Smiling Statues

Smiling Statues was a project in which I made 91 smiling statuettes and distributed them around New York City (and elsewhere). Each Smiler had a note attached to it, which asked the finder to tell me how they found it and to tell me the Smiler was safe. I asked people to submit a photo and their stories via e-mail or on the website, www.smilingstatues.com.

From a storytelling perspective — and an academic one — I was trying to give people gifts first, in hopes of getting a story from them. In most instances, storytellers ask for a story, and then give a “payment” in the form of that story being presented in a beautiful way. In addition, when we ask for stories, it’s often very direct; we’re asking questions. But I wanted these statues to create narratives on their own, and I wanted people to relate their stories within that narrative. I thought this object and this even of finding a statue would give people an entryway into telling an interesting story — and enjoy themselves.

That said, I had a more extensive reflection on the actual Smiling Statues website, which I’ve pasted below.

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In the first few days of statue distribution, I stumbled upon a homeless guy on 4th Street and Avenue A. He asked me what I was carrying, and I immediately thought: “There’s no way he has computer access or a camera.” So I told him it was nothing, gave him a dollar and walked away.

I went into this project wanting to bring joy to people, but it quickly became about getting a return on investment. I wanted as many statues as possible to return stories on this website. I would leave a dozen statues in various locations, and I’d be disappointed to see just one story come back from the day’s work. It made me wonder: Was is worth it? All the work in creating these little guys? It was hard not knowing where my statues ended up.

I don’t think it was bad to want more stories from people. But it made me forget the original intent of the project: to make people smile. On the last day of distribution, Easter Sunday, I was walking on 42nd Street, near Grand Central, and a homeless woman asked for change. I gave her a statue, and she reluctantly grabbed it. I guess it was my attempt at redeeming myself, but I knew it wasn’t what she wanted or needed. Smiling Statues can’t feed anyone.

So even then, I wondered: Was it worth it? Not only were these Smilers practically useless. But even in the context of my project, it wasn’t a huge success. I made 91 statues, and I only knew 14 of them were — 15, counting the one I gave to that homeless woman. That meant I lost 76 of the carefully molded, colorfully painted and precisely smiled statues.

After the homeless woman examined the Smiler, she looked up at me. And as I walked away, she said, “Oh! Thank you!” And she smiled.

Smiling Statues are just a little bit of clay and paint molded in a specific way. They don’t do anything and they are worth, in essence, pennies. But to think that something so small — so insignificant — can cheer someone up, or make them forget for just a second that they don’t have a place to sleep at night… it’s like alchemy: spinning smiles out of virtually nothing. But the most beautiful part is that we don’t need Smiling Statues to do that. These little guys are just the perfect excuse.

Other Observations

Gender: When people referred to the Smilers, almost everyone used masculine pronouns. It’s very interesting that the assumption was that these statues were males. Most of them had no distinctive features, but maybe it’s because none of them had long hair? Or maybe it was the color that determined it? Or maybe I’m overanalyzing?

Globetrotters: I was tracking the web stats on the site, and I’m convinced these Smilers made it to multiple states. As far as I know, they made it to New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington. In addition, there were visitors to the site from Hawaii, California, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maine. Also, there were visitors from Canada, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and England.

Authority of stores: I dropped off about 25 of them in stores. And none of them returned. Now, when I dropped them off in stores, I felt very uncomfortable — almost as if I was stealing something. So my assumption is that when people saw them in stores, they were hesitant to pick up and take anything without paying. Because, in stories, we generally don’t take things for free.

Eye aperture: Only one of the Smilers left on the streets returned. My guess is that it’s because, when we are outside, the aperture of our eyes is focused on things far away. So we don’t have focus on smaller things, no matter how small and colorful they are. In addition, I think Smilers left on the street could’ve been mistaken for junk, because New York City isn’t all that clean.

Sit down, relax: I had the most success at coffeeshops and fast food places. These are locations in which there isn’t a waiter or waitress clearing tables, and people sit down and relax for a long period of time. So this gives them time to open up the note and read it.

The people it attracts: A friend mentioned that, if I had put down swanky-looking envelopes instead of colorful statues, I would’ve baited a whole different crowd of people. I think a lot of young kids and artistic-type people picked these up, and they elicited a certain playful — or cathartic — response. But if the bait itself was less cheerful and whimsical, I probably would’ve been different.

Smiling Statues II: I think I may do this again in the summer, just for fun. I think people need a little random joy in their lives, and I think Smilers offers that. In addition, I think the making of Smilers can be a community thing. It’s not so hard, or expensive, to gather people to mold and paint these guys. And it’s a lot of fun to distribute them in random places.

One response to “Smiling Statues”

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