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Jan 30, 2017

Medium White Tee: An Artists' Homage to Obama

As an accomplished writer and editor, New York City's own Emily Spivack is as creative as they come.

When she's not penning a best-selling book or writing a column for the New York Times Style Magazine, she found the time to concept and organize an interactive installation halfway around the world. Medium White Tee, located here at Ward Village, serves an homage to former President Obama and the difficult decisions that he and all presidents make on a daily basis. In the interview below, Spivack discusses the details behind this seemingly simple but very layered exhibit honoring America's 44th president.


For those of our readers that might not be familiar, you've been very successful at taking these really creative ideas and translating them into even more interesting projects. You're a New York Times best-selling author with your book, Worn Stories, you've edited magazines, and you've even analyzed scented tee shirts, and that's just touching on the depth of your work. Where do you find the inspiration to do all of these projects?

It's a difficult question. There's an innate curiosity I have. I've always had a desire to look at everyday stuff and shift the focus a little bit. I think of it as reexamining the everyday things in our lives. I love to see the inside story behind the things we take for granted. I've always had an innate interest in art, exploration, and I've always wanted to learn. It's instinctual to me. Over time, these projects I've taken on have grown and so has the audience.

Let's talk about Medium White Tee. Where did the inspiration come from?

Back in July, the New York Times ran a story on Obama's nightly ritual and there were a few paragraphs that stuck out to me. In that story, the writer discussed an anecdote between Rahm Emanuel [President Obama's first chief of staff] and President Obama. If they were facing a really difficult problem where no decision felt like the right decision, one of them would say "medium" and the other would say "white." Medium white tee shirts are universally recognized as simple and are always a good choice. According to the story, the pair would jokingly talk about one day opening a medium white tee shirt stand in Hawai'i, where all the answers would be simple. Who can't relate to a medium white tee, right? I can't fathom the decision the president has to make every day and I can understand the idea of decision-making fatigue. So with that in mind, I began to think about this exhibit as a means for people to come in the space and feel like they have a momentary pause from any kind of decision making. I hope the space serves as a place for contemplation, to meditate on the very significant role that decision-making should play with any president – past, present, or future. Medium White Tee is a place to consider the decisions we make every day, big or small.

What was it like creating the exhibit?

It's incredible. The exhibit was set up as an off-site, nonprofit installation at Ward Village with the Honolulu Museum of Art. What it did was take something that could have been in a specific gallery and open it up more so people can engage with it. So shoppers, people who have heard about the exhibit, or people who simply wander in can check it out. Ward Village donated the space, the printing was done by HONBLUE. We had a local organizer, Stephanie Hsu, who really helped bring it all together. Most of the materials came from Re-use Hawai'i and GRT Architects helped to design the space…it was just an amazing experience to see everyone working together to make this happen.

How has the feedback been so far?

I've been really thrilled with the feedback. It's volunteer run, so you have local people and people from as far away as Chicago and New Jersey who have donated their time as well. We have people purchasing the tees from all over. Kids love the exhibit, because there's sand and it can be interactive. It's been very gratifying to see people engage with the space.

So much of the exhibit seemed to swirl around the idea of having too much to do and the notion that you can never please everyone. Was there something about the idea behind Medium White Tee that spoke to your personally?

As much as I was thinking about the work President Obama was doing, I think we can all relate to decision-making fatigue. Whether it's the president, a student, or an attorney, we're all confronted with making decisions all the time. This was a respite from the constant decision making that goes into our everyday lives. And yes, I can definitely relate to that.

I understand that President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was involved in the exhibit and grabbed him a shirt for Christmas. Have you had any feedback from Obama at all on the exhibit?

No not yet, I'd imagine that he's been pretty busy and is enjoying his time off. I know that he knows about the exhibit. He sounds like he was happy to know it's happening. If he ever wants to volunteer for a shift at the exhibit, we'd love to have him! Just a quick note, if you can't make it to the exhibit, half the run of tee shirts are available online at mediumwhitetee.com.

Had you spent much time in Hawai‘i before you created the exhibit?

Unfortunately, not really. I flew out in November to look at the space and look at all of the measurements. While I was there, I was able to meet people in the local art scene who really helped to make this happen. I've been really blown away by everyone's warmth and generosity and eagerness to get involved. It speaks to the concept of the exhibit. Regardless of where you stand politically, there's so much pride in the fact that former President Obama is a native son from Hawai'i.

I know the proceeds from the exhibit went to benefit organizations who are bettering our communities. Can you talk about that?

The exhibit was actually established as a nonprofit, with proceeds from t-shirt sales benefiting a youth-based get out the vote program, The Bus Federation Civic Fund, and local Hawaiian social enterprise Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio Youth Community Food Systems Initiative (MA‘O). The t-shirts cost $44 – a nod to the 44th presidency and all the money made goes to those organizations. I'm really thrilled with the way this whole project has evolved and rolled out.

Medium White Tee is open to the public and is located in Ward Centre, next to Bed, Bath & Beyond and is open Thursday through Sunday from 12pm - 6pm and will run until February 9.

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