Sarath Novas ’23 excluded the face of the figure in her photo in order to invite audiences to inhabit the frame.

Tools, Technologies, and Talismans

Storytelling through objects

Dylan Chryst Watkiss ’22

“Objects can jumpstart storytelling and get us talking about our shared experiences,” says Nicole Roché, adjunct assistant professor and project support assistant for Digital Scholarship, “which is especially important amid challenging times like a global pandemic.”

Collecting and sharing these stories to find community connection is the goal of The Object Project, started by Roché in fall 2020 with the support of the First-Year Program (FYP), Digital Initiatives, a campus Innovation Grant, and additional support from Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY) and Northern New York Libraries. 

“The past can feel too big, too distant, to inhabit or relate to,” Roché continues, “but if you ask someone to tell you about a treasured family artifact or heirloom, they usually start to open up. Something about the tangible object gets people talking.”

Roché says the project was inspired by StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that invites people across all demographics to record their personal stories. She used a DIY StoryCorps module to help plan the project, which she kicked off this fall with her First-Year Program students and other participating classes. While StoryCorps focuses mostly on oral recounts of memories and events, The Object Project focuses on objects. 

“We all rely on material culture—tools, technologies, and talismans,” says Roché. “No matter who you are, what field of study you’re pursuing, or what job you have, you’re relying on objects to get through your day.” She notes how objects can be functional, nostalgic, symbolic, or any number of things that can help people recall memories from specific times in their lives. She also points out that objects may mean different things for different people at different times.

“This project is an invitation to consider how an object we all see and use (like an American flag or a COVID-19 mask) can have so many different meanings for so many different people,” says Roché, who hopes that these stories give students a platform to connect with and celebrate their diverse backgrounds. 

Roché describes herself as an “object person.” She likes to know an object’s history, where it came from, and how it connects loved ones. Roché acknowledges she has many objects that mean a great deal to her, although only a few may have monetary value. Most are small gifts, souvenirs, or other mementos.

“One object (which I’m sitting on as we speak) is a blanket my late grandmother, Maxine Crawford Edwards, made for me.” Roché describes her grandmother as “a Southern belle of sorts,” a mother of six, and a talented quilter who made intricate quilts for each grandchild’s milestones in life. “She also made what she called ‘knock-about’ quilts,” recalls Roché. “Mine is made of several different leftover scraps that were once my grandfather’s shirts and pants and so forth. But while my graduation quilt stays in storage, I take this one with me in the car, to picnics, and to music name it. I laid it out on the lawn outside Atwood Hall the other day so I had somewhere to sit when we had class outside. So that’s an example of an object that has zero monetary value but is priceless to me. It has all the signs of wear and tear you would expect—it changes with me, I guess.”

Students in a photojournalism class taught by Sarah Knobel, assistant professor of art and art history, also participated in the project this fall. Sarath Novas ’23 chose to photograph a dress that represents her Dominican heritage. Novas says she has sometimes struggled to accept her heritage throughout her life and has tried to get rid of this dress before. 

“I am not proud of my heritage because of the burden it carries for many Dominican men and women, the norms and stereotypes that cast people in stereotypes of housewives and abusers,” says Novas. To illustrate rejection of the traditional values and narrow stereotypes, Novas had a Dominican man pose wearing the traditional dress to represent her desire for more diverse representation and individuality within her community.

“This is something that is very untraditional in Dominican culture and is usually met with cruel remarks and being called pajaro (gay),” Novas explains. “My way of living and thinking is very untraditional compared to my parents’ generation, and I will not let that represent me.” Novas’s decision to obscure the model’s face was intentional, inviting viewers to consider their own struggles within their own culture.

As part of the final project in the fall, Roché’s FYP students created a digital time capsule of representative objects and memories from 2020. Many students included their COVID masks. Others included everything from their St. Lawrence acceptance letter to an absentee ballot from the presidential election to a U.S. Air Force uniform.

“Listening to the stories and memories of my classmates has been a really nice way to bond,” says Abby Lateer ’24. “It’s easy to get lost in all the stress of everything that’s happened over the past year, but we all need a reminder sometimes that whatever we’re going through, other people are going through the same thing. This project has been that for me.”
Another FYP student, Leslie Herold ’24, says, “This time capsule project has pushed me to think carefully and intentionally, not only about objects that have made a difference to me this year, but also about how unusual 2020 and my first semester at college has been.” 

“It’s exciting to reflect on objects that have such personal meaning to me and are so ordinary at the same time,” says Herold, who included two of her St. Lawrence–issued COVID bracelets that students were required to wear in the fall semester.

Roché plans to continue collecting stories across the St. Lawrence community through The Object Project and will provide students the opportunity to learn the next step in how to curate a digital exhibition and convert the collection into digital narratives to archive a snapshot of St. Lawrence’s diverse student body through her spring 2021 Sophomore Seminar.

In a time when the community has been socially distanced due to the pandemic, Roché believes the opportunity to find, celebrate, and share the personal stories across campus is more important than ever.