One of the greatest connections in the history of the United States was made when the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, joined the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads and united a continent. Train Tracts, a project conceived by writer Amie Tullius (with support from printmaker Stefanie Dykes) to celebrate that moment, has created many connections of its own. The multifaceted art project, which includes writing, printmaking, a kind of performance art, and viewer participation will be showcased at the Rio Gallery, as part of Transcontinental – People, Places, Impacts.
The project has created connections on many levels. First, 12 writers were given a writing prompt asking them to, “Write a 1,000-word piece of creative nonfiction that is about making a connection with a stranger. Especially if it’s someone who had a very different perspective or life experience. Extra credit if it involves a train, or a trip across the country.”
With Dykes’ help, Tullius then played matchmaker, connecting these writers to printmakers who would create an appropriate book or package to hold the words. Most of the writer-printmaker pairs did not know each other prior to this project, but the connections resulted in rich collaborations and ongoing friendships. “We always tried to connect artists who would have good kismet,” says Tullius.
Next came a more challenging process of matchmaking – gifting books to Amtrak passengers. Tullius sent a set of the 12 books to 12 “mules” in 12 locations with Amtrak service. Their assignment was to take the books to their local Amtrak station and hand each of the books to a passenger to take onto the train and read. The readers were told they could write their reactions to the work and then (please) send the book back to Dykes in a postage-paid envelope provided.
The books are so beautifully written and printed that it’s a wonder any were returned. A book about a mother meeting her baby at birth is packaged in a leather pouch from which the reader must “birth” the book to read it. Another, about falling in love with moss, includes beautiful block print illustrations. A book about meeting the trees in a new neighborhood contains a print that the reader is invited to keep as a gift.
You might think it would be easy to hand a book to a stranger, but it seems there’s an art to that, too. Tullius, who lives in Sante Fe, New Mexico, took a set of books to the nearby Lamy station that services Amtrak. “There’s so much joy in opening people up and giving them a gift,” says Tullius, “and a lot of that happened.” But, in fact, more people said “no” than “yes” to the gift offer.
“Going up to someone and offering to give them something just isn’t done in this culture,” says Tullius. “They reacted like I’m either selling [them] something or trying to convert [them] to something.” On her first visit to the Lamy station, she was able to give three books to willing passengers. Deciding it might be easier to give them out onboard the train, she bought a ticket to the next town: Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Though Tullius, a self-described introvert, found the process of trying to connect with strangers exhausting, she also had some beautiful moments. There was the woman who was just returning from Washington, D.C., where her daughter had just received the Frederick Douglass Award for her work in economics with women of color. “She was a spitfire of a woman,” says Tullius. She had so much excitement for the progress women are making that Tullius found it hard to break away from the conversation to talk to other passengers. There was the older woman at the Lamy station who was going to a family reunion in Joshua Tree National Park. “She read the Chantal O’Keeffe book about her grandmother immigrating to this country,” says Tullius. “She told me all about her own family’s immigration stories, about the cousins who would be at the reunion, and about her dad who immigrated here in 1886. Then the guy next to us said, ‘Oh, my grandpa was born in 1896.’ And I said my grandfather was born in 1906. We all opened up and I left feeling humanity is amazing!”
Because Tullius is so familiar with all of the stories in the little books, she was able to look at passengers and offer a book that might be a good match. The story written by Rachel Marston is about illness. University of Utah Book Arts instructor Marnie Powers-Torrey packaged the book pages in fabric that looks like a hospital gown. The package also contains needles and thread and instructions for the reader to complete the book by stitching the pages together. When Tullius saw a woman at the Lamy station quilting, she offered her the book and described the project. When the woman had read the book, she told Tullius about her sister’s cancer experience. “It was incredibly deep,” says Tullius, “and we both cried.”
Dykes went to the train station in Salt Lake City with writer Melissa Bond, artist Jodi Mardesich Smith, and photographer and writer Stephen Trimble. She watched as the others did that connection dance with train passengers. “They would approach and have this conversation,” recalls Dykes. “They would have to bridge that moment, like, ‘what are you handing me and why are you talking to me.’ Once that barrier dropped, then they could talk about the project and how things were going, and they could hand them a book.”
So far, at least one of every book has come back to Dykes (all of the returned books will be part of the display at the Rio Gallery). Some have just a few notes from the readers. In “Moss: A Love Story,” written by Jodi Mardesich Smith and illustrated by Kat Kinnick, the reader taped a small note in the back: “The most beautiful prints as well as the reminder to note and appreciate the foundational plant, moss. Thank you.”
Perhaps most surprising, was the reader interaction with “The Last Time I Was Afraid to Fly,“ written by Tullius and designed by K Stevenson. Packaged in plastic sleeves with pockets for the return envelope and colored pencils, the book clearly invites the reader to participate. A family traveling on Amtrak’s Empire Builder through Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota not only documented their travel adventure with photos, postcards, and other trip artifacts, one family member even wrote a story of their own about a scary encounter with a hooded, tattooed young man on a train. The handwritten story fills all the blank spaces in the book, interspersed with the family photos and memorabilia. A note added at the end asks if they might have the book back after the exhibit, and they provided an envelope with the address and postage.
This project is modeled after one that Tullius created in 2008 when she was living and working in Salt Lake City. She was missing her creative-writer friends in San Francisco, where she had attended graduate school, and thought it would be interesting to foster collaborations with printmakers she met through Dykes in Utah. That project, too, involved gifting the books to travelers. When Dykes heard the call for artists to participate in exhibits related to the Golden Spike anniversary (known collectively as Spike 150), she contacted Tullius to see if she might be interested in curating another iteration of the concept. Tullius notes there are differences in the earlier project and this one 10 years later. “It’s a different world than 2008. Obama and McCain were running; iPhones had just come out. There was a lot more hope about humanity,” she says. This time it seemed like people were more guarded. “I was expecting that,” she says, “so I’m not sure it’s really true.”
There are even more layers of connection to this project. Tullius says by putting the books on trains, she wanted “to go outside the audience who are normal consumers of literature,” connecting new readers with creative nonfiction.
And there are more connections still to come: the writers of these small books will come to Utah for the reception on April 19 and read from their books starting at 4:30 p.m. in the Rio Gallery. Some of the printmakers and mules will be there, too. The public is invited to come, listen, ask questions, and take a look at the books — the ones returned by readers, as well as the set of books that has not traveled. After that evening, one set of books will be displayed in cases. Others may be checked out in the office at the Rio Gallery. All aboard!
“Train Tracts,” curated by Amie Tullius and Stefanie Dykes, as part of Transcontinental – People, Places, Impacts,” Rio Gallery, through June 14. Artist reception April 19, 6-9 pm. Artist readings at 4:30 pm.
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.