Artists Myers and Schaal speak on the power of storytelling

[Correction: The exhibit, “Hello, Dear Enemy! Picture Books for Peace and Humanity” was curated by the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. Vassar students did not create this exhibit, but rather focused on teaching its contents to local school children.]


The eye sees what it wants to see. We tend to render certain forces of society invisible, especially when they lean toward the uncomfortable, controversial and even painful. However, how can we make these invisible societal forces reveal themselves? On Thursday, Feb. 21, talented artists Christopher Myers and Kaneza Schaal gave a talk in the Old Bookstore arguing the importance of turning the unseen “other” into the seen “something.” Their talk was titled “How Stories Provide Safe Spaces in a Constantly Shifting World.” The talk was sponsored by Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) and the Helen Forster Novy 1928 Fund. Myers is a contemporary children’s book author and illustrator, and Schaal works primarily in theater.

Myers draws inspiration from his father, who became a full-time writer at age 48. He is the National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Walter Dean Myers. The Myers men collaborated in 2011 to create the father-authored and son-illustrated children’s book, “We Are America,” which presents the nation’s diverse landscapes and stories with stunning visual and lyrical depictions. Lucky for Vassar-dwellers, Myers’ breathtaking prints that illuminate elements of diaspora from “We Are America” are on display in their original size in the Old Bookstore.

Schaal directs and acts in avant-garde, experimental theater. One of her goals, she explained, is to make experimental theater more widely accessible. She has started to achieve this by hiring a formerly incarcerated man as an actor for one of her projects. Laughing lightly, she asked the audience, “Do you guys know how many lawyers it takes to prove to the court that acting is a legitimate source of work?” They laughed back. It probably takes a lot.

As if these artists’ professional accomplishments weren’t enough, their individual self-expression further revealed their appreciation for art. Myers sported an all-black jumpsuit complete with gold zippers while Schaal, accessorized in gold, layered a black textured tank top over a white dress shirt. Both standing at well over six feet, Myers and Schaal had radiant, awe-inspiring presences.

Together in Munich, the duo sought to give child refugees the resources to tell the stories of their displacement. Countries from which the children had fled included Syria, Mali, Iraq, Nigeria and Afghanistan. When working with young people who have experienced trauma, Myers and Schaal sought to give them the tools to tell their story on their own terms.  

The audience later gleaned what universities Myers and Schaal had attended when they gave anecdotes about being people of color in America. To Myers’ father, it was important that people knew his son was Ivy League–schooled. In a stark recollection of a loaded quip, Myers recounted his father’s advice, “Tell the doctor you went to Brown,” to which Myers replied, “For him to use big words with me?”  

Schaal, a Wesleyan alumna, reflected on the importance of having women of color in academia and remarked that women of color are often overlooked in places of historical and intellectual prestige. However, as an undergraduate woman of color, she depended on her female Wesleyan professors “just to get by,” as she put it.

Honest, funny and unfiltered, Myers and Schaal tell their stories candidly. The artists believe that it is essential for everyone, especially the child refugees they worked with, to tell their own stories to create safer spaces in a war-torn world.

Myers and Schaal spoke about an exercise that they conducted with the children using soundscapes to tell their stories. A 12-year-old boy from Mali made a soundscape of machine guns. Myers said, “For him, that’s what home sounds like.” Here, the stories of child refugees were rendered not only visible, but also audible.

For Myers and Schaal, their work can be summarized into a single essence: to turn the invisible visible. Myers spoke about the island of Kos, which is both a destination for tourism and for child refugees. But when people visit the island, they don’t want to see the refugees. They make the children’s trauma—what they don’t want to see—invisible.

Myers raised the question, “What does it mean to not be seen on this island?” He said, “The choice we make—to not see—is everywhere.” Relating the concept to the local community, he added, “Poughkeepsie makes a choice.”  

To elaborate on community outreach, Myers and Schaal’s Thursday-night talk was a part of a larger Vassar project that involves the spring-semester class “Hello, Dear Enemy!,” which also works in collaboration with CAAD (Creative Arts Across Disciplines). Vassar professors Elliott Schreiber, who teaches in the International Studies and German Department, and Tracey Holland, in the Education Department, are creators of the class that studies picture books on experiences of war and displacement. Enrolled Vassar students are then challenged to create an art exhibit to display picture books and posters about child refugees. Then, the students will share them with children in schools and libraries in the Hudson Valley.

Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator for CAAD, Tom Pacio, speaks on reaching beyond the Vassar bubble and into the city in which the college is situated. Containing the “Hello, Dear Enemy!” student-created exhibit, CAAD’s 24-foot mobile trailer is leaving Vassar property for the first time. Residents, especially children, from the local community are encouraged to view the exhibit inside the trailer. Pacio said, “CAAD keeps finding arms that reach beyond Vassar’s gates. And that’s pretty exciting.”  

Pacio spoke more about the importance of art in building meaningful communities, commenting, “The arts aren’t just here to represent other work of the same nature, but the arts can be instrumental to change-making. I think bringing these very dynamic, successful artists into a public school will help that.”

Schreiber first came across Myers and Schaal’s work at the International Youth Library in Munich, which is the largest library devoted to children’s literature in the world. “Myers’ and Schaal’s residency was extremely special. Over the course of several weeks, they worked with refugee youth from over 12 different countries,” explained Schreiber. “What I loved about what I saw of their work with the children was that they approached it as artists, sharing with the children the tools of storytelling, theater, music and visual art, in order to help them tell their own stories in both direct and indirect ways. There was something about this approach to refugees and the refugee crisis through art that I thought would speak to students at Vassar.”

Schreiber also vocalized his thoughts on the exhibition: “I would like the art and posters on display to…pull people in and allow them to engage with some really difficult but urgent themes, especially the devastating effects that war and displacement have on children. I feel that these picture books can move us deeply in ways that even good journalism may not be able to do, and help us approach current global crises with greater understanding, imagination and empathy.”

On why picture books have a unique impact on reader, Schreiber further continued, “Picture books tend not to be intimidating; rather, they are inviting. Even when they deal with challenging themes, they do so in narrative and visual ways that connect with their audience. I hope that this exhibit will help us all to better appreciate the depth and beauty of the picture books on display, and to take this medium seriously as an art form.”

To this pair of artists, what makes a good story is to accept what is unexpected. As Schaal elucidated, “What it means to tell stories is to render ourselves more visible.” With overwhelming insight, Myers and Schaal spoke to the vitality of an unapologetic story: “We are in the same rooms all the time. But the question is how do we gather together?”

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