Crafting Communities: Rethinking Academic Engagement in Pandemic Times and Beyond

This is the first post in the ‘Crafting Communities’ series on JVC Online. See Part Two and Part Three.

It is July 2020, the summer of Covid. Libraries are closed. Museums are closed. University courses and conferences have moved online. A small group of Victorianists gathers on Zoom to learn how to make hair art. Led by Vanessa Warne (U of Manitoba), the event is a test run for the upcoming semester, when Vanessa plans to make hair art with students in an online literature class. Twisting wire around hair, we reflect on the forms of presence and connection that hair art and jewelry represented for Victorians. We are working with synthetic hair, but our current experience of social distancing makes us sensitive to the ways that human hair could stand in for an absent loved one. We twist. We make mistakes. We laugh. We are learning from one another—not only about how to work with hair and wire, as the Victorians did, but also about how to incorporate hands-on activities into our teaching and how to benefit from one another’s expertise and company as we move forward into a challenging academic year.

After that workshop, our conversations about how to foster connection and scholarly exchange in the absence of conferences, archive and museum visits, and in-person teaching continued. The result? The Crafting Communities project, a year-long series of events that reimagines academic connection in the context of Covid times. The project features a series of roundtables on Victorian material culture that bring together academics, curators, and artists and that have, to date, attracted large international audiences. The project has also hosted a number of hands-on workshops—on hair art, on broderie anglaise, and on Victorian-era scrapbooking—providing occasions for hands-on exploration, conversation, and the pleasures of crafting.

Like other socially distanced initiatives, the Crafting Communities project is a response to the challenges of a global pandemic: we are short on time, limited in resources, mostly housebound, and dependent on video conferencing technologies for our social and scholarly interactions. But these limitations have prompted a productive model for scholarly exchange that we hope to maintain beyond Covid times. We plan to contribute further blog posts on some of the takeaways of specific roundtables and workshops, but in this one we hope to highlight some of the ways that the Crafting Communities series, like other pandemic-prompted projects, turns the traditional academic conference on its head and offers a new, exciting, and accessible model for scholarly exchange and community engagement.

Crafting Workshops

The crafting workshops, both a response to and an expression of surging interest in home crafting brought on by stay-at-home orders, pair the joy of making with scholarly engagement with Victorian material culture. Each workshop is planned around a crafting activity that the workshop leader shares with participants, in some cases sending materials by post in advance. Exploring the limitless of possibilities of needle and thread, Dr. Sabrina Mark led a lesson on broderie anglaise, a popular form of whitework embroidery. In the lead-up to the launch of a fascinating new online exhibit titled “Yes, this is my album,” Heather Dean and Elizabeth Bassett from the University of Victoria Libraries explored a range of Victorian scrapbooking styles and techniques. An upcoming workshop explores block printing with Samantha Bellinger (Toronto Public Library & Bingo Bango Press).

Exhibition poster; designed by Elizabeth Bassett.

While our workshops are led by experts, they promote collaborative engagement. Learning together, participants contribute with comments and questions as we craft in the comfort of our homes. Questions, both practical and theoretical, are explored in conversation as we share knowledge based in our sometimes very different areas or disciplines. A recent offering of the hair art workshop welcomed curators, jewellers, researchers, crafters, and complete beginners and was co-hosted by artist Sandra Klowak, who shared expert knowledge of this largely forgotten practice. Each workshop emphasizes sharing: sharing space, sharing knowledge, and sharing resources.

Hair work by artist Sandra Klowak.

In some ways, events like these resemble traditional conferences, bringing people together to learn and share. However, these workshops welcome and centre a different kind of knowledge—one that is tactile and embodied, dependent on manual as opposed to intellectual dexterity as we engage with forms of knowledge that were available to Victorian makers. This different emphasis places many of us in a vulnerable position as we grapple with new materials and methods, struggling to train our minds and fingers in a novel practice. For those of us who are less dexterous and less crafty, these workshops remind us what it feels like to struggle with learning something new—a valuable reminder at a time when many university students are struggling to learn in challenging circumstances.

