Artist Opens Obama’s Dream Business in Hawaii, a Store of Medium White T-Shirts

President Obama once confessed his dream of setting up a T-shirt shack in Hawaii with Rahm Emanuel. Emily Spivack made it a reality.

Emily Spivack’s “Medium White Tee” shack in Honolulu (all photos by Shuzo Uemoto, courtesy Honolulu Museum of Art)

Last summer, President Obama shared a fantasy that likely no one expected: he wanted to move home to Hawaii and open a T-shirt shack with his pal and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that would sell the garments only in white and only in size medium. An inside joke between the two politicians, it emerged in a New York Times article that described Obama’s nighttime rituals, including how he finds the time to pause from his official demands. As reporter Michael D. Shear wrote:

Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions. During difficult White House meetings when no good decision seemed possible, Mr. Emanuel would sometimes turn to Mr. Obama and say, “White.” Mr. Obama would in turn say, “Medium.”

Emily Spivack’s “Medium White Tee” shack in Honolulu

The pair’s absurdist dream is now reality, as artist and writer Emily Spivack has opened just such a shack in Honolulu’s Ward Village as a gift of gratitude to the outgoing president. Set up for business last week as an offsite, one-month installation with the Honolulu Museum of Art, the “Medium White Tee” retail store features a lone circular rack adorned with white cotton shirts, donated by Print All Over Me. Surrounding sand mounds, plants, and beach chairs set a scene of serenity. The space was designed by Brooklyn-based GRT Architects, who used recycled building materials provided by Re-use Hawai’i.

“It’s really an homage and a tribute to President Obama,” Spivack told Hyperallergic. “I don’t know if there was another president I would have felt compelled to do this for. I think there is something about Obama, that he shows his human side frequently, his sense of humor, and that he is aware of pop culture or culture in general … so I hoped this would resonate with him.”

Spivack is selling 1,000 shirts, 500 of which are available online; each costs $44, as a nod to Obama’s position as the 44th president, and all proceeds will benefit the youth-based civic engagement program Bus Federation Civic Fund, as well as the Hawaiian social enterprise Mala ʻAi ʻOpio Community Food Systems Initiative. And yes, each shirt is truly blank, aside from the project’s logo printed on the inside of the neck, and arrives with an attached tag that lists the edition number.

Obama, who’s invited to run the shack whenever he desires, received Medium White Tee #1 and a thank-you card through his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who spoke at the store’s opening. Tee #2 will go to Emanuel. Whether or not the President rolls through (hopefully in vacation mode, with strong drink in hand), the store stands as a place of respite from his certain exhaustion; its bare-bones merchandise represents a stark contrast to the myriad complexities that filled his two terms.

“I loved that what the T-shirt symbolized for Obama was this blank slate, this moment of cleansing the palate or transitioning out of his back-to-back decision making,” Spivack said. “I can’t begin to fathom the types of decisions he or any US president has to make. I wanted to give people an opportunity to pause and contemplate the role of Obama and his legacy. I respect and appreciate the import, time, and energy he placed in his decisions, that he didn’t shy away from his duties.”

Emily Spivack’s “Medium White Tee” shack in Honolulu

Spivack conceived of the idea last August, long before the apocalyptic election results. Afterwards, the tone of her project shifted slightly, evolving into a way for her to grapple with an incoming president who’s unlikely to place as much weight on his decisions as his predecessor. The shack, she said, has also inspired others who’ve been feeling similarly helpless about the forthcoming presidency: people have flown in from as far away as Chicago and New York to volunteer their time to help build and staff it. Spivack is now considering how her initially whimsical tribute can serve as a meeting place for people to discuss the current political climate.

“As I worked on it, I realized, this is my way of coping with the election results,” Spivack said. “Some people write letters, and some people can’t get out of bed. I decided to make a T-shirt shack for President Obama. The installation, to me, feels right, no matter how involved he wants to get.

“But it’s on for a month, so we’ll see what happens,” she added. “I’m just glad to know he has the first T-shirt.”

Medium White Tee” continues open at Ward Centre (1200 Ala Moana Blvd, Honolulu, HI)  through February 9.

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