The Mindful Professor

Living a meaningful life through beauty, humanity, and the thirst for knowledge.

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About the 2018 Halloween Display

Artist's Statement


This Year’s Display – Halloween 2018 – The Death of Democracy – We often forget that the United States is an experiment in representative government and human rights. That “we the people” are responsible for the success of that experiment, and that when we fail to educate ourselves and fail to take responsibility for the direction of our government, we are ultimately the source of the great experiment’s demise.

I teach political history and have read extensively the words of the nation’s Founders. They consistently advise and warn that knowledge, virtue, and the people’s responsibility toward the nation are what will safeguard America from failure. You might think that their words are old, with little relevance for today, but the Founders had a remarkable understanding of human nature. The echoes of their counsels have never been more important.

James Monroe put it best, in his 1817 Inaugural Address:

"It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty. Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as the best means of preserving our liberties."

Democracy can die. We are witnessing it now. Donald Trump is both a symptom and a dark agent of our downfall. He is immoral, unethical, and dangerous, caring nothing for people, ideas, or the most helpless members of our society. Rather, he is a narcissist who whips up hatred against “the other,” uses fear to separate Americans, and enflames culture wars all for his own elevation and aggrandizement. Nothing is more fatal to democracy.

Thus this year’s display focuses on the sage words of previous presidents, the warnings about fascism from political philosophers across the centuries, calls for Trump’s impeachment, and hope for the future through the greatest power we have – voting and political engagement. For if democracy does fail, it’s because we let it.

There is also a new feature. A “hope and fear” section on which visitors can write their own thoughts and ideas.

I hope you enjoy the display. Be sure, my goal is to push people to think harder. I try not to be a hater and am not trying to foment hate. These are all just words, people. Remember, we are promised the right of free speech.

2017 Halloween Display

Check out this great time lapse video of the construction of the USS Constitution.  SO COOL!  MUST SEE! We asked an up and coming West Hartford artists, Ben Astrachan and Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn, of the band Porkomorph, to write an original song for the time lapse video.  The result is, "King (March of the Proletariat)." Find out more about Porkomorph.


About This Year's Display (2017)


This Year’s Display – Halloween 2017 The Trumpian Ship of State   I came up with the idea for Halloween 2017 earlier than I ever have,  only one day after the 2016 presidential election.  Like so many  Americans, I was horrified and deeply concerned for the future of our  nation and the world.  My immediate thought was that the American ship  of state had gone horribly off course.  But what could I really do about  it?     

As a history professor, I try to get people to reflect and  consider their own ideas of what they believe and why.  I do this almost  every day through teaching, but I also try to reach a wider audience  through Halloween.  The ship of state is off course.  So what should I  do?  Build a HUUUUGE ship.  A tremendous, tremendous ship.  And, what  should it be called?  Why, the USS Constitution, of course!   

But what  type of ship should it be?  Again, the answer is so simple – a pirate  ship – because that’s what Trump and his merry band are, pirates, and  they’re pillaging our nation.  What should Americans – we the people –  do?  Fight! That’s what.  I’m not advocating violence.  Just good old  fashioned dissent, the cornerstone of democracy.     

So, however you  decide to do it, make sure you do something.  I make Halloween displays  and push my students and others to understand history and how it  intersects with today.  If you want to help me, please join the cause.

How The Halloween Displays All Began

It all began on a pretty small scale the first year that we moved into our house, in the Fall of 1998. I’d always loved Halloween and decided to put a witch on the tree. You know, the one that looks like the witch has flown  and crashed; legs and arms sticking out on each side, a broken broom tacked to the trunk.

I went to Goodwill, got a cool pair of black boots, a black pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt, and then got a grey wig and witches hat. My step-brother and I put the witch up and it looked cool. We stood there in our glory, talking, standing on the opposite side of the tree to where the witch had flown in. Just then a woman walked up and started talking about my black lab who was in the front yard with us. “Oh, I just love labs,” she said, and went on about what great dogs they are. Then, in an instant, she reeled back and screamed.  I mean a jump of about a foot and a serious earth shattering shriek. Up came her shaking arm, pointing at the boot and wart covered hand that stretched around the edge of the tree. She’d caught the witch out of the corner of her eye and freaked. Her voice was literally shaking and she abruptly walked away, never to be seen again. I don’t think she died, but she certainly didn’t come back to admire my dog. My brother and I walked into the house laughing and my wife innocently asked, “did I hear someone scream?”

And, a legacy was born. I’ve been doing Halloween ever since. It makes perfect sense that it’s grown. I love it and the fact that I live on one of the busiest streets in town means a lot of people see the display. Over 20,000 cars a day pass through the intersection near my house.

At first doing stuff for Halloween was just about making cool scary stuff. It was pretty basic. The witch, a grave yard, maybe a few spooking ghouls. Two things fundamentally changed my thinking and the scope of what I was doing.

First, was the Iraq War in the aftermath of 9/11. I was outraged at George W. Bush’s patently illegal, immoral, and fabricated war. As an historian, and like so many other historians, political scientists, and scholars, I could see that going into Iraq was going to be a colossal disaster. For the first time in my life, I wrote the president; and the vice president, secretary of defense, and national security advisor. My message was simple: you are about to destabilize the Middle East for at minimum 50 years, probably longer. My letter obviously had a huge impact.

What else could I do? Outrage led to parody and effigy. Both are actually long political traditions in the United States going back to the Revolution. What was my message? Bush and Cheney were liars, deceiving the American people by stating that 9/11 was tied to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Many Americans today still believe it. So, in the midst of my anger I put Bush and Cheney up on the tree, each wearing black pants with flames all over them, and a big sign the said “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” It was simple, but poignant.

So the first big change in Halloween was going political. I’ve pretty much been doing it ever since. The 2016 Trump Wall was big, both literally and figuratively.

The second big change was cardboard. Yea, cardboard. One summer about 8 years ago my wife and I went to a local church art show where a street artist had spent a couple of weeks working with local kids on how to make art out of trash. As I walked through the show I was amazed at what cool stuff the kids had made using cardboard. They had cut it, shaped it, layered, sanded, and painted it. A light bulb literally went on. I had worked with wood most of my life and realized that I could use most of the techniques for woodworking on cardboard. I could cut it with my table and jig saws, sand it, caulk it, and do just about anything.

 I’ve been working with cardboard and Styrofoam ever since. They are the perfect medium for what I do. Best of all, it’s free. It took a little while to find a reliable source. I first started with random boxes, but then found a local furniture store. If you think refrigerator boxes are big, you should see what couches and dining room tables come in. My contact in the furniture warehouse is “John the Box Guy.” That’s how he’s listed in my phone.

And so it is. Cardboard art was born for me. It took me a while to accept that what I was doing is in fact art. To me it was just the Halloween thing. Recently, an artist friend looked at what I do and said, “Oh, you’re an installation artist.” I’d never heard the term before, but I’m good with it.

I now get to mix my passions – Halloween, history, and politics. In a lot of ways I’m trying to use the fun of Halloween to provide an historical and political lesson. I want people to think. I also realize that Halloween allows me to get away with what at any other time of year would seem extreme and even bizarre. But then again, this world is looking more extreme and bizarre every day. If I can get people to smile at the fun of what I do and reflect, even a little bit, on where we are as a nation, then I’m doing something.   

If you love my Halloween displays, help me make more by supporting the effort.   

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