Amy E. Elkins

Macalester College, Department of English

Got it Covered

Virginia Woolf, working with her husband at their Hogarth Press, recalls publishing Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude:

We have sent off our first copies this evening, after spending the afternoon in glueing [sic.] & covering. They surprised us when done by their professional look—the stiff blue cover pleases us particularly. (Diary Vol. 1, 165).

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Something about a pleasing book cover excites the reader’s imagination right away, and some book covers seem to take on a life of their own; look no further than the merchandise aisle at your local big box book retailer for The Great Gatsby, A Clockwork Orange, The Cather in the Rye, or To the Lighthouse covers plastered on mugs and totes. For my course on the novel as a genre called “On Beauty,” I invited Jeenee Lee, a Twin Cities-based book designer who has done work for a range of clients, including Graywolf Press, to speak with my students about book covers and visual design principles. With this training, the students embarked on their own book design adventures, making a cover for one of the novels we’d read in the class, writing an artist’s statement blurb, and presenting their books in Macalester’s Rare Books Room. The books are now on display in the library’s entry.

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This assignment enriched our discussion of beauty because it put the conceptual apparatus of literary interpretation into material practice. Some students expressed surprise with how difficult it was to make this leap from an idea to the physical object. Many of the protagonists we followed over the course of the semester experienced a similar journey as they moved between desire, creativity, or critique and the real world. As scholars, we face the challenge of translating our ideas into action, and art proves time and again to be an invaluable training ground.

Knitting Out of Line

Soso: We’ll just have to take down the prison administration first, and then we will take over the world.
Poussey: You don’t think that protest is going to work, do you?
Soso: Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I?
Poussey: …I know you’re excited to have a project.
Soso: A project? This isn’t…knitting. This is social change and justice. It’s important.

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Orange is the New Black [season 4 episode 12 “The Animals”]

This exchange between two characters–more of a lover’s squabble, isn’t it?–takes a serious bite out of knitting.  I’m interested in how the show pits craft against activism at a point when the two seem more linked than ever.  In addition to prison arts programs (which I’d love to learn more about), craftivists and activist collectives use traditional forms of handicraft and art-making to expose a range of human rights issues, making AIDS quilts, protest signage, zines, etc.  Yarn, in particular, has become the medium of choice for “yarn bombers,” performance artists such as Casey Jenkins, and Afghan War Rug (baluch) weavers.

 

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Casey Jenkins, vaginal knitting, 2013

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War Rug

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do oppressed groups turn to yarn and textile work as a medium for anti-descrimination and anti-violence protest?  I historicize that question in a forthcoming article, but in a more contemporary vein, Beth Ann Pentney celebrates knitting for its unique potential to “attract politically motivated people, including feminists, DIY subcultures, and queer communities.”  In “Feminism, Activism, and Knitting: Are the Fibre Arts a Viable Mode for Feminist Political Action?” she argues that,

… contemporary third-wave feminism should be imagined as a practice. By doing so, different cultural practices can be utilized for feminist goals by people who may not readily identify as feminist. The advantage of casting a wider net over what ‘counts’ as feminism is that it recognizes that feminism is part of the contemporary North American social fabric, rather than a necessarily reactive political movement.

Her thesis claims a space for new modes of feminist action while also, in a sense, acknowledging the limits of craft’s activist potential in the political realm.  Expanding on the opening exchange from Orange is the New Black, we might note the show’s ongoing (although not overt) interest in female communication and spaces of feminist collaboration.  These spaces are vexed and fragmented sites of conflict–the prison kitchen, the hair salon, the garden, and the bathrooms.  And yet, we see an increasing desire among the inmates to join forces against injustice, demonstrated by the recent peaceful (well, peaceful on the inmates’ side) cafeteria protest.  How might a craft collective aid in these dialogues, and where has knitting showed up in the past episodes?  I’ll be continuing these thoughts in the coming months and working on what we curious types call “a side project.”

