Kalmia Strong: Bookmaking for Girl Power

dear-you-booksKalmia Strong (2015 Graduate Institute), a graduate of the Center for the Book and an activeist-artist and administrator at Public Space ONE, is working with young women from the John McDonald Residential Treatment Center in Monticello, IA, to help them tell their stories. In association with a writing workshop, Writing for Change, run by the Iowa Youth Writing Project, Kalmia’s role is to help girls think about how publication fits into storytelling.

The goal of the workshop is to tap into the transformational power of writing. Although writing in and of itself can be highly transformative, having the power to share one’s work with others can accelerate the experience.

As a bookmaker, Kalmia leads workshops in how to design, make, and disseminate books. She admits that it would be easy for her to take the girls’ writings and create the books herself, but she says, “I try to involve the girls in the process as much as possible and to help them understand the significance of publication.”

The girls, who range in age from 12- to 18-years old, produce all sorts of writing, including silly poems and love stories. But many pieces can be intense and graphic in nature, reflecting some of the reasons for being in the treatment center.

In addition to a limited budget and limited time – the workshop meets once a week and the bulk of the time is focused on writing – the girls in the class change on a regular basis. Kalmia says this is hard in terms of keeping everyone on the same curriculum, but it can also be heartbreaking when a girl leaves and never sees the fruits of her labor.
“When they leave the program, it’s usually a good thing – it means they’re going home,” says Kalmia. “But we’re not allowed to contact them once they’re gone – at all – and so if someone was really involved in the project but we didn’t make her book until after she left, she’ll probably never see it.”

Most of the books to come out of the program are anthologies. Kalmia digitally prints them and then enlist the girls in folding and assembling them; or she may have each of them contribute a piece of art for the cover. Again, weaving in disparate voices and perspectives is a challenge.

The project enhances deepens Kalmia’s own bookmaking practice. “I am really interested in how the idea that physical book making – even today in a digital world – can be a site where people enact social change. I’m interested in the role of the handmade object in that process. Rather than just observing as a researcher, this project is a place where I’m getting to test ideas.”

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