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Wednesday, 05 December 2007 00:00

Our secret places: Phenomena exhibit honors personal stories and Lee Smith novel

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By Michael Beadle

So many of us have what Waynesville librarian Kathy Olsen calls “thing stories.”

Maybe it’s a rare coin or a porcelain plate that’s become a family heirloom. Maybe it’s jewelry or a figurine or a postcard from the distant past.

Whatever the case, we imbue these things with personal memories or experiences we’ve shared with a loved one.

This weekend, Olsen and library staff at the Waynesville branch of the Haywood County Public Library will be opening a three-month exhibit of shadowboxes that display the personal items of several Haywood County residents. From British coins to a parchment letter to old newspaper clippings, the items represent family stories and fascinating histories that are briefly explained in narratives to be presented alongside each shadowbox. An opening reception for the exhibit will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Waynesville library on the main floor in the front reference section. Local actress Barbara Bates Smith will perform a scene from her one-woman play adapted from Lee Smith’s novel. The program is free and open to the public.

Olsen, the adult services librarian at the Waynesville library, and Asheville Citizen-Times book reviewer and author Rob Neufeld got the idea for the shadowboxes as part of the Together We Read program, which celebrates a book for a year that can be promoted throughout the Western North Carolina region in various public programs. This year’s selection was the Lee Smith Civil War Reconstruction era novel, On Agate Hill. In the novel, the main character, Molly Petree, a feisty orphan girl with a wild imagination, collects oddities she calls her “phenomena,” which she keeps in a secret place within her childhood house.

Olsen thought it would be especially appealing to have local residents try their hand at designing display case shadowboxes full of personal items that reflect a certain flair for the past or some interesting story that reveals a person’s history. Olsen chose such diverse people such as Vicki Hyatt, newspaper editor at The Mountaineer; artist Elizabeth Garlington and state Sen. Joe Sam Queen, who all took on the task of designing their own shadowboxes, which were donated to the library by the Together We Read program.

Olsen, who wanted to go beyond the book lecture format, sought to create an activity that spurred community involvement while at the same time generating interest in the novel.

“Everybody has things or treasures in their family that tells stories,” she said.

While some things are given to us with traditions tied to them, some of us create the thing’s significance by attaching our own history to it. Olsen, who is the youngest of five children, admits she took these things for granted growing up, but in reading On Agate Hill and thinking about her own connection to special family items, she now has a greater appreciation for these small treasures.

“So I think the thing only has meaning because there’s a story attached to it,” she said.

The down side is that these things can take on a life of their own. Olsen recalls how her great aunt lived like a miser but left a fortune to her grandmother, who had trouble dealing with the valuable items of the inheritance. Pieces of the fortune have since been dispersed among relatives, but the younger generations were left with bits and pieces of stories they had to fit together. Olsen and her siblings try to make a special effort to share the items rather than hoard them.

For Olsen’s contribution to the library’s shadowbox exhibit, she pieced together newspaper clippings and a book written about a remarkable journey of birds, who followed Olsen’s great aunt around the world.

Another shadowbox in the exhibit includes old coins and tin soldiers from Great Britain. Still another includes a parchment letter referencing a square dance call from more than a century ago. Each carries the nostalgia of places and people of the past.

The shadowboxes will be displayed through February, and after that, Olsen plans on introducing another two or three rounds of shadowbox displays, each rotating exhibit lasting for another three months at a time. These later exhibits could feature items from senior citizens or local students.

For more information about this ongoing exhibit contact Kathy Olsen at 828.452.5169, ext. 2507.

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