Bethel College Professor, and Festival mainstay, found our work on the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and asked Steve McKeown to help build a Kellogg exhibit at the Festival.  He also built an indoor Peace Garden with Walter Enloe of Hamline, and asked Elaine and I to tell the Sadako story we have told for many years at the August 6 Hiroshima Remembrance at the Lake Harriet Peace Garden.  We asked, “Well, then how about the Frank Kellogg story too”, so 3 of the 4 days we told, each hour, either the story of Sadako, the young girl in Hiroshima who inspired the world to fold cranes for peace, or the story of Frank Kellogg, the only Minnesotan to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  The other day, Margi Preus, of Duluth read her children’s book about the Duluth Peace Bell.

It was an amazing experience which we could not have planned.  We talked with many teachers with interest in having us come speak, or help them do their own November 11 Armistice remembrance.  Some talked of having a kiln in school and of engineering  their own casting of peace bells.    Steve  arranged for us to give copies of David Swanson’s When the World Outlawed War to a number of teachers who clearly had the interest and commitment to use it in their teaching and share with others in the school.

Chante created a beautiful photographic table display of the bellmaking process, and all in all, we were well received.  Our message, framed by the visual of casting bells for peace, was delivered in the spirit of a 1929 speech by President Calvin Coolidge at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day.   Coolidge, President when the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed, said, “We are gathered to remember those who gave their lives in service to the country, and there is no greater tribute we could pay than to do everything possible to keep such wars from happening again”.    Elaine worked the table a couple days and said, “So many students asked about the bells.  When I said veterans made them because they’re looking for better ways to solve conflict than war, they said, ‘ Cool.  Just like Gandhi’.  Many were clearly from countries torn by war, and their faces brightened to learn that veterans of war were trying to turn that around”.

Dale Rott gave us multiple comp tickets for workers to enter the festival.  I won’t try to name them here, but thanks to all the members who came to be at our exhibit and talk to festival visitors about what we do and why.  I hope you all got to also get out and visit the festival.  The day I managed that, I found many wonderful stories from around the world.  Taiwan’s exhibit focused on Kinmen Memorial Park, where they have a Peace Bell made from shells fired at them in a 1958 battle.   Italy showcased St. Francis, and Maria Montessori, who built an outstanding educational system in Italy, but was chased out when she refused to let it serve the fascism growing up in Europe.  Wherever she went, she sowed the seeds of educating children to be “whole” creators of peace, and when government systems didn’t want her, she moved on, hoping her efforts would secretly keep growing.  Czechoslavakia highlighted Vaclev Havel, the great artist/leader, whose “velvet revolution” had a whole lot more to do with the end of the Berlin Wall than did the supposedly famous Reagan “Tear down that wall” speech.   When Havel died, candles burned all over the country, and then some artists gathered all the wax and built a 7 foot candle, celebrating Havel’s leadership.  As a writer/playwright, he said many memorable things, but as an activist leader of his country, he said things like “I really do live in a world where words are more powerful than 10 military divisions”.  May our Bells of Peace keep ringing out such light. 

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