Sheryl Oring’s installation art piece “Writer’s Block” had been in storage for over a decade when a professor from University of Virginia called her to ask to show it on campus. Created while Sheryl was living in Germany, the piece features 600 antique typewriters in cages of old rebar. It is a commentary on Nazi censorship that has become socially relevant again in recent years.
The piece was displayed on campus just a few months after the events surrounding the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville which resulted in the death of a young woman.
“The timing ended up being crazy,” said Sheryl, who had begun planning to bring “Writer’s Block” to Charlottesville before the march occurred. “Once it came out of storage, it felt like it was really relevant today.”
Though Sheryl is now a successful artist and professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she began her career as a journalist. Her transition to becoming an artist happened during her year as a Bosch Fellow in Berlin in 1999. The prestigious Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program is designed for accomplished young professionals from the U.S. to gain a year of experience in Germany.
“Bosch was amazing because I had applied as a journalist, but they allowed me to do things related to art,” said Sheryl. Upon learning of her new career goals, the Bosch Fellowship team placed Sheryl at the Jewish Museum. There, she worked with a curator to plan for new exhibitions at the museum. The Bosch Fellowship was essential in providing her with the support and connections she needed to build her career as an artist.
“It offers a really amazing experience, an entire year in Berlin with a lot of support,” said Sheryl. “I think the support is really critical—[like] the study tours and access to institutions.”
Sheryl created “Writer’s Block,” her first major art piece, immediately before she began her Bosch Fellowship. Gaining real world experience at the Jewish Museum helped her learn to plan for her own future exhibitions, including touring “Writer’s Block” around Europe. But that wasn’t the only draw to living in Berlin in the late ‘90s. The city’s cheap rent made it home to many aspiring artists.
“It was an amazing time in Berlin,” said Sheryl. “Everything was open and experimental.”
Sheryl took advantage of the city’s art scene. She befriended a composer and a choreographer who contributed music and dance to her “Writer’s Block” debut. In fact, Sheryl loved Germany so much that she stayed there for five more years after the fellowship ended.
“I really loved Berlin and I kept having opportunities there,” said Sheryl. During her extended stay overseas, she went on to create another high-profile piece called “I Wish to Say.” Inspired by the “man on the street” interviews Sheryl did as a journalist, Sheryl set up a mobile office with a typewriter and invited passersby to write a postcard to the president of the U.S.
“It was in part because I had been living in Germany for 6 years and I felt very disconnected from American public opinion,” she said. The art installation became an ongoing project that still tours today. In a recent article for the Washington Post, Sheryl reflected that since 2016, “there is a heightened intensity in the emotional responses among some recent participants.”
Even though Sheryl’s career took her back to the United States, her experience in Germany affects her to this day. She’s been able to return to the country many times, including with her students at University of North Carolina Greensboro. She also brought her daughter to live in Germany for half a year when she was in first grade.
“I thought it was important that she learned the language,” Sheryl said of her now 10-year-old. “She still speaks it! I read her German stories at night.”
It has been almost two decades since Sheryl was a Bosch Fellow, but the connections she made are still significant to her career. During her Bosch year, she became close with another fellow, Russell Miller, who is now a scholar of German law. He was a big fan of Sheryl’s “Writer’s Block” piece and they always talked about collaborating. That finally happened this year.
“He gave the opening the talk before the University of Virginia showing and I showed ‘Writer’s Block’ at Washington and Lee where he teaches,” said Sheryl. “So, after all these years, we were able to do something together.”