Dale Graham’s box was one of about 200,000 that were displayed on wood panels and in clear plastic bags, a striking art project meant to visualize the immense toll of gun violence in the United States over the course of three years.
The Soul Box Project was created by survivors, families of victims and volunteers who spent countless hours making the boxes and colorfully decorating them with photos of the victims, drawings, poignant tributes and calls to end gun violence.
One box features bright yellow paper that reads: “Anthony Wells age 3 found a gun and killed himself.” Another features a target and reads: “Who will be next?” A third shows a hand-drawn image of a gun with its barrel tied in a knot. The project includes victims who have died in street violence, by suicide, by police and by accident.
The boxes displayed on 800 feet of panels and in 600 bags stretch on and on, spanning the Mall from the Smithsonian Castle on one side to the Museum of Natural History on the other. A gong at the center of the display rings every 15 minutes, representing the frequency of deaths from gun violence in America.
The sheer scale of the tragedy the project represents left many visitors agog.
“I’m blown away,” said Nico Laudenberg, a German woman who lives in Michigan and was visiting D.C. for the day.
Leslie Lee, a Portland, Ore. artist, said she conceived of the project after a gunman killed 60 people during a concert in Las Vegas in 2017. Lee said she was appalled by the massacre, but also by her reaction to it. She recalled snapping off her phone when first reading the news, overwhelmed by yet another mass shooting.
She said she wanted to do something about gun violence, but felt there needed to be a way to bring the issue home. The statistics and numbers around the issue were too large and too abstract.
“Seventy-thousand people killed or injured every single year that doesn’t mean a lot,” Lee said. “We need a visual. We need to be able to see so that we can feel. So people will take action on an individual basis.”
Lee said she settled on origami boxes because they are cheap, easy to make and light, which means more people can participate and allows the project to travel around the country raising awareness. The project took 36,000 boxes into the state capitol in Oregon and more than 9,000 to Grand Rapids, Mich.
The installation on the Mall, which runs through Sunday, is the first time the Soul Box Project has been displayed in D.C., and Lee said it represents the culmination of their work, although it will continue to tour.
The project comes to D.C. amid a surge in gun violence locally and nationally. Last month, the FBI reported a 30 percent increase in homicides in the United States last year, and many cities are struggling with increased shootings. D.C. has seen an 8 percent increase in killings this year, after setting a 16-year high in 2020. Many of those deaths were gun-related.
Lee describes the Soul Box Project as nonpartisan, but it does support the work of gun-control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety and The Brady Campaign.
Participating in the project has been therapeutic for some.
Michelle Bounds, a Portland resident, said she accidentally shot herself after picking up a gun during an argument with her former partner. She said she picked up the weapon to make the point he should not have brought it into their house, but it went off and a bullet went through her chin and exited near her temple.
Bounds said she has had 16 surgeries, and is lucky to be alive. A friend made a box for her, and she has started making them for other people. She is part of a group that has made 5,239 boxes.
“The value of holding a soul in that box is very meaningful, and there are way too many of them,” Bounds said.