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CityMaking

While I was recently perusing the Bard Graduate Center Facebook page, I discovered the work of Swedish artist Berith Bergström (1896-1979). The author of the post commented,

Berith Bergström formed her company, Nolbyn Värmländskt hantverk, in the 1930s. Her interest in dollhouses derived from a project she had begun with her nieces and nephews to produce a miniature village resembling the one she knew from childhood. The name “Nolbyn” translates as “northern village” in the Värmländ dialect. Bergström trained in handicrafts and folk arts in Stockholm and later studied at the Wiener Werkstätte in Vienna, where she specialized in fabric prints.

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I find myself returning to the image of the cupboard dollhouse, connecting Bergström’s miniature village to a linked set of questions about ties between the making of city spaces and artistic representations of those spaces. It seems to me that the two can’t be separated. In Minneapolis, an Intermedia Arts initiative has begun a program called Creative CityMaking.  CityMaking brings together a group of visiting artists to think through how the arts might facilitate greater equity in Minneapolis. The term “CityMaking” is suggestive for me and for the sorts of questions I’m after.  What happens when cities are replicated, often in miniature, as a mode of preservation?  What is the role of memory in visual narratives of place?  Where does the city end and its representational models begin? CityMaking is a useful term here because it puts narrative and visual craft in conversation with community and activism—a rich collision of the visual/verbal and social that resonates far beyond the Twin Cities.

In Anthony Doeer’s recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See, Marie-Laure LeBlanc’s widowed father makes a scale model of their town out of wood. Since Marie-Laure is blind, she relies on the model city to learn her way around, but her father, a locksmith who works at a museum, also uses the model as a kind of puzzle treasure chest. Marie-Laure’s miniature town and her father’s work form the core tropes—the archives, collections, and puzzles—that become central to the novel. The miniature city introduces immediacy and intimacy to the book’s larger setting, which covers the massive scope of world war and difficult representations of traumatic, embodied experience.

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Another novel I’ve been crazy about is Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, a story also entrenched in vexed spaces of trauma, and a book that shows an archive even more embodied than All the Light.

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The moment that interests me most is the book’s final installation (the protagonist is an artist who has been overlooked by New York’s sexist art scene) of a large body filled with miniature scenes. The novel progressively develops the idea of the body as a repository for memory—a theme that resonates in fascinating ways with Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project:

Everything remembered, everything thought, all awareness becomes base, frame, pedestal, lock and key of his ownership. Period, region, craft, previous owners – all, for the true collector, merge in each one of his possessions into a magical encyclopaedia whose quintessence is the fate of his object.

Benjamin’s ruminations on collecting are about as well-known as his fascination with the Parisian arcades—a combination that engenders a certain wonder in objects and how we, like our belongings, inhabit space. In our current moment, I’m particularly interested in how the city, especially small enclaves of it, becomes a repository for grief, the grieving, and the objects that give those affects and subjectivities material form.

 

 

 

 

From Derrida to Dust, the Material Culture of Research

I’m delighted to announce that I recently accepted a dissertation fellowship at The Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory. This support will facilitate my research and writing along several lines next year, from informal conversation and office space to formal lunches and a public presentation of my work. Fox fellows have long influenced my conception of scholarly inquiry and collaboration at Emory, and I’m fortunate to count many former fellows as cherished friends and colleagues. Finally, the past talks and events I’ve attended at the Center consistently challenge me to think in new ways and explore literature and culture with rigor and creativity—from the excellent papers given at the Atlanta Modernism Symposium to the diverse selections of the Contemporary Women’s Fiction reading series.

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Recently, I enjoyed perusing the undergraduate Fox Center fellows’ blog. Almost every account mentions something about the material conditions of research at the Center: coffee brewing, food in the fridge, copious office supplies, free printing, bookshelves, natural light, computers, the almost-palpable buzz of productivity. My research necessarily pushes me to consider the material spaces of intellectual production—the archives I’ve visited in the U.S. and U.K. each presented me with new contexts and challenges. Sometimes in those spaces, the psychological paradox of Derrida’s “archive fever” comes alive with Carolyn Steedman’s observations in Dust: The Archive and Cultural History that the archive is a space full of dangerous allergens, microbes, and decay. Furthermore, the authors I study account for material and visual culture in striking ways—not just conceptually or metaphorically. The CLACK! of the camera’s shutter accompanies Woolf’s characters’ epiphanies as ideas come into focus and expose social problems. Mina Loy’s trash assemblages shape the bodies of social outcasts from the materials of their survival.

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Woolf’s House in Rodmell

Woolf of course expressed, in no uncertain terms, that “a room of one’s own” drives the engine of creative, artistic, and intellectual production. It’s a simple but powerful suggestion, that space and time to write open up exciting possibilities for the scholarly imagination.

Rookie in the Big Leagues

I recently spoke a bit about my online project, Making Splendid Things (http://potterswheel.omeka.net/), at the Modernist Studies Conference in Pittsburgh. As a participant in a seminar on Digitizing American Female Poets, I argued that the Potters’ DIY aesthetic intersects with the project of digitization today. A snippet of my essay:

“Further underlining the feminist side of the Potters’ project, the scrapbook-like, manuscript form suggests that the Potters saw domestic, handmade craft publishing as a viable means of collecting and disseminating their work—not unlike my own pursuit to collect and disseminate their work on a self-designed website. Amy Earhart argues that digital tools, rather than making problems surrounding preservation and canonization go away, mirror the struggles and successes of feminist publishing projects. DIY feminist projects such as radical zines, handmade scrapbooks, and manuscript magazines emphasize the activist power of ephemerality. So, too, with the Potter’s Wheel. Pushing this insight one step further in a kind of dialectical turn, digital archivists might benefit considerably from attending to ephemeral works and the ways in which they continue to highlight institutional barriers, gendered gatekeeping, and canon formation.”

I was talking about the DIY dimension of my larger project, and another conference attendee told me about Rookie Magazine—an online and print multimedia journal aimed at young women that is deeply entrenched in questions of the textual and aesthetic.   Rookie has a lot of sass (something I can certainly get behind) and an array of subversive journalistic and artistic projects, with topics ranging from sexual assault and queer identity to comics and gift giving. My students in ENG211 have recently fallen in love with Judith Butler (who knew?!), so I was especially struck with this gender-bending photo/collage essay, which foregrounds the performative through drag and the handmade thing. I’m glad Rookie is in the world.

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Journeys Through Lace (17th c. to present)

A painting I can’t get out of my head: Bernhard Keilhau’s 17th c. The Lacemaker:

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 - 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

This exquisite piece stopped me in my tracks last summer when I saw it at the Ashmolean in Oxford. I’d just been to the Isle of Wight to learn more about the processes and history of lacemaking from Barbara Philo, a traditional bobbin lacemaker and all-around wonderful person. As I wrote here,

In my dissertation, I ask questions about how visual art and material culture shaped literary aesthetics in the early 20th century. To answer these questions, I read literature through the lens of unseen art and craft processes in order to illuminate new circuits of visuality, social and political activism, and aesthetic patterns. I explore how various processes, designs, and media surface in and around [twentieth-century] literature. As a result, my project demands a hands-on research plan for direct contact and practice with the visual and material cultures I study. This type of research extends interpretive insights in new directions by rooting them firmly to creative materials and processes.

I not only tried my hand at (the most very primitive form of) lacemaking, but I learned about the ways different weave patterns signal different national traditions and styles.  The materials of manufacture–the bobbins, beads, pins, bolster pillow–also tell stories.  In particular, I was excited to learn that markings on the bobbins and the design of the beads that weigh them down have symbolized different things throughout history! 

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A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest go at lacemaking.

A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest attempt at lacemaking.

A fabulous Polish street artist, NeSpoon, has taken over urban spaces with lace, a kind of cross-cultural web of visual storytelling (if you ask me).  I like to think of the Warsaw of WWII and the reparative, generative aesthetic of lace covering the city today.  I’ve been writing about the historicity of textiles lately and what they mean to the literary imaginary of WWII (the Latin laqueus meaning ‘noose,’ for instance), so NeSpoon’s work is a timely addition to my thinking! See more of her work here.

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The Ukulele: Modernism’s Greatest Musical Instrument

In 1922, a New York Tribune reporter warned, “The ukelele has become the favorite musical weapon of the flapper.”  These modern troubadours with rouged knees, I’ve just learned, took the ukulele world by storm in the 1920’s.  Women were especially drawn to the plucky, portable instrument, including Josephine Baker.  I can’t get enough Baker, and my fascination has only deepened with this new knowledge…

Cliff Edwards (better known to most of us as the voice of Jiminy Cricket) also popularized the ukulele in the 20’s and 30’s as a modern, Jazz instrument, which earned him the stage name, “Ukulele Ike.”  See this rendition of his popular 1929 hit, “Singin’ in the Rain”:

Am I joining the ranks of Hawaiian hula girls, Josephine Baker, flappers, and Jazz musicians?  Probably not any time soon, but I have started ukulele lessons at Guitar Decatur.  I’m also not sure I’d call my uke a “musical weapon” (the only thing I’m hurting is my very patient music teacher’s ears, I’m sure!)–but it is a pretty disarming presence during late-summer dissertation writing ferment. 

Collodion, or the Scholar in Tintype

My research has taken me to the very bottom of the bottle–the collodion bottle, that is.

This ooey-gooey miracle substance has been used for all kinds of things since it exploded (it’s quite flammable) onto the scene in 1846.  By 1951, photographers were experimenting with the substance, using it to adhere silver nitrate to photographic plates.  Brandon, the photographer behind Humans of New York writes about Jill Enfield, a renowned contemporary wet plate collodion process photographer here and includes a time-lapse video of her process:

I, too, recently had the thrilling experience of having my wet plate portrait taken by local photographer Alexander Hadjidakis (complete with Victorian-era neck brace).  I caught up with him at SCAD Atlanta to watch him work, learn more about the practice of wet plate photography, and get his thoughts about how literature and this particular art form intersect in my research.  Here is tintype proof!

Tintype by Alexander Hadjidakis, 2014

Tintype by Alexander Hadjidakis, 2014

Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

The National Museum of Women in the Arts calls Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová “The First Woman Graphic Novelist.”  A Czech artist/writer, Bochořáková-Dittrichová (1894–1980) wrote six novels, illustrated with exquisite woodcuts that detail both the domestic and cosmopolitan energy of the early-twentieth century. I’m quite enamored with her work, which levels a pretty stern assessment of capitalism, education, and war–all put in tension with women’s creative lives.

 

Z mého dětství (From My Childhood), 1931

To see more of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, see this recent Huffington Post piece.

I’ve started (in a very preliminary way) to shape a project that explores Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work alongside the more contemporary work of Marjane Satrapi.  Take, for example, a frame from Satrapi’s 2003 (English version) Persepolis and this 1934 Bochořáková-Dittrichová woodcut, Indiáni Jindy a Dnes (Indians Then and Now).

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Woolf on Craftsmanship

As an undergraduate, I received a grant to visit the U.K. and walk in Virginia Woolf’s footsteps. The trip included my first visit to Monk’s House, meetings with Woolf scholars in Victorian drawing rooms, and a trip to the British Library to see manuscripts.  At the British Library, I was hooked up to bulky headphones at a listening station and promised an encounter with the voice of Woolf herself.  This recording, thanks to the wonders of the web, is now widely available, but at that time it was scarce. At first, I thought they’d loaded the wrong recording–Woolf’s timid-but-determined, rather high-pitched lilt did not match the voice in my head!  But, the librarians assured me, it was the right one and this was her voice.  See Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post about Woolf’s radio broadcast and hear the recording in high quality here.

Speaking about craftsmanship, Woolf challenges her fellow modernist wordsmiths:

How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

 

Her prompt has material implications for the production of literature as a material art, as my dissertation, Crafting Modernity, suggests.  In particular, I think of Woolf at the type cases, combining old pieces of type in “new orders” of modernist literary experiment at the Hogarth Press.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.  -  I’ve been neglecting this blog a little due to midterms; rest assured, it will pick up again now that my work has begun to wind down slightly.

Richard Kennedy. Virginia Woolf Setting Type, taken from Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press.

I’ve seen a photo of Woolf at work at the press somewhere, but I can’t find it–and perhaps this sketch from Kennedy’s memory is a better representation of modernist book arts anyway.  Woolf’s geometric type case a Mondrian,  Duchamp’s Roue de bicyclette emerging from the right corner, and the tilted, empty frames on the back wall (negative space emphasized by the positive space of the bottle) like a jostled Picasso still life…