Connected \\ September 10, 2019

Spaces big enough for questions

“I like offering spaces that are of great depth and meaning and personal significance,” shares multimedia artist Wes Sam-Bruce. Starting at 10 am on September 22, everyone will understand exactly what he means.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce at work in his Brooklyn studio on pieces for his upcoming exhibition, Where the Questions Live, opening September 22. Photos by Emi Sam-Bruce.

Last year, PEM invited the Brooklyn-based artist to work with the local community to create a new exhibition in the Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center. Where the Questions Live: An Exploration of Humans in Nature is the result of the year-long collaboration. This spirited, interactive art installation features a colorful variety of engaging structures, dimensional murals, transformed objects, hidden spaces, meditative poetry and hands-on activities.

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce

© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Sam-Bruce is thoughtful and playful in how he approaches life and art, with a sincerity that invites others to share their own personal stories. “Within the first five minutes, I knew I wanted to work with him,” says Jane Winchell, PEM’s Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of the Art & Nature Center and exhibition curator. “And fortunately, he felt the same.”

Inspired by the family-friendly mission of the space, Sam-Bruce says he rooted the project in childhood experiences with nature.

I was fortunate to be born in Northern California, right in between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite,” he says. “I was an only child, and the woods were out my back door. I spent a tremendous amount of time outside. There was a grove of giant sequoias about 10 minutes from my house, so I had this really ancient, large presence in my life with those trees, as well as the wider world.”

Here in Salem, Sam-Bruce invited people to share their experiences with nature in person and through his website --

These stories partly inform the work, whether in sheets of poetry fluttering on the ceiling, wall murals or poetry portals — what Sam-Bruce calls “a cross between a phone booth, headphones and a tiny cave.” Visitors will be immersed by the artist’s original artwork in paint or wood on the walls, ceiling and floor. An original soundscape by award-winning composer Ruth Mendelson and a film collaboration with video producer Ryan Shoemaker further enhances the experience of the space.

Even though the installation is targeted toward children, Sam-Bruce seeks to activate the senses of adults through the “lens of childhood.” For example, a custom art table in the activity area features a reading nook, inviting children — and adults — to crawl inside the structure. Visitors are encouraged to create their own artwork and poetry, which will be hung on the walls.

artist and child in where the questions live

© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Sam-Bruce deliberately uses minimal signage and labels to allow people to engage directly and spontaneously with his artwork. He also includes a land acknowledgment on the wall to recognize the contributions of indigenous communities in the area, and as he says, “to push a culture of inclusion.”

Artist Wes Sam-Bruce

For the artist, engaging with the land is integral to his process. He says asking the land for permission to do his work offers an opportunity for the land to connect with him and shape the narratives of his pieces, contrasting with Western concepts of people dominating the land.

After earning a degree in art education, Sam-Bruce spent nearly six years as a summer camp director in the Yosemite area, an experience that shaped his present work. Diverging from his original aspirations, he seeks to prompt learning moments that are not driven by a curriculum, but rather the act of play.

What I discovered is the importance of learning how to get down at the literal eye level of a child and speak directly to them,” he says. “In this installation, I want to respect those kids that are in there, knowing that they’re going through their own challenges, and I want them to feel seen, heard and known in the space.”

Sam-Bruce takes inspiration from Thich Nhat Hanh, Gary Snyder and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Philosophy, ecology, spirituality, humanism and science blend to inform his outlook. With pressing environmental concerns, Sam-Bruce adds that, “if you’re going to protect something, you have to love it first. I’m trying to stir up love in that space.”


© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

This project is more than the finished installation. It is a community effort that includes the hundreds of people who indirectly and directly contributed to Where the Questions Live.

This is an attempt to have all of that artistic work fall under a larger umbrella than I’ve ever explicitly named,” he says. “All of this comes out of a deeper philosophical mindset that we are all artists because we’re all helping to create the world we live in.”


© 2018 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola

Opening Day Festival

Sunday, September 22, 2019 from 10 am–4:30 pm

Spend the day with artist Wes Sam-Bruce and explore his mobile studio, create artwork inspired by his encounter with a great blue heron, and much more! All day long, Wes Sam-Bruce will be hiding Great Blue Heron eggs in the galleries and atrium containing a special handwritten note. If you find one, share a photo using #WTQL.

Sunday, September 22, 2019 from 3:30-4:30 pm

In Conversation: Wes Sam-Bruce and Olivia Parker

To celebrate the opening of Where the Questions Live, artist Wes Sam-Bruce joins Olivia Parker to reflect on their creative approaches. Moderated by Jane Winchell, The Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center.


A new PEM is launching this September — a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

For more behind-the-scenes stories from PEM, sign up for What's On, our monthly e-newsletter, here.

To learn about our Opening Day Celebration, visit

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