As education and outreach librarian at the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections at Bowdoin College, Marieke Van Der Steenhoven ’07 connects faculty and students with more than 55,000 volumes of rare books.
It was in this role that Van Der Steenhoven first learned about the books of Martha Hall ’71—a teacher, weaver, business executive, mother, wife, entrepreneur, artist … and breast cancer patient. Hall, who died in 2003, documented every aspect of her experience with the disease through the creation of artist’s books. She pushed the boundaries of the book form, processing her diagnosis, treatment, rediagnosis, and her relationships with her doctors and her body.
“I found her books to be very powerful,” says Van Der Steenhoven, “and the more I learned about Hall’s biography I was incredibly impressed. It wasn’t until after I was already a fan that I realized she was a Smith alum, and I said, ‘Of course, that makes sense.’”
Van Der Steenhoven curated at exhibition now at Bowdoin, Interwoven: The Lives and Works of Martha Hall, which not only features Hall’s artist’s books but also showcases other parts of her life. Hall, an English major at Smith, taught middle-school English, studied weaving techniques in Sweden, and, in the 1980s, opened the legendary Martha Hall Looms and Yarns, a weaving and knitting store in Yarmouth, Maine, which grew into a national mail-order business. Her success in business led Hall to pursue a master’s degree from Dartmouth. Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer a week before she graduated, Hall went on to hold executive positions at American Express and L.L. Bean while being treated for multiple occurrences of the disease. Around this time, she also learned to create the artist’s books that would be her legacy.
Here Van Der Steenhoven talks about Hall’s life and work, the exhibition, and the healing power of Hall’s books.
First of all, define “artist’s book.”
An artist’s book is a work created by a visual artist that is intentionally engaging with a book form and the act of reading. They are ways we can engage with challenging subjects. For instance, one of Martha’s books is Voices: Five Doctors Speak, which takes her conversations with five different doctors and uses a variety of different types of paper and typefaces for each doctor. It creates a more abstract narrative, while still making a point about the power of language.
What was the inspiration for Interwoven: The Lives and Works of Martha Hall?
In fall 2018, the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England and The School of English at the University of Canterbury in the United Kingdom put together a symposium called Tell Me What Hurts: Story Telling and the Healing Arts, which used Martha’s work as a touchstone. Each of the panels was titled after some aspect of Martha Hall’s books. We wanted to continue the energy around medical humanities and this work that Martha had been doing with her artist’s books.
What other factor made the timing right for Interwoven?
Martha’s husband, Alan Hall, decided to donate material related to all aspects of her life to Bowdoin. In those papers, you get a sense of her life as a book artist, but also all that came before. I think this is one of the reasons I’m so inspired by Martha Hall—with all the different directions she went in her life and the energy and curiosity and all the vigor she put into her life. She is such a Smithie! The exhibition would also be a way to celebrate these papers being here at Bowdoin.
Which artist books of Hall’s are featured?
We have several, including I Make Books, which she made later on in her life that talks about her connection between making books and being able to live with the knowledge that she was dying. Tattoo explores the stigmas around tattoos that are given through radiation. We also have her sketchbook for Tattoo and mock-ups of paper samples, so you can see the whole process of making that book.
How have Hall’s books inspired your students?
There was a student that I worked with two years ago who encountered Martha Hall’s work and decided to do an independent study about it. The student wanted to go to medical school but was having a hard time articulating why she wanted to go until she encountered Hall’s work. The experience of engaging with the artist books gave her the language to talk about why engaging in the medical field was important to her. She is now applying to medical schools.
What else is on view in Interwoven?
We started to think about the connections between Martha’s work as a book artist and her work as a fiber artist and the communities that she built in both of these areas. So we have included these incredible catalogs and marketing and branding materials that she created around her yarn store.
How did Smith influence your career path?
I have to give huge credit to a class that I took my senior year—The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century. The materials that we looked at were just incredibly mind expanding. It wasn’t until I came to Bowdoin, where there was an artist’s book collection, that I actually realized all of what I learned. That class was an incredible inspiration and important intellectual endeavor for me, and I think about how it’s resonated with me. I carry that as a flame of hope that the work that I’m doing with students will resonate with them.
If you could talk to Martha Hall, what would you say to her?
I think about how conscious she was about her books being her legacy and her desire for her books to be in public institutions, specifically college libraries, for opening up a dialog around patient-doctor relationships and the process of living and dealing with illness. I would just offer confirmation that that work is absolutely being done and that her artist books are incredibly powerful in what she hoped they would do.