written by: Josef Beery
I was arrested by the emotional power of the written word on my visit to Sweet Briar College several weeks ago. Gay and I had traveled down to Amherst County to participate in a poetry reading featuring recent work of writers resident at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts across the highway from the college at Mount San Angelo.
The VCCA’s Mount San Angelo campus is situated on the grounds of a historic Virginia estate and blessed with miles of rural Virginia landscape in many directions. The poems featured in this reading were all poets’ responses to their sublime experiences living and working quietly in the Virginia landscape.
The poetry reading, held in Sweet Briar’s Pannell Center Art Gallery, was complimented by an exhibition of visual art inspired by landscape from Sweet Briar’s fine collection of art. The event was the ideal distraction for a cold and wet February afternoon.
After a convivial reception and tea, our host, Carrie Brown, the college’s writer-in-residence, took us on a short tour of the neighboring Cochran Library, part of Sweet Briar’s original historic campus. Walking to Professor Brown’s office, I came stock still in a stair hall as we passed a display of student artwork. Here was a small yet overwhelming exhibit of eight framed broadsides. Working in the same medium, I recognized the style of these pieces. A cool classic text design contrasting with a stark illustration positioned to draw the viewer in and lead them to spending time with the accompanying text. I was jolted from what had been a pleasant rather pastoral reverie by these stark black and white linoleum cuts illustrating the poems of Afghan women.
These writers living in a war-ravaged landscape, are participants in an amazing program which encourages and facilitates expression through the written word. The illustrations drew me in, but the words of these women transported me to the world of human struggle of which I had only been vaguely conscious. Cries of pain mingled with hope made their way through the Afghan Women’s Writers Project to these library halls where they served to embrace me in a reminder that human emotions span a range of feelings which represent not only the sublime, but also the grotesque gamut of human suffering. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the power of these works of art and resolved to share my experience in this article.
I have been working with college students creating broadsides of poetry and smaller pieces of prose for several years, so I was not surprised when Sweet Briar’s professor of creative writing Carrie Brown had called me last Fall and asked if some of her students might come on a Saturday morning and visit the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. Their morning was planned around the opportunity to view some of the many different broadsides printed by the artists of the VABC. The students excitement filled our small classroom as we explored the wide range of work which had been translated by type and illustration into pieces worthy of wall display.
After viewing the work, several of the students asked how they might create works such as these at Sweet Briar. Not having a letterpress facility, they do have a printmaking studio as part of their studio art program. I suggested that they concentrate on creating dynamic illustrations in linoleum and printing these by hand on fine paper which they had preprinted digitally with a poem’s text. (This would give the students the opportunity to learn a bit about typography and layout as they prepared the computer files for these pages.)
I had no idea that this brief conversation would lead to such intensive work by several students. Sweet Briar juniors Sally Toms and Kaitlyn Holloway, with the support of Professor Brown and art professor Laura Pharis, had been inspired to publish broadsides of work created by the Afghan Women’s Writers Project in honor of a visit by the 2009 founder of this program, journalist and author Masha Hamilton.
“Security remains a concern for many women in Afghanistan, especially those who are trying to work, or further their education, or who frankly tell their stories.”
The Afghan Women’s Writers Program was created by Ms. Hamilton with the help and support of many as a means to empower Afghan women to share their voices with the world. “Women determined to tell their own stories gather online and in ‘writing huts’ in undisclosed locations in Kabul and Herat to receive mentoring from American women authors and professors, and to participate in writing workshops and reading salons. AWWP’s online magazine is the vehicle through which their stories are shared. The project also aims to promote greater economic independence for these women by strengthening their self-confidence, computer literacy and writing skills, and to encourage the inclusion of women’s voices in Afghanistan’s national dialogue.” [Mission statement from the AWWP website. ]
“Security remains a concern for many women in Afghanistan, especially those who are trying to work, or further their education, or who frankly tell their stories. Out of concern for their safety the online magazine does not use family names or specific locators.”
“Since the project was founded in May 2009, over 90 Afghan women have participated in the AWWP mentorship program, honing their writing skills in English. While the project also includes workshops in Dari (Afghan Persian), it has heard from many women that they want an opportunity to improve and deepen their ability to communicate in English, the international language of commerce and diplomacy. They know that by making it possible for many, many people in the world to read their work, they will be helping their sisters who have yet to find their voices. Many learned English while living in refugee camps, so this is not just the language of the privileged.”
Back in the rolling landscape of Virginia’s foothills, Sally and Kaitlyn had decided they would put their creative efforts to work publishing the writing of their Afghan sisters. Working late hours between classes and other activities the students’ output was phenomenal. They produced broadsides of eight different pieces, each with its own original linocut in an edition of 180! A very daunting semester’s project for what would normally require an entire class of students. In addition to these pieces, the pair created three original monoprints for auction during Masha Hamilton’s visit to the college. The students successfully marketed their newly published work collecting $2200, enough to purchase a laptop and provide the very expensive Afghan wifi access for one woman for a year.
Inspired by their success, the students printed an additional edition of fifty selected pieces for fund-raising use by the Writing Project. This creative pair’s energy is growing as they discuss future projects with other nonprofit organizations. Having discovered the power of collaboration in the creative process and enjoying the rewards of working together, Sally and Kaitlyn plan to grow their publishing and fund-raising program.
Sally and Kaitlyn recently joined eight other Sweet Briar students in a semester-long internship at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center. They are learning how to search for just the right type to set a poet’s words as they poke through our multitude of wooden type cases. Discovering hand composition and learning to impress the image of the writer’s voice into the magical surface of paper seems a logical next step for these artists. It is a slow technology which encourages the reflection required to fully appreciate the power of words.
I am very excited to see what these two students produce next as they master these centuries-old skills!
Josef Beery has worked at Ten Flavors Studios in Charlottesville, Virginia as a publication designer for almost three decades. He is a cofounder of the Virginia Arts of the Book Center and an early organizer of the Virginia Festival of the Book. He shares observations on the fields of typography, printing, and books to promote discussion and interest in the activities of the VABC.