Jeannine Atkins is the author of the new young adult novel in verse Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis. Her other books include Finding Wonders and Little Woman in Blue. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Simmons College.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the sculptor Edmonia Lewis in your new book, and how did you research her life?
A: I came across the work and life story of Edmonia Lewis while researching another 19th century artist for Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, and couldn’t get her out of my mind.
Both women struggled making art in the 19th century, when many men expected women to confine their ambitions within homes.
Women might paint work to hang in parlors, but Edmonia Lewis chose to focus on sculpture, which requires expensive material and may take up space in a room or outdoors.
As someone whose father was Haitian and whose mother was Ojibwe, she also faced prejudice while beginning her career just after the Civil War, when some New Englanders were delighted that she meant to use her talents to make sculptures of abolitionists, freed slaves, and Native Americans, but others considered her too ambitious.
I read all the biographical material I could find, and books about sculpture – and watched some marble sculpting in person. I combed through old maps, photographs, and histories of 19th century Oberlin, Boston, and Rome to learn details about the places where she lived.
Some of the sensory details of the settings turned into metaphors that helped shaped poems.
Q: You write in an afterword, "The open questions about her life frustrate biographers but seem suited to verse." Why do you see verse as an appropriate way to tell her story?
Reading what was known about Edmonia Lewis fascinated me, but my imagination began to work filling in what isn’t and probably never can be known about her life.
Poetry has long been a genre in which invention, narrative, and history have mixed, going back thousands of years, to works such as The Odyssey or Beowulf.
Edmonia Lewis’s accomplishments are tremendous, but in my books I also like to stress not just the extraordinary, but ways that the subject may be like her readers. Poetry provided a place to focus on some common scenes and the rituals and patience all artists must learn.
Q: Can you say more about what you felt was the right blend of fiction and history as you wrote the book?
A: I kept to the known facts and chronology, then used imagination to fill in gaps. I learned about events, people she met, and places where she worked, then used those to develop scenes and draw up dialog lost to history.
I spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about some of the sculptures she made, and then mulled over why the subjects might have called to her. So there’s a framework of known events, filled out with what I inferred or invented.
Q: What is Edmonia Lewis's legacy today?
A: While many women work in the arts, the percentage of their representation in galleries or museums generally remains in the single digits.
Yet the work of Edmonia Lewis can be found in major museums such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which owns eight of her works, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns two. On Feb. 1, a Google doodle with her image helped launch Black History Month.
As Edmonia Lewis becomes better known, I hope young people and artists will be inspired with the struggles she overcame to make a lasting mark.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: To take a break from the intensive researching I was doing, I just finished a contemporary novel for middle readers. But now I’m back at the library, feeling once again called to bring out the stories of girls and women who are a bit too hidden in the past.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I hope you’ll read Stone Mirrors and be as inspired by Edmonia Lewis as I was, and also look for her sculptures. Some photographs of her work can be found on my Pinterest Page.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb