December 14, 2011 — Works by some of the most renowned writers in American literature are on exhibit in the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, but they aren't what you'd think.
There's a doodle by Mark Twain, a sketch by William Faulkner, paintings by Henry Miller and a cartoon cowboy drawn by O. Henry. The exhibit is "Beyond Words: The Writer's Art," and showcases a wealth of visual art by creative minds better known for their literary skills.
The exhibit is located on the first floor of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture and Small Special Collections Library, outside the entrance to the Special Collections reference desk. It will run through March 13, and contains 42 original pieces, four facsimiles and a camera and its manual.
The idea grew from a seed planted when exhibit curator Margaret Hrabe, reference coordinator in Special Collections, was looking through materials relating to essayist and poet James Baldwin for a 2002 exhibit. She came across a pencil sketch he had drawn.
"I thought 'that's interesting,'" Hrabe said. "It shows a different dimension of his artistic talent."
Since then, she's kept a list of writers' artworks that she's seen while responding to reference desk inquiries. Special Collections is home to a large variety of personal papers, manuscripts and other items related to writers, including the William Faulkner Collection, the Papers of John Dos Passos and the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, which includes works by many writers, including Twain and Henry.
Some of the pieces exhibited are quick sketches or illustrations drawn on letters or correspondence. The exhibit includes a Dec. 26, 1886, letter from Twain to his friend Edward House. Instead of addressing the letter to "House," Twain drew a picture of a residence.
Other pieces are more deliberate, and show that some of the writers seriously pursued painting or drawing. Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy, an Albemarle County native and prolific author of works including "The Quick or the Dead?" was also a talented portrait artist, and one of her works is displayed in the exhibit. It also features watercolor paintings by Miller, who would frequently have multiple paintings simultaneously in progress, Hrabe said.
Petrina Jackson, exhibits coordinator, said Hrabe was well-suited to identifying the materials because of her work fielding requests from scholars and members of the public who make use of the resources in Special Collections.
"She's always getting queries from inside and outside the University," Jackson said. "I think an exhibit like this is really important, because it showcases materials from across our collections."
Some pieces show a little whimsy. Thomas Wolfe, author of "Look Homeward, Angel," drew a map of his native North Carolina and marked locations such as "World's Largest Underwear Factory." In a richly illustrated letter to an ill child in which he wrote about the rainy weather, Dos Passos drew giant tadpoles.
The exhibit aims to showcase both the visual work of the writers and to share their thoughts on artistic mediums. Exhibit labels describe the origins of the pieces on display and share a quote from the creator on the nature of art.
Guy Davenport, a writer featured in the exhibit, wrote: "Writing and drawing, distinct as they are, must converge in their root-system in the brain. By the time they are being done they retain their origin. They are both making the creation of something out of nothing."