The Artifacts of Connection
Artifacts engage our senses, pique our curiosity, and punctuate our lives. In fact, the English word “souvenir” comes from the French verb “to remember.”
In the not-so-distant past, corresponding by mail was most people’s best way of keeping in touch. Today, we have many options: we can email, we can text, we can post, we can chat. We are in a golden—or perhaps a Pentium®—age of constant connection. We can share in a snap and comment with a click.
However, everything we send into the ether is, in a word, ethereal—unless the recipient prints it out. And, once someone prints out “your thing,” it won’t really look or feel like you. It will be useful, but probably not very cherishable. It has content, but not context. Whereas an “actual letter,” one originally written on paper, seems mysteriously imbued with the persona of its sender. Even a little enclosure holds an attraction disproportionate to its size.
Making your mark
The Viscountess de Noüe makes an elegant example (A). In the grand old days, proper people had calling cards, sometimes printed with only your name. If you dropped in on someone and the someone wasn’t at home, you left your card. The Viscountess used the card of her husband, the Vicomte de Noüe, on at least this one occasion. She gracefully wrote her husband’s abbreviated title (Vte), followed by a swooshy little ampersand, and then tweaked his printed title into her own by adding an “sse” to make Vicomtesse. This tiny artifact, which I bought for a dollar in 2007, gives me a sense of her personal style, rather than just her contact information. It leads me to wish I had met her.
Sharing your impressions
Maria Gitin was nineteen when she spent the summer in Alabama as a Civil Rights worker. She handwrote letters to her family, penned on whatever paper was at hand. She also sent handwritten “public letters” to her housemate in San Francisco, who typed up Gitin’s letters, mimeographed them, and mailed them to the two dozen or so supporters who had helped fund her trip (B). Fifty years later, these letters provided the impetus for Gitin’s book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.” The letters take you back, whether you were there or not.
Gitin comments, “Since the book came out, I have been contacted by almost 100 descendants of people in the book, all of whom have offered corrections. Some of their stories or memories I know are factually true and others are emotionally true. I’ve spoken with elders who’ve told me that they didn’t tell their families what was really going on, and with young people who tell me they feel they’ve gotten some of their past back. The rediscovery of these letters not only gave me back this period in my life, but enabled me to give back to others.”
In Gitin’s case, she has made a valuable contribution to the historical record. But, at the time, she was simply writing about what was going on around her and how she felt about it. Recording your thoughts and feelings is always worthwhile, even if you aren’t planning to send them or even to share them.
Writing for the future
Lea Redmond has created a wonderful way to promote artifacting. She credits a ninth-grade writing assignment as her inspiration for Letters to My Future Self, published by Chronicle Books in 2014 (C). The little keepsake book has quickly grown into Redmond’s extraordinarily successful Letters to My... series, which already includes eleven titles, with ten more in the works.
Redmond elaborates, “In ninth grade, one of my teachers guided us to write letters to our future selves. She tucked away our fourteen-year-old thoughts, dreams, and fears, keeping them safe for all of high school, until returning them upon graduation to re-read and reflect on our high school experience. Unfortunately, I lost mine over the years. Oh, how I wish I could read it now!”
So, Redmond designed a hardback keepsake book with which people can do this “classic contemplative activity a dozen times, and keep their messages bound together, safe and sound, along the way.” Via a succession of bound-in airmail envelopes, Redmond encourages the reader-writer with reflective prompts, such as “A pep talk for the future me” and “I promise to myself.” You can tuck ephemera into the envelopes as well.
Redmond loves to write letters—by hand. She is certain that non-digital correspondence has a material resonance that “hangs around after the initial act of correspondence in a very different way than, say, an email or a Facebook post.” She adds, “A handwritten communiqué invites you to re-think and re-feel because of its very tangible presence in your immediate physical world. Paper correspondence has a weightiness to it—both literally and emotionally.”
Providing personal context
The saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is, in many instances, apt. Automatic geotagging—telling us where and when a digital photo was snapped—is an excellent invention.
But geotagging is data, without personality or point of view. Annotating your photos is a great way to personalize the moment, even for people who may not yet be part of your life. Down the
creative road, an annotation can provide the particulars and evoke the emotions of a photo opp.
A tale of two technologies: For a family memoir in progress, this note identifies the passengers in the automobile and details their connections to one another. A copy of the original photo (circa 1905—1906) was re-photographed digitally; the note was scanned. The sender’s choice of note sheets—souvenir of a stay at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris-and her handwriting have special resonance for her children and grandchildren. How fortuitous, and perhaps forward thinking, that the recipient kept the note with the photo! (D)
Artifacting” should be a verb
There is a world of emotional difference between your Inbox and the shoebox, literal or metaphorical, in which you keep your artifacts: the letters, notes, and cards you’ve received over the years. Whether you think of these as keepsakes or mementos, memorabilia or ephemera, they can transport you back in time... or into the future. As fewer of our daily interactions take place on paper, paper becomes even more engaging as a placeholder, an embodiment of connection. Go forth and artifact! Send someone you know, or would like to know, a personal thought.
This article was originally published in Issue 12 of the Mohawk Maker Quarterly. The Mohawk Maker Quarterly is a vehicle to support a community of like-minded makers. Content focuses on stories of small manufacturers, artisans, printers, designers, and artists who are making their way in the midst of the digital revolution. Learn more about the quarterly here.