The Art of Being Human

Megan Constance Altieri ’13

As artist Megan Constance Altieri ’13 began to dismantle Sonder, her recent award-winning work of art, a myriad of reactions overwhelmed her — melancholy, appreciation, introspection, even laughter. But that was precisely the point of the piece. Sonder was meant to evoke the gamut of emotions, for artist and art-lover alike. For that and her creativity, Altieri and Sonder won the well-respected Installation Public Vote Award at 2018 ArtPrize — the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based international competition recognized as one of the world’s largest public arts events.

Since sonder means “realizing that every person who passes by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” according to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Altieri decided to illuminate that thought by taking snippets of overheard conversations and hand-printing short phrases on look-alike garments she remembered the speaker wearing. For two years, she respectfully eavesdropped in coffeeshops and hallways, at airports and on sidewalks. She shopped at Goodwill stores or sent calls out for unwanted, specific shirts or overalls. Finally, Altieri applied the whimsical, touching or vaguely haunting words onto 175 pieces of clothing. For three weeks this October, Sonder was hung on eight double-string clotheslines on the grounds of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Altieri’s strong fascination with vulnerability and empathy were her main drivers to create Sonder. “I think the moments we feel really connected always have to do with those two things,” she says. “I just wanted people to see Sonder and come away with an overwhelming sense of humanity… And putting these (garments) on clotheslines, something that was once a nuanced part of our culture, was supposed to emphasize the openness and the nakedness and the vulnerability of our interactions with one another and how that just makes us feel connected.”

It worked. On busy Saturdays, more than 200 people could be seen roaming the clothesline alleys at any one time. In each row, head-nodding, grimaces or smirks were reactions to the work, evidence that viewers were indeed immersed in stories as varied and important as their very own. And Altieri took it all in with the same wonder she felt while creating the work.

“It was this beautiful interconnectedness of strangers,” says Altieri, an art education major at Hope and a fifth-year art teacher at Wellspring Preparatory High School in Grand Rapids. “I got to watch these beautiful, strange moments out in the world and then others got to come and experience it via proxy and I got to watch them doing it. It was this beautiful cycle.”

Sonder now lives in Rubbermaid® boxes in Altieri’s basement. She hopes it will get accepted in another art exhibition soon, but until then, the thoughtful, young artist will continue to listen and create and add to Sonder. Like the life stories she encounters, it is a work in progress.


In ArtPrize’s Independent Awards category, another Hope alumna — along with the 354 K-5 children in the Zeeland Public Schools to whom she teaches art — won the “Youth Collaboration Award” by public vote. Lori Burgenmeyer ’83 Bearss’ students created bird designs on paper with black ink that she then arranged and collaged onto a painted canvas. The winning result was titled More Than Words.