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Medium White Tee: A Shirt Shack Fit For a President

GRT Architects
GRT Architects

These are President Barack Obama’s final weeks in office. After eight years in the White House, many are preparing to bid farewell to the 44th President. HPR’s Molly Solomon spoke with one person who’s showing her appreciation in an unexpected way.

Back in July, President Barack Obama shared some of his nightly rituals with the New York Times. The article included an anecdote about the President’s dream to open up a T-shirt shack in Hawai‘i that sells only one item: medium white tees.

Ally Lindsay
Credit Ally Lindsay
Brooklyn-based artist Emily Spivack

That last part jumped out to several readers, including Emily Spivack, an artist from Brooklyn, New York.
Spivack is hoping to turn Obama’s dream into a reality. For the next month, she’s taking over an empty retail space in Kaka‘ako’s Ward Center, a Honolulu Museum of Art off-site installation. There she’ll be selling one thing — you guessed it — medium white T-shirts. Spivack says the pop-up is her way of saying thank you to the outgoing President.

"I think this is my way of dealing with it," Spivack said with a laugh. "I guess some people write him a letter, but I decided to make him his T-shirt shack in Hawaii."

In the New York Times article, the shirt shack idea stemmed from late night discussions with Obama's then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

"He was confronted with so many massive global decisions constantly. He and Rahm Emanuel would talk about leaving it all behind, and one day opening a T-shirt shack in Hawaii that only sold medium-sized white T-shirts so that there were no decisions to be made," said Spivack. "And supposedly they would look at each other and in shorthand when it was really tough, one would say medium and the other would say white."

GRT Architects
Credit GRT Architects

That level of simplicity is translated when you walk into the space Spivack has created. Piles of sand surround potted palms and lounge chairs. And in the middle of the room is a circular clothes rack, filled with plain shirts. Visitors can buy one for $44, a nod to the 44th President. Proceeds will be split between MA’O Farms and a youth-based get-out-the-vote program The Bus Federation Civic Fund.

Spivack says a lot of her work connects back to clothing, and the emotional ties to the things we wear. For this piece, she wanted to explore that by creating an environment where anyone, even the President, could be free of stressful decisions.

"Because when do you ever go into a retail space where there's only one thing being sold: one size, one color, one item," she asked. "In some ways it's a thank you, but it's also just an opportunity for people to reflect on their own decision making."

Spivack’s T-shirt shack opens Wednesday January 11, but she’s already given a shirt to her first customer. Last week a box was delivered to President Obama, with a special note from the artist.

"I said that his T-shirt shack would be staffed by volunteers until he showed up for his first shift," said Spivack.

Until then, Spivack will hold onto the keys.

Making a thing in Hawaii and sent the President a preview today #mediumwhitetee A photo posted by Emily Spivack (@emspivack) on Dec 19, 2016 at 6:24pm PST

Medium White Tee runs January 12, 2017 - February 9, 2017.

Opening reception: Jan 11, 6-8pm

Installation hours: Jan 12–Feb 9, Thursday–Sunday, noon–6pm
Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd, ground floor between Red Pineapple and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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