Writer-in-Residence Pamela Petro Combines Visual Arts and Words

Tyra Wu ’19
Contributing Writer

The Lakes Writer-in-Residence Program brings writers from a range of genres to Smith each year to teach writing workshops and hold conferences with aspiring writers. This program began in 2013 after a one million dollar gift to Smith from the President of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and a former Congresswoman, alumnae Jane Lakes Harman ’66. Professor Pamela Petro, this spring’s Lakes Writer-in-Residence, will be teaching a class called “Picturing the Text: A Word and Image Workshop.”

“It’s about communication and trying to communicate in more than one medium at a time,” Petro said. “Put that together, it’s like two atoms next to each other. They act on each other to create a dynamic situation, and that’s hopefully what words and images do.”

In order to be admitted into the class, students must submit a creative writing sample. However, those who do not have any samples can write about why they would like to take the class. Although this course involves both writing and art, Petro stresses the course’s accessibility.

“What’s cool is anybody can work with words and images,” Petro said. “You don’t have to have artistic skill in the sense of being a great draftsman and drawing. You can work with photos or pull images off the web. For this course, anybody interested in writing and wanting to explore more than writing is absolutely welcome to apply.”

Petro graduated from Brown University with a degree in writing and illustration. After attending graduate school in Wales, Petro began working as a freelance writer, primarily for the New York Times travel section. Petro’s work as a travel writer has taken her to a variety of locations. Petro has also written three books of travel literature about Wales, southwest France and of storytellers in the American South. Her affinity for travel literature comes from the genre’s sense of the unknown.

“When you write about travel, you’re putting yourself in a very vulnerable spot of being the person often who knows the least because you’re writing about a place that you’ve traveled to, not your home,” Petro said. “To me, that’s really exciting because that’s discovery.”

While writing her book about southwest France, she was introduced to a concept that led to a ten-year project involving digging up stones in the Mill River. Petro printed images on these stones and put them back in the river to observe the changes, environmental installations known as “petrographs.”

“I wrote the book about southwest France, and in that book there’s a lot about photography and stone — how one is the art of travel, movement and the momentary snapshot, and the other is more like the art of being stationary,” Petro said. “Once I finished the book, I couldn’t get that out of my head.”

These installations allowed her to work as an artist-in-residence in the Grand Canyon. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her time in Wales. During her tenure as Lakes Writer-in-Residence, Petro hopes to produce her “graphic script”– a play that’s also an art installation and a graphic novel, titled “Under Paradise Valley.”

Based on her experience as both a writer and an artist, Petro believes that for those interested in pursuing careers in these fields, curiosity, an appreciation for the absurd and a willingness to look crazy are all important. In particular, she believes retaining a capacity for wonder is crucial.

“You can be curious, but unless you remain astonished and gleeful about what you discover, you won’t be able to convey it in a fresh way,” Petro said. “So it all goes back to wonder.”

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