Roundtables on Victorian Material Culture

Like the workshops, our series of Crafting Communities roundtables emerged from a session that was first imagined as a one-off event. In August, Andrea Korda (U of Alberta) and Mary Elizabeth Leighton (U of Victoria) held what we then called “A Show and Share Roundtable,” inviting five experts to show just one Victorian object and share what we can learn about the Victorians from close engagement with the object. We hoped that the “show and share” title would signal to presenters and participants that the session would be informal and social, focused on collective discovery through shared looking. To that end, we proposed short presentations, just five minutes for each presenter, and dedicated half of the 75-minute session to questions and conversation. Our presenters ranged widely over a variety of objects, from a carpet, commemorative plate, and clamshell book to a tiny handmade book and an annotated poetry edition.

Our curation principle for the roundtables, from that August pilot through subsequent sessions, differs markedly from the traditional conference model. Rather than grouping presentations by shared themes, we slot in presenters according to their availability, and, in some cases, we have not known what object a presenter would discuss prior to formalizing our schedule. By inviting five presenters for each roundtable, we increase the chances of productive exchanges among scholars and across objects. At one recent roundtable, a hidden-mother photo has jostled with a scrap screen, a book, a conversation tube and pouch, and a woodcut; at another, a sea serpent poster has mingled with valentines, tea gowns, a scrapbook, and a policeman’s hat.

Poster for a Crafting Communities Roundtable; designed by Robert Steele.

We have also been glad to feature different forms of expertise by inviting curators, artists, librarians, conservators, and interested community members into the conversation. Lively discussion periods have followed the presentations as we pursue emerging links among the objects and move in directions that inhere not in any one object but in the connections among objects. At our pilot roundtable, a focus on collaboration emerged as we considered the occasionally overlooked makers and users of the different objects under discussion. During our December roundtable, time emerged as a key theme as we considered the time that it takes to look, read, and touch, and the ways that objects change over time to produce new meanings.

Crafting Community

Students have attended both workshops and roundtables, adding their insights and questions to the conversation. Some of those students are now working as Research Assistants for this project, learning about the objects that presenters are exploring while also developing skills in academic outreach and in two emerging facets of the project: website design and podcasting. Sensitive to the emotional toll of earning a degree on a laptop at a kitchen table, we hope that the project’s events, training sessions, and opportunities to work creatively as a team will help our students, affiliated with three institutions in three provinces, to feel less isolated and more engaged. It has certainly had that salutary effect for us as organizers, connecting us not only with one another but also with a wonderful array of librarians, artists, archivists, curators, scholars, students, crafters, and keenly interested makers and readers in ways that traditional conferences do not.

Hair work by participants in a Crafting Communities Hair Art Workshop (February 2021).

A virtual hair wreath, made of photographs of the work of different crafters who attended the hair art workshop, is a fitting emblem for this project. Like the wreaths of the nineteenth century, to which friends and family members donated hair, both this virtual wreath and our larger project are collaborative. Recalling the ways in which Victorian-era hair wreaths celebrated connections and rewarded makers with the pleasures of creation, our project has offered us the consolations of connection and creativity in a cultural moment defined by loss and isolation. And, like our virtual wreath, the Crafting Communities project is defined by growth, expanding as different contributors volunteer their expertise. Coming together virtually, in difficult circumstances, to teach and to learn, participants in this project are crafting a community defined by generosity and curiosity—a community that extends our ideas about academic engagement and that will, we hope, continue beyond the conditions that created it.

The Crafting Communities Project is a collaboration among Andrea Korda (University of Alberta), Mary Elizabeth Leighton (University of Victoria), and Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba). It is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, and the Universities of Alberta, Victoria, and Manitoba.

Header image: Hair work by participants in Crafting Communities Hair Art Workshops (July 2020; February 2021)



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