Preserving Our Stories for Posterity: Artist and Writer Carolyn Dahl on Archiving
Updated: Apr 24
We come to a point in life when we contemplate what do with our “stuff.” We can learn from one woman’s quest to archive her life’s work.
by Mara Soloway
First published July 2022 on I Start Wondering.com
How will we be remembered after our lives are over? Although this is a sensitive topic, we can take an active role now in shaping and curating our life stories to show future generations how we lived and accomplished what we did.
Houston-area artist and writer Carolyn Dahl is in the midst of the process of archiving her own well-lived life. She is making decisions on what public archives are best for her three professional careers – those in musical theater, textile arts, and writing. While she is taking a formal approach to reviewing her life chapters, Carolyn’s efforts offer important ideas for women to start to consider as we contemplate the “stuff we accumulate” as well as our life history. What can be beneficial to future generations? “I think that creative women at a certain age need to consider leaving a trail, not so much for our reputations, but for others to follow,” Carolyn points out. Leaving a Trail A public archive is just that: a way to preserve one’s story for researchers, relatives, and anyone else interested in how a person lived their life. For Carolyn, it’s not about being remembered, but about documenting her times: how an artist and writer lived and worked during the various decades of her life, what exhibition brochures and publications looked like then, and her personal observations on the daily and the professional events of her century, and the things she found interesting to write about. While we may not have had the career pinnacles that Carolyn experienced, many of us do have an online presence on professional and artistic websites and other social media outlets. Yet that presence doesn’t guarantee that our information will always be posted. Printed materials about us also may not always be available. An archive allows us to house that history – and the stories behind it – together in one accessible place for those interested in delving into our stories.
A Preservationist at Heart Carolyn has always been a documenter. “I’m putting the effort into this to preserve the past – things, and ways that are disappearing,” she said. “But because the only past I know anything about is my own, I can only use my materials. I have boxes of papers, photos, and materials that might be interesting and useful to a researcher to define the times I’ve lived in. Plus, a future family member might someday enjoy reading my mother’s stories, see all her photos organized and identified, or learn the stories behind some things.” Carolyn doesn’t let even the most minute detail escape her. Using a magnifying glass to look at family photos helps her to speculate on the story behind the photos, beyond just the era it was taken. Like a detective, she wants to know who were these people, what day was it, where were they, and why had they gathered together? Her detective work has paid surprising dividends. She’s found the shadow of her mother’s hand propping up Carolyn and her cousin as babies so that her mom’s sister, also shown in shadow as she used the camera, could get a picture. To Carolyn’s artist's eye, the shadows add beauty to the photo. In an image of her paternal grandparents and other relatives gathered for their traditional Swedish Christmas dinner, Carolyn was excited to find numerous items in the background that she remembered. Some have been passed down to her, including her Grandma Dahl’s tea kettle that Carolyn now uses in her studio and the old oak dining table that graces her library. From closely examining a World War II-era picture of her father’s sister, she was able to verify a family story that her grandfather wanted to join the circus and that he would make the children learn circus acts. Behind then-young Aunt Edith, the view can see a trapeze bar hanging from one of two trees and a tightrope strung between the two tree trunks.
Her Professional Careers Carolyn’s creative drive and love of finding beauty in everyday things were instilled at a young age. But a career in the visual arts went on the back burner when her singing talents were discovered as a young girl. Carolyn began performing in her home state of Minnesota and appeared nationally on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. She attended the University of Minnesota on a music scholarship. After graduation, she moved to New York City and worked for 10 years as a professional singer and actress. While pursuing her career, Carolyn continued to make art and crafts in the early morning hours after she finished a show. She eventually studied art in Florence, Italy, and New York City and became an accomplished artist, showing her drawings, prints, and multimedia collages in various exhibitions. From there, another interesting opportunity arose. She began to explore making and eventually teaching textile arts – specifically dyeing and painting fabric – which became her main career focus. Along with her artwork, her dyed silk wall hangings, quilts, handmade paper baskets, and vessels have been exhibited throughout the U.S. as well as internationally. She demonstrated her techniques that showcased her artwork on several Home & Garden Television (HGTV) and PBS programs. Carolyn also is a regarded workshop presenter and lecturer on surface design, nature printing, and creativity.She shared her innovative techniques in numerous magazine articles and in her textile arts books (Natural Impressions and two editions of Transforming Fabric). Additionally, Carolyn is an accomplished poet. Her latest book, "A Muddy Kind of Love," was published during the pandemic and won the Poetry of the Plains and Prairies contest. “It is a beautiful letterpress, numbered edition. I’m so proud of it as I always wanted a letterpress-printed chapbook,” Carolyn says. She also has two other books of poetry ("Art Preserves What Can't Be Saved" and "The Painted Door Opened," which was co-authored with Carolyn Florek), and her poems are included in many literary anthologies and journals. Prelude to Archiving In recent years Carolyn was tasked with cleaning out two houses that family members had lived in. She found it overwhelming to determine the fate of their possessions without knowing the history of various items. “I would look at an object and feel it had significance, but when you don’t know the history, you tend to say, ‘I would really like to place this beautiful carving somewhere, but I don’t have time,’ So it goes to Goodwill,” she states. People often believe that their children will appreciate receiving these worldly goods, but the trend suggests otherwise. Millennials are declining items such as fine china, antique furniture and even dining room sets as they repurpose dining rooms into home offices. “You can’t be sure what will happen to your cherished items when your family cleans out your house,” Carolyn said. “So if you have special treasures, you need to find them good homes now.” Carolyn also found inspiration to archive her career materials from a conference speaker who said that while we might think our lives aren’t noteworthy enough to have a public archive, researchers disagree. “Because people don’t save emails now – there are no letters, and videos can have a lot of falsity in them – researchers are having a hard time establishing the truth of a century,” she explained. “They are looking for collections by the ordinary person to see how they experienced life in their time.” At a writing retreat, Carolyn was also inspired by a woman who said to her, “I really wish you would write a memoir.” Carolyn was surprised, but the young woman explained that she wanted to know how Carolyn lived a normal life, while still managing to write and produce art. “I want to know your philosophy; I want to know how you organized your days. I want to know how you managed to deal with the pains and sorrows of these kinds of careers,” the woman told her. “I thought her comments were really interesting, that maybe somebody needed help in navigating the type of life I had led. Maybe my archive will provide someone like her some hope or some ideas,” Carolyn says. In the Weeds Inspired to take on an active role in creating a professional archive, Carolyn began the process of placing her wealth of photographs, playbills, newspaper clippings, and other documentation on a bed. The flow of memories and the organizational challenge began. Now, Carolyn is finding it rewarding that her items are in a more organized state in plastic bags labeled with time, place, and event. “I’m having fun. It’s a lot of work, but I’m really enjoying the whole process,” she said. “It’s giving me a sense of feeling very organized.” Exploring a Public Archive Carolyn is exploring public archive options, talking to archivists, and getting a sense of which place might be the permanent home for her collections. Under consideration are archived at the University of Houston’s Women’s Studies program; her alma mater, the University of Minnesota; Houston Community College’s fashion department; and the North Dakota State University Press, which published “A Muddy Kind of Love.” Carolyn believes a quilting museum on the East Coast could possibly be a home for art quilts. She was among the quilters at the Houston International Quilt Festival interviewed for “Quilters’ Stories,” an archive housed at the University of Delaware. “What the organizers didn’t want to lose were the stories behind the quilts, the story of the makers and their thoughts as they constructed the quilt,” she said. “They chose a quilt of mine called ‘Don’t Throw Away My Dolls’ and asked me to relate the story.” She’s also looking for galleries, museums, papermaking centers, or special media collections for her handmade paper vessels and baskets, which are unusual both in their size and their construction with paper. “Eventually I’m going to have to find a home for them. Otherwise, someone will have to decide their fate at some point and that might not be the way I would want them to be distributed.” One important note is that once you donate items to a professional archive, they own them. They will let you add to your archive and visit it like a researcher, but you can’t take anything back. “You must be able to say, ‘I’m done with these.’ I’m going through everything very carefully to make sure I’m ready to release these materials and have no future need for them, so when they go into the archive, I have no regrets about my decision,“ Carolyn says. Decisions, Decisions However, Carolyn is holding back her journals. Previous entries remind her what her philosophy and feelings were at that time as she observed what was happening around her. As she rereads them, she keeps discovering entries that spark ideas for stories, such as notes she made after attending an Edward Albee class and a poetry class. Carolyn has been journaling since she was about 11 years old and still has each one. “There’s something so wonderful about the very process of writing,” she said. “I love a pen in my hand, its movement across the pages of beautiful blank books.”
The Emotional Journey Carolyn also is finding that the archiving process is unearthing emotions that were long forgotten. “When I’m digging around in my past, I found that a lot of emotions arise especially from the old photos of childhood that evoke a lot of memories. Some of them, of course, is going to be happy; some are going to be sad. There’s also the nostalgia of looking at the faces of people that you have loved who are no longer here.” But the flip side is that Carolyn finds it positive to explore what she has accomplished. Looking at all the brochures, letters from galleries, and pictures of various exhibitions made her realize that she has achieved some of her life’s goals. Wisdom Carolyn’s advice to others is to not wait too long to begin. “You never know how your health will be, your strength, your memory. Preparing an archive requires a lot of energy and diligence to bring it to the point of delivery,” she said. “If you have many things thrown in boxes like I have, know that sorting everything into categories took really a long time.” It’s an emotional, interesting, surprising, and even exciting process to delve into our lives and put the pieces in some type of order so that we will be remembered by future family members, the wider world, and researchers who discover us in the future. We don’t know how that will play out, but then isn’t that one of the main tenets about our lives – we go forward without knowing exactly what will happen. * * * For more about Carolyn Dahl, visit her website. Please note that all artwork published on this column is the property of the artist and cannot be used without her express written permission. Out of the Shoebox and Into the Open Want to begin creating your public archive or document your family history? Here are several tips to get organized:
Downsizing your belongings is a good place to start. Look for information on techniques such as minimalism, Marie Kondo’s KonMari method (which is not minimalism) and Swedish death cleansing.
Labeling everything. Put details on items with a sticky note or number them and create a corresponding document that includes the stories behind them.
Too many photos and videos on your phone? Numerous online resources allow us to make books with our photos and to store, print and share photos, documents and videos.
Amy Ahlbrand Robinson advocates creating videos, even short ones, of family members recounting their memories. Create a family website or a YouTube account so others can see them.
Keep older family memories alive by converting media such as VHS tapes and slides to digital media.
If you have items that you just don’t want to save, consider that they might be of interest to the wider world. A historical society might want your family Bible or old high school and college annuals. A scrapbook of a soldier’s experience could be valuable to various military organizations. Researchers on sites such as Ancestry.com might find value in your family photos and family tree.