Hello there! I’m Arshia Simkin, a writer and teacher living in Raleigh, co-founder of the Redbud Writing Project—an organization that offers creative writing classes to adults in the Triangle—and new columnist for the Orange County Arts Commission. I’m calling this series “The Underline” because it will feature artists (and events) who are largely unknown, many of whom hail from marginalized or non-traditional backgrounds, and whose works and talents I hope to highlight and share with you all.
This first summer since semi-emerging from the pandemic has been rough: like many of you, I hadn’t seen much family or friends since March 2020, so after being vaccinated, I took this summer as an opportunity to visit some loved ones (grandparents! a friend’s new baby! cousins!), make a long-awaited move to Raleigh (finally!), and launched a physical space for my writing organization. It was absolutely lovely to see people I’ve missed for so long, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I had the time, means, and health to do all of these things. But it was also quite hectic living out of a suitcase, trying to send emails and conduct business on the go, and to socialize in person for the first time—especially as concerns about variants grow.
This is all a long way of saying that I’ve been feeling a bit frantic—short on time, mental energy, and emotional resilience. And I’ve been searching for art—both written and visual—that will force me to slow down, take stock, and tap into the deeper and more meditative place.
As luck would have it, I got to speak to Emilie Menzel, a local writer of both prose and poetry (and former Orange County Arts staff member) about her recent projects and artistic philosophy, all of which encourage taking one’s time to engage with art. Emilie is also is currently studying for a masters in librarianship at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; I spoke to her via Zoom to learn more about her curation, artistic ambitions, and the possibilities that libraries can hold. We touched on the importance of narrative as a through line in her work, the intersection of the visual and the written word, and recuring motifs—including rabbits (“They keep appearing, and I’ve been trying to follow them”—an answer which I absolutely love, as a fellow follower of obsessions in my creative works.)
First, we chatted about her deeply captivating digital and immersive art guide, The Gretel, which she describes as a “library of gently haunted topics” and “a collection of recommendations.”As I scrolled through The Gretel, taking in the combination of paintings, drawings, sketches, collages, quotes, music, video clips, and writing prompts, I felt transported to a different, more magical, more intentional space. The collection is divided into four parts, which feature black and white fairy tale-esque silhouettes; pictures of houses and homes; “unusual motifs” such as “women, or people with birds flying through their faces”; and “haunted gardens.” The experience feels—not coincidentally, I imagine—much like wandering through a fairy tale path in the deep, dark woods; certain things are lit up, and encourage you to lean in for a closer examination; the images are richly evocative—a swirl of macabre and whimsical; of delicate and dangerous; you go forward and circle back as certain details catch your eye. In the black and white collection, there is a pleasingly troubling Edward Gorey print (from the panel “The Object Lesson”), scratchily composed, with spindly trees, a lone figure in a trench coat, and a monstrous-looking bat hovering in the stark white space. In another part of the collection, I kept returning to Megan Howland’s Ennui—the image of a young boy whose face is mostly obscured by a pair of black birds in flight; there is something entrancing about at the violence of the beating wings in the place where his eyes and mouth should be. Taking in these images, I could feel that familiar itch in the corner of my brain, as I lost track of time and the beginnings of story ideas and lines started to form.
(Edward Gorey print featured in The Gretel)
(The Gretel’s home page)
The structure of the collection—one arresting post-card sized item at a time—encourages perusal without distraction so that the viewer is totally immersed in what is obviously a carefully curated selection. Unlike many traditional collections that “typically center around a specific artist or art period,” Emilie points out that this collection is meant to be “more generative”—it is a gathering place of “beautiful things.” She adds: “There are so many places online that are generating material…especially, with poetry or publishing online, it can disappear into a void. [S]o part of the project is…hey, did you see this? Remember this? This can go together.” Emilie conceived The Gretel as a manifestation of “creative librarianship” of “using a library to create as an inspiration source” as opposed to a library simply being a “storage site of creation.”
Her own work shares many thematic interests with The Gretel: Emilie describes it as engaging with a fairy tale or fable lens and having a “long standing interest in illustrations and picture books”; she’s fascinated by “things that are marketed toward children…childish motifs but with a darkness and complexity.”
Emilie is also deeply involved in her work with The Seventh Wave, an art and literary nonprofit that publishes two digital issues a year. As part of the editorial team there, she feels lucky to be able to work with contributors in a genuinely collaborative manner, getting to help brainstorm and flesh out their ideas; ultimately to “help people feel connected and uplifted through the publishing experience.”
She has always been drawn to sharing the things she finds inspiring—whether as an artist, library student, or curator of digital spaces: “”I also noticed that something I really enjoyed when teaching was just sharing things with people. So, you know, coming to class and I’d have an arm full of books, or I’d be like this is a really great website that would be a generative resource for you. [I loved] sharing tools.” She adds, laughing: “I feel like the trope is that the poets are always saying, ‘oh that’s a poem’—some experience or some beautiful object—that’s a poem. Well, I feel my new habit lately has been that any thoughtful collection of objects or experiences is like, ‘that could be a library.’”
I feel the same way about writing—anything can be turned into a story; anything can set off that initial spark and most any idea can be connected or transmuted to create something totally new on the page. Particularly in our current environment of increasing uncertainty and fractured attention, doom scrolling, and Zoom fatigue, finding a place like The Gretel, where one can gaze upon the uncanny, the slightly off-kilter, the magical—the “gently haunted” if you will—feels like a welcome respite. Whether you’re a writer, an artist, or somebody who is simply looking to slow down and immerse yourself deeply—even for a few moments—it’s heartening to know that there’s a corner of the internet, geared toward intentionality, beauty, and sparking the imagination.
- Check out The Gretel here: https://thegretel.tumblr.com/ (Note: The Gretel is best experienced on desktop (rather than mobile).
- Learn more about Emilie here: https://www.emiliemenzel.com/
I hope you enjoyed getting to know Emilie and her work as much as I did. I’ll conclude with some reading recommendations from Emilie that she has found especially enriching:
- Book: Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems, Jennifer S. Cheng
- Picture Book: Migrant, José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro