An Orwell writer enlists local artists in her exploration of alcoholism, recovery
ORWELL — Emily Casey didn’t always like essays.
“I had always thought of essays as boring, nature stories… that just didn’t appeal to me,” she said in a conversation last week. “But when I was in college other people were really pushing the boundaries of what an essay could be… Braided essays really spoke to me — with a theme weaving through thoughts.”
Casey, a 2012 MFA graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, didn’t always like telling the truth either.
“The publishing of my book ‘Made Holy’ coincided with the truth of telling about my own recovery,” she said. “The day the book published was the day I came out as an alcoholic.”
That was this September.
Now, it’s been over 11 years since Casey has been in recovery herself, but she said she just wasn’t ready to tell the world about it a day sooner.
“Made Holy” is a confessional of sorts. Through a collection of lyrical essays — some more fragmented than others — one theme follows the history of alcoholism in Casey’s family as well as her own recovery and experience with alcohol.
“My writing is a little bit, or maybe a lot a bit, confessional,” said Casey, who teaches English and Multidisciplinary studies at the Community College of Vermont in Winooski, and also works with writers as a manuscript consultant, editor and writing coach. “That gets criticized, but I find it interesting and tricky… There is a truth-telling in the writing, a demasking… that’s how the confessional happens. I felt a real draw to pull the curtain back for this book.”
Casey started writing “Made Holy” in 2008. She recalled her childhood as one of six, growing up in the woods of Northern Minnesota. “I touch on the alcoholism that was there,” she explained “and how much of a secret it was in the family… I also share experiences from my own life: having a miscarriage and going on to have kids.”
The title for Casey is the driving question: “Are we ‘made holy’? Are we born with our diseases, or not?”
Casey explores the shame and taboo behind addiction as forces that fuel it.
“In electric moments that are utterly relatable, she weaves a tale of love and commitment to the truth of her experience despite the incredible desire to keep alive a legacy of secrets,” reads a description of the book on Casey’s website.
“Relatable,” sure, but also difficult.
To promote the book and make her work more approachable and engaging, Casey decided to curate an art exhibit to pair with her writing. She used her piece “Beneath A Sky Of Gunmetal Gray,” which is written in eight parts, and asked artists around Vermont if they would be interested in making a piece of art in reaction to one part of the essay.
“I started reaching out to artists, and surprisingly they said ‘alright!’” Casey said. “I had no idea what to expect… I met with some of the artists and it was really fun.”
Casey said the assignment to the artists was to “be in conversation with the piece.”
The exhibit on view at the Isley for the month of December will feature all eight art pieces, paired with each of the eight parts of Casey’s essay. The artists include: Sarah Ashe of Middlebury, Fran Bull of Brandon, Janet Fredericks of Lincoln, Wylie Garcia of Charlotte, Winnie Looby of Burlington, Elizabeth Nelson of Northern Vermont, Rhonda Ratray of North Bennington and Sage Tucker-Ketcham of Burlington.
“I’m really impressed with these artists… To see the visualization and to have the conversation between the art and the writing, is powerful,” Casey said. “You put your ideas out in the world and then see how people respond. I think the fragmented style of writing allows for others to have the completion of thought… Such exposed writing makes other people want to open up and share too.”
The exhibit first opened at the Orwell Free Library in October, then went to CCV for November. It will hang at the Isley through December before moving on to the Brandon Public library in February, Vergennes’ Bixby Memorial Free Library in March, Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library in April, Shelburne’s Pierson Library in May, the Lincoln Library in June and Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library for July.
Casey will give a talk at the Ilsley along with artists Fredericks and Ashe, in conjunction with the exhibit on Thursday, Dec. 12, at 6 p.m.
The exhibit and readings are an intense experience for Casey. “Made Holy” is such a telling book, and that takes it’s toll.
“It can be uncomfortable and stressful to do readings… there’s definitely an emotional toll,” Casey reflected, as she looked ahead at the schedule. But that’s not stopping her. “I think we need to tell the truth. I guess the most important thing that I learned about things in my life that are shameful, is to trust that if you let it go you’ll be safe. Then the shame disappears.”
MEET THE LOCAL ARTISTS
SARAH ASHE, MIDDLEBURY
After graduating in Fine Arts from Bennington College, Sarah lived in Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Boston area, and New Orleans, before moving to Middlebury in 2006. Throughout her life she has made art. While in New Orleans she studied drawing and oil painting and started a craft business making sculptural lights. These skills remain an integral part of her art making.
Hurricane Katrina was a turning point both in bringing her to Vermont and expanding her sculpture practice. Having spent time in its aftermath volunteering and hearing stories from survivors she became interested in art relating to the challenges faced by people in difficult if not impossible situations.
Her show at the Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury brought together the stories in both sculpture and two dimensional work. Presently she has turned her focus to the refugee crisis, primarily in the Middle East and Africa. Where she sees a great urgency for representation.
Most recently, she has added collage and sewing to two dimensional pieces that build on the simplified shapes of the tents seen in many refugee camps. She sees the role of her art as an expression of concern for people who are not being heard.
FRAN BULL, BRANDON
Award-winning sculptor, painter, printmaker and performance artist Fran Bull, has been exhibiting her work worldwide for over 40 years. Her art is included in numerous museum and university collections, ranging from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to the Guilin Museum in China. She makes her art in Brandon and Barcelona, Spain.
Bull’s early Photorealist drawings and paintings brought her international acclaim, but in the mid 1980’s this more identifiable approach evolved towards art that could be understood as a visualization of the unseen.
Today Bull’s work seeks to connect ordinary life to larger mythic and historical motifs, themes and narratives.
JANET FREDERICKS, LINCOLN
Janet Fredericks spent her early years in Vermont and returned in 1979. She studied art at Green Mountain College, William Patterson College and received her BFA from Barry University. She has had major shows, both in this country and abroad, steadily creating bodies of work informed by observations of her natural environment.
Her current work expresses the artist’s continuing interest in her natural environment. With wonderment at its intelligence, interconnectedness and complexities, Janet offers insight into what is common and extraordinary in the world around us.
Mysterious and sensory, Fredericks’ drawings and paintings are at once maps and conversations, tracings of experience of a deeper communion that begins with reverent awareness of her native surroundings.