Out & About: Cartoonist illustrates Norwich history

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2023 9:05 AM

NORWICH — Like many Upper Valley historical societies, Norwich has a large collection of town documents and artifacts.

While the town’s early Town Meeting reports are interesting, they can also be cumbersome to read and relate to. As a way to better connect the community with the town’s history, the nonprofit organization turned to cartoonist Emily Zea.

“The history that we’ve talked about, the early history of Norwich and the history of Town Meeting and town government, is kind of hard to get across with what we have in our collection,” Executive Director Sarah Rooker said. “To work with an artist to bring those topics to life is a real opportunity.”

That collaboration will be on full display when “Becoming Norwich” opens at the Norwich Historical Society. An opening will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday at the historical’s society home at 277 Main St. The exhibit will remain up through Nov. 16. More information can be found at norwichhistory.org.

“Art makes history more accessible to everyone,” Zea said. “Words on a page are a little harder to dissect for everyone.”

Students from nearby Marion Cross School also inspired the exhibit: Rooker is always looking for ways to engage young visitors, and Zea’s illustrations make Norwich’s vast history more accessible.

“This provides an opportunity for students to come here and dig in more,” Rooker said.

The collaboration between Zea and the historical society began in 2020, when the cartoonist was commissioned to create illustrated guides to accompany its podcast driving tours. The exhibit includ es illustrations from those graphic histories, as well as new works of art. The artifacts that inspired Zea’s illustrations will be displayed alongside them. The historical society will also be selling a book with all of the Zea’s pieces inspired by Norwich.

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“It’s very fun to see my work blow up so large,” Zea said. “It kind of changes how you’re reading it since it’s now on the walls with things to support it.”

Each page took 12 to 15 hours to complete. The illustrations start with the Abenaki who first settled the region and moves forward in time from there.

“You start from your sketches, your little thumbnails all the way up to the ink and the toning,” Zea said. “It takes a long time.”

Zea, a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, has developed a knack for illustrating town histories. She has also worked on a graphic history of Woodstock for the Woodstock History Center and created books about art found on gravestones in New England, powder horns and money.

“It’s a great way to teach myself topics that I wish I knew more about,” she said. One of her favorite parts of the Norwich project was learning about the logging industry and the people who rode the logs down rivers after harvesting them.

Zea works to make history relatable by including “timeless truths” in her illustrations: There’s always going to be puddles of mud that people trip in, unkind older siblings and cats that will warm themselves by wood stoves.

“(History) can sometimes feel like it’s so far away from all of us, but comics sort of pull it to the now instead,” Zea said.

Those small details can help people find common ground with someone who lived in Norwich a hundred years ago.

Zea is looking forward to illustrating more town histories, including one about Post Mills where she currently lives.

“There are a lot of small towns in this area, and they all have stories to tell,” she said. “I want people to get hooked on the history of their towns.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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