Photo courtesy of Teru Kuwayama.
Photo courtesy of Teru Kuwayama.
From June 8–10, 2013, thousands of volunteers laid out more than one million handcrafted bones on the National Mall in an effort to raise awareness about ongoing genocide and mass atrocities. Dr. Ames Hawkins, Associate Professor in the Department of English, and Joan Giroux, Associate Professor in the Department of Art + Design, participated in the project as leaders of TEAM GREAT LAKES.

One Million Bones

Collaboration, Interdisciplinarity, and Art Activism


It was a bittersweet moment when Joan Giroux, Associate Professor in the Department of Art + Design (SFPA), and I watched seven pallets holding nearly thirty-five thousand handcrafted bones get hoisted onto a UPS trailer. It was May 28, 2013, and the bones were being shipped to our nation’s capital, where, just days later, thousands of volunteers would lay them out on the national Mall—the culmination of the One Million Bones project.

For the past five years, Joan and I worked together to spearhead efforts at Columbia College Chicago, and in the Great Lakes region, to support this project, which aims to use education, hands-on art making, and public installations as a way to raise awareness about genocide and mass atrocities in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Syria, to name a few.

Together, Joan and I made bones, moved bones, counted bones, boxed bones, stacked bones, and engaged in all manner of work—intellectual, emotional, pedagogical, physical—to support the larger vision of Naomi Natale, Founder and Director of One Million Bones. Joan and I created curricula, schlepped clay, talked to media, made college visits, negotiated with administration, encouraged students, and provided support to community groups.

Through co-teaching J-Session art activism courses, and in coördination with Columbia’s First-Year Writing and First-Year Seminar programs and outreach to numerous high schools across Chicago and colleges in Ohio and Michigan, the two of us estimate that we brought the experience and important message of One Million Bones to more than ten-thousand people.

Why, some might want to know, would we spend so much time on someone else’s project and vision? Certainly, we support One Million Bones in its effort to bring an end to genocide. But, perhaps even more than that, we believe in the significance and utility of relationships that emerge from a shared desire to change the world for the greater good. We believe that art and art activism can catalyze such change. And we believe in the power of collaboration to effect such change.

Goals of collaboration differ from those of coöperation. When individuals coöperate, they work together to execute agreed-upon goals. In the case of collaboration, the goal is not merely to execute one person’s particular vision; rather, the goal is to have a shared vision that guides the collaborative process and ends with a finished product that is more than what was imagined at the outset.

Yet Joan and I know that our success with respect to this project is not solely the result of our two-way collaboration. Countless other individuals and groups were willing to do more than coöperate with our desire to make and collect bones. One such powerful collaboration was with “The Hokin Project,” an arts management practicum course taught by Bob Blandford, Associate Professor in the Department of Arts, Entertainment, and Media Management. In April of 2012, Bob’s class took material and content collected by our 2012 J-Session class to produce “Crafting Hope: An Arts Activism Project.” During the month-long run of this interactive installation, more than thirty classes and community groups crafted five-thousand bones in the Hokin Gallery at Columbia College Chicago.

team great lakes

As with any long-term project, it’s often hard to believe when it’s over. And yet this end provides cause to acknowledge the final collaboration regarding our work on One Million Bones. On June 8 of this year, partially supported by the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Departments of English and Art +Design, Joan and I traveled to Washington, D.C. as leaders of TEAM GREAT LAKES, a group of more than fifty individuals, including many students, faculty members, and alumni, who, alongside a few thousand other volunteers, laid out more than one million bones on the national Mall.

As serious and urgent as the cause to end genocide is the collective sensibility of the moment was palpable joy. For many days skies that were previously plagued by the threat of rain cleared and became blue. Countless visitors and passers-by stopped to take photographs, to Instagram, to talk with us, to acknowledge our efforts. Some asked if they, too, could lay out a few bones and become part of the action—art for change. It was a collaborative journey to the very end.

Ames Hawkins, PhD, is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English at Columbia College Chicago. Her areas of interest include ethnography as a pedagogical approach to the writing classroom, computers and composition, popular culture, and LGBT writing and studies. Photo above: Members of TEAM GREAT LAKES at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photo above courtesy of Jason Malley.