Art Notes: Bad treatment of the good book leads to Norwich exhibit

  • Director Sarah Rooker, left, and volunteer and artist Tracy Smith put the finishing touches on an exhibit titled “Mending the Spaces Between: Reflections and Contemplations” at the Norwich Historical Society in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. The exhibit includes work from 22 visual artists and poets in response to a Bible that was desecrated in 1848 and reflecting on what it means to listen to one another and work together to fix the problems facing our world. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • A vandalized Bible sits on display as part of an exhibit titled “Mending the Spaces Between: Reflections and Contemplations” at the Norwich Historical Society in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. Director Sarah Rooker said the historical society could have put together an entire exhibit based on the history of the Bible and Norwich in 1848, but she chose to include work from local artists because she wanted the artifact to be “in communication with the present.” (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News/Report for America photographs — Alex Driehaus

  • Artwork included in an exhibit titled “Mending the Spaces Between: Reflections and Contemplations” sits on display at the Norwich Historical Society in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. The exhibit opens on Friday, May 20, and will be open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. through November 30. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Volunteers Tracy Smith, left, and Judy Brown smooth out vinyl letters at the entrance of an exhibit at the Norwich Historical Society in Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, May 18, 2022. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/18/2022 10:09:40 PM
Modified: 5/18/2022 10:07:53 PM

Volunteers with the Norwich Historical Society, led by director Sarah Rooker, were taking inventory of the society’s books in 2019 when they discovered an oddity.

They pulled an old calf-bound Bible off a shelf and found that not only had it been gutted, but the church deacon had pasted a note onto one of the endpapers to explain.

“This Bible was given to the South Religious Society in Norwich in the year 1817 by Samuel B. Cobb of Montreal & was used in church till Decem 1848, & then cut as you now see, (by Rogues),” wrote Deacon John Burton. “This notice is for the benefit of those who may chance to see the Book in All Generations yet to come.”

That haunting final sentence reached out to Rooker over the intervening centuries. Here was a member of one of the town’s founding families — the flat ground of Norwich village was once called Burton’s Plain — speaking directly to her and everyone else who might read his inscription and see the excised pages. What “benefit” could be derived from these mutilated pages?

“I wanted the book to speak to the present,” Rooker said Wednesday.

Rooker issued a call to artists last fall, and 22 responded to create “Mending the Spaces in Between: Reflections and Contemplations,” an exhibition that puts the Bible on display along with works by local artists inspired by the events of 1848 and documents from the era.

The show opens Friday and an open house is planned for Sunday afternoon from 1 to 4. It’s on view through November.

Books retain an old kind of power in the digital age. If social media posts can go viral, then books are more like weather or plate tectonics, a feature of the landscape, holding truths or blasphemies that transcend generations. Certain books, anyway.

As a vehicle for historical research, Norwich’s disfigured Bible connects its era to our own, just as Rooker hoped it would.

Norwich was as contentious in 1848 as the U.S. is now. The South Church, now known as Norwich Congregational Church, was directly across Main Street from where the Historical Society is now, and behind it was Norwich University, the nation’s first private military college.

Enrolled there in the 1840s were students from New England, but also from the South. Both Burton and fellow deacon Sylvester Morris were avid abolitionists and unafraid to say so.

They also were active in the temperance movement, at a time when alcohol, particularly rum, flowed through the community. The Congregational Convention of Vermont had declared drinking or selling alcoholic drinks an “excommunicable offense,” a piece of wall text in the exhibition says.

Both of those stances would have made the deacons unpopular in some quarters. Norwich University students were fond of pranks, and both deacons were hanged in effigy at different times. And it’s safe to say that not everyone believed in temperance.

But exactly who defaced the South Church’s Bible remains unknown. Rooker made a list of Southern students at Norwich and contacted the historical societies in their hometowns to see what she could learn. Some of the southerners were unhappy about the New England abolitionists, and at least one, Benjamin Nelle, of Culpeper, Va., received money after his mother hired out the enslaved people on the family plantation as wage laborers.

“The five dollars you enclosed came safely to hand,” he wrote in a letter home.

It could have been someone resentful of the deacons’ stand on alcohol, too. At least one man, Daniel S. Abbott, was excommunicated from the South Church for the crime of intemperance.

Americans were in a fighting mood. Thank goodness things aren’t like that now.

“It’s so easy, with the news and everything that’s going on, to dwell in the negative,” Rooker said. “Can we shift our mindsets a little bit? That I’d like to see.”

The art is aimed at that change in perspective. Where words were cut out of the Norwich Bible, the art the book inspired tries to put words to constructive use.

For Write, Luciana Frigerio folded over the pages of a hardbound copy of Little Women to spell out the word of the title. And Sue Schiller’s etching, Conversation, places two heads, like stones on Easter Island, facing each other for a chat.

Mon Kaczyk’s sculptural work, Perspectives, takes Schiller’s idea further, with streamers of language flowing into the back of the open skulls of two heads in conversation.

The art is enjoyable, but in a way it’s beside the point, which is the direct link between a book vandalized in 1848 and the noise of 2022.

The Bible sits on a pedestal under plexiglass. What it symbolizes probably depends on the viewer. One person’s sacrilege is another person’s declaration of independence.

But there’s no question that the tattered book is a symbol of violence against civilization. The church held a service with the torn Bible at its heart after it was rediscovered. The same impulse is at the heart of the exhibition.

“Maybe something that was vandalized, maybe something good can come from it,” Rooker said.

For more information, go to norwichhistory.org.

More about books

With people less worried, for the most part, about gathering indoors, the pace of author events has picked up recently.

Events include one at 6:30 Thursday in Dartmouth College’s Sanborn Library at which Emily Bernard, a memoirist and a professor at the University of Vermont, and Nicholas Regiocorte, a poet and a professor at Knox College in Illinois, will read from their work. Prepare to have your vaccination status checked.

Irish author Róisín Sorahan will read from Time and the Tree, her recent novel, at South Pomfret’s Abbott Memorial Library. Sorahan, who lives on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, describes the book as “a philosophical fable about the nature of time and the quest for happiness.”

A reading scheduled for Thursday night at Norwich Bookstore with Vermont author Chris Bohjalian has been rescheduled to June 2.

But another reading is still on the slate: Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the former president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, has a new book out, How Free Speech Saved Democracy, from Hanover’s Steerforth Press. He’ll be in conversation with Oren Teicher, former CEO of the American Booksellers Association, at 7 p.m. May 26 at Norwich Bookstore.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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