Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Kitao Gallery’s latest exhibit, “Handwritten Letters Exhibit: Swarthmore Student Correspondences Throughout the Years,” organized by Abby Holtzman ’16, celebrates letter writing as a unique and thought-provoking form of communication.
The collection, which opens with a reception at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, features letters written to and from Swarthmore students between 1942 and the present. 11 different students and alumni contributed letters, some of which are dozens of pages long. Holtzman hopes that these letters will provide a new and interesting look at Swarthmore’s history and culture. “This is an important way to look at [Swarthmore’s history], through the eyes of students writing what they didn’t think would ever be seen,” she said.
The inspiration for the exhibit came last spring, when incoming freshman Sarah Geselowitz ’16 posted in the class’ Facebook group asking for volunteers to participate in a pen pal program. Leonie Cohen ’16 eventually implemented the program, and dozens of incoming freshman, including Holtzman, were set up with pen pals.
“I’m really into writing and I always have been, sort of the idea of communication as something that you should put more thought into, something that can be beautiful and lasting and meaningful,” Holtzman said. “So I had the idea to sort of start collecting more letters because I’m kind of obsessed with writing and emblems of the past.”
Holtzman sent emails to the heads of each alumni class asking for letters from their days at Swarthmore. The class heads then forwarded her query to everybody they could. Alums responded with copies of their letters, and Holtzman combined these submissions with letters from the freshman pen pal program as well as from other current students to create the exhibit.
Holtzman will showcase the letters as art in the Kitao Gallery. Each contributor’s letters will be displayed with his or her name and will include a written introduction to the correspondence. Holtzman also plans to pull quotes from the letters and to enlarge them next to the original copies.
The letters represent a significant record of past events, and Holtzman hopes the exhibit will emphasize what she refers to as “the importance of remembering.” She believes that taking the time to record experiences through letters forms a lasting appreciation for one’s experiences. “[The exhibit] is kind of an accumulation of moments, and if we don’t take the time to document them, sometimes they can be lost,” she said.
Holtzman said the letters show a commonality among generations of Swarthmore students. “I feel less alone in a lot of my feelings here,” she said. The letters have shown her that over the course of 70 years, experiences at Swarthmore have remained relatively similar. She believes this to be especially true during students’ first years at the college. “I think especially as a freshman all you can feel is this really terrible and wonderful potential energy between people, people that you might be friends with for the rest of your life.”
“All the letters have the same common theme, ‘I’m overwhelmed with work, I can’t go on,’” Holtzman said. However, hidden within this theme are dozens of beautifully simple and happy moments. Holtzman said she likes to think letters help remind people of these joyful moments when they become overwhelmed. “A woman and her friends cooked chicken dinner in ML one night, and that’s such a small moment but the fact that it’s documented and made permanent makes it really beautiful.”
Contributors to the exhibit also emphasized the difference between letter writing and other forms of communication. “When you write letters, when you handwrite them, when you take the time to take out a piece of paper and a pen, you are forced to consider everything you are saying, […] you have to consider every phrase, every sentence,” said Emma King ’16, who was Holtzman’s pen pal last summer.
“I think [letters] make contact in a way that is possibly a bit more reflective and thoughtful than verbal interaction,” said Susan Washburn ’60, who gave Holtzman letters she wrote to her parents during her years at Swarthmore. “There’s just a moment between the thinking and putting words down on paper. […] You’re expressing yourself more thoughtfully and honestly than you might otherwise.”
Holtzman said she hopes people will see the reflection within these letters and feel the emotion they convey. “I hope people will take away an appreciation of writing as an important form of love,” she said.
Handwritten Letters Exhibit: Swarthmore Student Correspondences Throughout the Years will be on display in Kitao Gallery from Friday, March 22 through Friday, March 29.
Photos by Ellen Sanchez-Huerta/The Daily Gazette.
Abby Holtzman ’16 is an Assistant Arts & Features Editor for The Daily Gazette. She had no part in the creation of this article.