People from all walks of life will gather at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis Wednesday evening to mark the fifth anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.
The event, called "Bridge: The Gathering," will feature poetry, music and drama inspired by the collapse, and a new exhibition of photographs of the people directly touched by the disaster.
The genesis of the event goes back to one man, Vance Gellert, and the walk he took across the Washington Avenue bridge one evening shortly after the collapse. Looking over the railing, he saw where investigators had been laying out the remnants of the 35W bridge as they tried to work out what had happened.
"One thing that struck me was just how spindly that thing was. How did it do its job? And finally it didn't," said Gellert sitting in his south Minneapolis home.
As a photographer, Gellert immediately thought about making portraits of the collapse survivors. And just about as immediately, he realized how hard that project would be, given the horror and the sadness surrounding what happened. But he couldn't shake the idea, and two years later he got a State Arts Council grant to begin.
"It was tough," he admits.
Many of the people involved were tired of the attention, exhausted and traumatized by what had happened. But Gellert kept going, photographing and interviewing people. His list expanded to the first responders, the families of the people who died and others thrown together by the events of August 1, 2007.
Most of them he met at their homes, but one man wanted his picture taken on the riverflats, and Gellert found himself down by the river where the bridge pieces still remained. Gellert said he'd forgotten about them until then.
"It was like a sculpture park as I looked through there. So I shinneyed under the fence. That's why I stay skinny," he laughs. "It was surreal. It was absolutely surreal walking through there, understanding all that that represented and all the human experience that is wrapped up in all the tormented metal you might say."
But he also noticed the plants growing amidst the wreckage. He saw it as a symbol of evolution, of moving on.
He also came to understand how the bridge collapse touched anyone who had ever crossed the bridge, and that needed to be addressed.
"We realize that this runs through all of us, that we all have a bit of a collective guilt for not being on there. It was just a matter of luck that we weren't on there," he said.
Everyone he met had a story about that night, and it seemed to him there needed to be a way of bringing the community together to consider what had happened. Gellert went to the city with the project. He met Gulgun Kayim, Minneapolis' director of arts, culture and creative economy, and she saw even more potential in what Gellert had gathered.
"I suggested to Vance, 'Well maybe those interviews can be used by other arts organizations who are spoken-word focused to build on that,' " she said.
Gellert agreed and Kayim contacted a number of people about commissioning responses. One of them was Eric Lorberer, editor of the Rain Taxi Review of Books, whom Kayim asked to commission a poem to mark the fifth anniversary of the collapse. He set to the task, but ran into a problem: the subject matter was almost too big.
"Pretty quickly talking with local poets, no one wanted that responsibility," he said.
So Lorberer commissioned seven poets, including Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen. She said at first the idea of writing a poem about the collapse was overwhelming, but she saw a need.
"Oblivion is a bad thing. Forgetting," she said.
Sutphen admits she struggled for a while, but after reading Vance Gellert's interviews, she said the poem wrote itself. She said in the fast-paced modern world an artistic reflection can help someone pause and consider a trauma.
"A photograph, or some music or a poem, or story. That's a way for capturing that moment, and holding it and keeping it," she said.
Wednesday's ceremony will include a musical piece commissioned by Nautilus Music Theater, and a short drama commissioned by the Playwrights Center. Tickets for the ceremony are sold out, but the opening of the photographic show in the Mill City Museum, which will follow immediately after, is open to the public. Gellert hopes "Bridge: The Gathering" inspires conversation in the larger community.
"We have never had a chance to talk about it, together with those that were on it," he said. "That's what this bridge is about: to bring us together."
For the show Vance Gellert has placed the 50 portraits close together, like a structure, like a bridge support. They'll be on display through December.
The city's Kayim hopes the music and drama may be developed into longer pieces. The poems will be distributed in a chapbook.