Sharing Life Stories and Legacies

It all started with a sit-down lunch at Johnny’s Downstairs (where, let’s be honest, all the great meetings happen). A friend of mine and of Roland Park Place, Hannah Gardi, the Director at the Greater Homewood Community Corporation’s 29th Street Community Center introduced us to Amber Hsieh, a graduate student from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), whom she’d worked with on projects before. Amber is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Community Arts and came up with an idea for her thesis project in which she could help older adults create original, handmade storybooks telling their individual life stories and legacies. We jumped at the opportunity.

The biggest obstacle was the factor of being intimidated by art. Residents who participated were not confident about being artists and some had no creative or artistic experience at all. But Amber, an incredibly talented artist and bookmaker, brought out the creativity in each individual person and these incredible life storybooks blossomed naturally. Week by week, Amber taught the group a different bookmaking element – folding origami, creating an accordion scrapbook, making a book cover, sewing the pages – until, at last, the life storybooks were complete. And they were incredible.

One woman’s storybook shared her story of coming to the United States as a Polish immigrant at the age of seven and how she came to be a master horticulturalist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Her book even included an incredible artifact from the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City: charred pages from a computer handbook which floated from the towers and landed in her garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on the day of the attacks. A memory that will transcend time as a keepsake in her book.

Another woman shared the legacy of her mother, a woman who broke the mold of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing in a time when women were servants of housework and child bearing, and pursued a life outside tradition that shocked and appalled everyone, so she could live a life she wanted. Another shared stories of cross-country travel, having been to 42 states by the time she was just 14 years old, and having traveled to the rest of the states with her late husband as a truck driver.

And Amber’s personal life storybook was a wonderful guide and true piece of art we all admired. She spoke about how the language and communication barriers for her as a foreigner from Taiwan were so tremendous when she first came to the United States. And creating this book of images helped break down those barriers by sharing her story with people and spring-boarding conversations from it. She told me about how she began to recognize similarities in her story and the life stories of Residents of Roland Park Place, particularly those with immigration stories. All stories that connected her to people who were, at first, strangers.

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I loved working on this project because it was all about telling stories, sharing life stories and legacies, and ultimately connecting people, who were otherwise complete strangers, through commonalities in their life stories. I wrote about the story on the Roland Park Place website first here. This morning, WBAL-TV and Megan Pringle visited Roland Park Place to cover the story. You can watch it online here. It might inspire you to make a life storybook of your own. As WBAL’s Stan Stovall asks, “If you had to tell the story of your life through art, what would it look like?”

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