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Learning Life Lessons Through a Love of Literature: A Personal Essay

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In sixth grade, I was not social. Instead of making friends and participating in class, I lost myself in stories. Most of my mornings in homeroom were spent ignoring the other students and downing a few chapters of my latest read. My homeroom teacher, eager to solve this problem, interrupted the classroom conversation one morning and announced that I was in need of an “intervention” (her words, not mine). Horrorstruck, I watched as every young face in the room turned to

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find me slowly shrinking behind whatever was my current book.

“Kayla, we just think you shouldn’t read so much,” she explained before herding me to the middle of the room. She encouraged the other students to surround me, and they all began to chant. Really. The words “put down the book” are permanently stamped into my brain, as well as a burning feeling of rejection, surrounded by people who disapproved of me and my habits. I clutched my book

like a paper shield to my chest, wishing that the classroom would disappear, that my teacher had never spoken, that everyone would just leave me alone.

It was only when one of the students in the circle reached forward and ripped the book out of my hands, tearing a page, that the teacher finally ended the game. Her nervous expression told me she felt her playful “intervention” had stepped a bit too far. We all returned to our seats and I sat, tearful and red-faced, feeling the angry ball in the pit of my stomach slowly ebb away.

I don’t blame my homeroom teacher. She was a very kind, silly woman and only meant well. After all, I had the social skills of a toaster and was terrified to make eye contact, let alone strike up a conversation with my neighbor in history class.  However, I’m almost 21 years old and still in love with stories. At the time, I thought something was wrong with me. Why did I read so much? Now, I think my teacher should have turned her worry toward the other students.

Since when was reading so uncool? I hear more kids exclaim that they hate reading and would rather die than work their way through “Huckleberry Finn” or “Where the Red Fern Grows.” For me, reading provided hours of vivid entertainment that extended beyond the length of a movie or the battery life of a handheld video game. It showed me more than my small, Midwestern hometown of Hays, Kan., would ever have to offer.

Reading isn’t just the interpretation of letters on a page — it stimulates creativity. It’s a lifestyle, a learned skill. According to Scholastic’s Reading Facts, two thirds of eighth-graders don’t read at their grade level. In 2005, 12thgraders scored lower in reading than they did in 1992 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Reading was once a privilege, only accessible to the literate and wealthy. I work at the KU Writing Center, and I frequently help native, English-speaking students who don’t understand where a comma goes, or how to break up a run-on sentence. What happened to literacy?

My schoolgirl days were filled with other kids telling me that reading was weird. They called me a nerd simply because I would rather check out books from the library than sit and watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (although that show ishilarious). That label followed me through high school, despite the fact that I graduated with average grades. I was no valedictorian, though some expected me to be. And for what? Because I remembered the big words I read and used them? I don’t really know. But I do know that reading helped me in more ways than I can ever understand.

I’m glad I doggedly stuck with my reading habits, encouraged by a few beloved teachers and many family members. Even at such a young age, I explored the world and saw so much more than what lay in my closed-in hometown.  I wouldn’t take back a second of it, not even the weird, cult-esque intervention in homeroom. The lessons I learned from my favorite story characters stuck with me; they carved a path for me, showed me I could face my demons and told me to keep going. They showed me where to go. All I had to do was follow.

(This was originally posted on the Political Fiber website on December 13, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can read the original here.)

Popular Dystopian Books and Why We Like Them

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Books portraying alternate societies, post-apocalyptic worlds and failing governments have been extremely popular lately—in fact, the number of dystopian-themed books is at its highest point since the 1960s, according to an analysis by GoodReads. But these kinds of books date back much further and remain a typical choice for sci-fi readers. So, what about dystopian books makes them so popular?

“Apocalyptic stories allow us to express our fears, and, perhaps, serve as warnings to prevent such futures from coming to be,” said Chris McKitterick, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas.

He said that apocalyptic, dystopian fiction always seems to ask one central question: What if _____ happens? The blank could be something to do with technology, society, evolution or about anything else.

Many of these books focus on governments — corruption, cruelty or how very easy it is for them to break down — and become more popular during turbulent political times. Most recently, we’ve seen the rise of books like the Hunger Games trilogy, which surpassed Harry Potter as the bestselling series on Amazon.

Here’s a look at five classic dystopian novels that point out flaws in governments and societies that, in ways, aren’t so different from our own.

  •  Lord of the Flies by William Golding

“Lord of the Flies” tells a story about the formation and failure of government. Some question its categorization as dystopian; there are no zombies, end-of-the-world threats or post-apocalyptic environments. Instead, the stage is a lonely island for a group of stranded British boys who set up their own makeshift society. And, guess what? It eventually turns south.

KU senior Maria Juarez from Des Moines, Iowa, said the book exposes human nature when civilization falls apart.

“And best of all, children committed all the atrocities on the island,” Juarez said. “If the aliens were to visit Earth, I would put a copy of ‘Lord of the Flies’ in their welcome basket.”

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

Welcome to a seemingly perfect society, one that strips its citizens of pain, suffering and choice. Only one lonely person must experience those: the Receiver of Memory. When 12-year-old Jonah steps into this role and learns what his community is hiding, his notion of the “perfect” town begins to come apart at the seams.

Kiley Dinkel, a freshman at Fort Hays State University from Hays, Kan., said the book’s theme of individuality is still memorable, though it’s been years since she first read it.

“The message that really stuck with me was how important it is to be different,” Dinkel said. “Being different isn’t a bad thing… it makes you who you are.”

  • 1984 by George Orwell

Arguably one of the most popular, classic dystopian novels of all time, “1984” focuses on a tyrannical government that is out of control. This political fiction exposes a society filled with never-ending war, constant government surveillance and public mind control. Individuality and independent thinking are considered “thoughtcrimes.”

Matt Lancaster, a junior from Basehor, Kan., says aspects of the novel — like the “telescreens” that spy into civilians’ lives — hit close to home and raise intriguing questions.

“[The book] praises the right kind of individuality, the kind that questions unjust establishments,” Lancaster said. “It is a great example of socialism gone too far.”

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

A nightmare for book nerds everywhere, “Fahrenheit 451” takes place in a society where books are burned and firemen don’t put out fires, they start them. Guy Montag is a fireman whose questions soon stick him in the middle of the censorship conflict.

Diane Mason, an English teacher at Hays High School in Hays, Kan. said that teaching material like “Fahrenheit 451” always raises questions of censorship in the classroom.

“Every couple of years, I encounter a student who refuses to read this or that book,” Mason said. “I think to myself, is this book so terrible that I should burn it? Get it out of your sight so that you never have to experience a thought that challenges your own?”

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This grim mixture of high literature and popular fiction depicts a father and son’s journey through a post-apocalyptic, broken world where survival is a struggle. Starvation, cannibalism and the constant threat of death all make this a grave read. This novel will pose at least one significant question to its readers: What’s the meaning of living an empty life?

Austin Schauer, a senior from Topeka, Kan., said themes in the book, such as cannibalism, are “terrifying, for obvious reasons.”

“It will make you reevaluate everything you’ve ever thought and the way you live your life,” he said.

(This story was published by Political Fiber on Thursday, Dember 6, 2012. I’m publishing it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)

’50 Shades of Grey’ Influences Third-Wave Feminism

By Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

It’s been called “mommy porn” and ridiculed for its lame writing, but for some reason I still felt drawn to pick up “50 Shades of Grey” this summer. Maybe it was the fact that itoutsold every Harry Potter book. Maybe it was because, despite its origins as Twilight fan fiction — yes, really — it’s mega-popular. Out of curiosity, I explored Amazon and found reviews that scorn the novel for its endless repetition and unrealistic sex.

I downloaded the book, which was written by British author E.L. James, onto my Kindle and secretly read everywhere: my house, the gym and my desk at work. I read it to my boyfriend over the phone and couldn’t get through one line without giggling over the absurdity. Seriously, I dare you not to laugh while reading, “I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth.”

The plot of this erotic novel revolves around a pretty taboo subject: BDSM, also known as bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, for all you innocents. Ana Steele, the main character, is a 22-year-old college virgin swept off her feet by the predictably young, successful multi-billionaire Christian Grey. As their relationship progresses, so do the sticky details. Ana is introduced to a dominant/submissive relationship and Christian’s personal “red room of pain.”

The book, which was a runaway best seller after its release in 2011, has made James the best-selling author of Amazon.co.uk. But it has an impact that extends beyond record sales.

Despite the ridiculous storyline, I understand how “50 Shades of Grey” manages to walk such a thin line between sadistic porn and feminist booster. There’s a weird balance that’s solely up to interpretation. Modern “third-wave” feminists like the series because it encourages bedroom confidence. Middle-aged women and college girls everywhere are taking control of their sexuality. Local coffee houses, subways and college dorms have never seen so much BDSM.

More traditional feminists, however, say it glorifies a patriarchal society, where men make decisions and women are dominated. A man controls the main character; this situation is not pro-feminism. So, how does a book popularizing a dominant/submissive relationship and all its juicy facts fit into the feminist movement and sexual politics?

Women are at the forefront of current national issues, and the trilogy has given many female readers more confidence sexually. However, some feminists, like Marina DelVecchio, a professor of English at Durham Technical Community College, worry that these books will redefine the current interpretation of feminism in an unhelpful way.

DelVecchio, who specializes in women studies, feminism and literature, described “50 Shades of Grey” as a “literary monster” and said that women pushing the book as pro-feminism are misinterpreting the relationship between Grey and Steele.

“I can see how third wave feminists with an eye on sexual liberation would find this book empowering even though I disagree with it,” DelVecchio said.

She also said some women find it empowering because of a recent feminist push that “attributes power and equality to women’s sexual liberation.” However, she points out that Steele is not experiencing this; she’s merely learning what Grey wants her to learn, and her experiences are limited to his desires. The female lead of this supposedly woman-empowering book is not in control of her own sexuality.

“She’s constantly denied her independence and personal choices outside of the bedroom,” DelVecchio explained. “She is confined and prodded by foreign objects, not for her affinity for BDSM, but for her co-dependent need to please the man she loves.”

Katie Willits, a sophomore at Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo., disagrees. She said the content initially surprised her, but captured her attention immediately. Willits said that she never viewed the main character as completely submissive to male control. Instead, she thought the series was empowering. “I think it teaches women to want more control of their own sexuality and to be comfortable with themselves doing so,” Willits said.

This idea of sexual exploration is a strong focus in third-wave feminism. But what is third-wave feminism? The movements of the women suffragists in the 19th century and the bra-burners in the 1960s solidified feminism today. Women in those movements fought for important milestones, like women’s right to vote, equal access to education and a place in the workforce. Third-wave feminists are strongly defined by their ability to choose. They can choose to be stay-at-home moms or build high-position careers. They can choose to get married or remain single. Most relatable to “50 Shades of Grey” is the importance third-wave feminists place on women experiencing sexual liberation without being called nasty names.

For some readers, the abuses of “50 Shades of Grey” are obvious. Amanda Schulze, a junior at the University of Kansas and the reproductive justice coordinator of the Commission on the Status of Women, said she recognized the unhealthy aspects of the fictional relationship when she started reading.

“As a survivor of being in a mentally abusive relationship for two years, it was obvious to me,” she said. “[The main character] let a man control every part of her.”

Despite her personal disagreement with the novel’s message, Schulze agrees that women may possibly feel more open to exploring sexuality thanks to the book. Additionally, she doesn’t find BDSM degrading and doesn’t think Ana Steele should be a blanket representation of all women. In fact, she doesn’t think “50 Shades of Grey” is really capable of influencing the third-wave movement in a lasting way.

“I don’t think it will hinder the women’s movement because it’s a fiction novel, and it’s not doing half the work we’re doing out here. It’s not what we’re about,” Schulze said.

“50 Shades of Grey” might not be what all feminists are about, but it’s getting a lot of attention from women. Much to the dismay of some readers, like Schulze, the audience continues to grow.

“I really, really hate that my grandmother is reading this series right now,” Schulze said.

But hey, who can deny a woman her sexual liberation, even if she does have grandkids?

(This story was published on Political Fiber’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. The research and story are by me, the graphic was designed by Kelly Stroda. See the original here.)

Uncomfortable questions in ‘No Man’s Land’ make for rewarding experience

A book review by Kayla Overbey

November 14, 2012

Earlier this year, I cracked open the inaugural University of Kansas Common Book, Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (Graywolf Press) by award-winning author Eula Biss. With books like 50 Shades of Grey floating around on national bestseller lists, I was craving something that would restore my faith in humanity. This book, unlike any other I’ve read before, was intellectually stimulating and caused me to question my background and history as well as examine what being “white” means to me.

The book was chosen as the University of Kansas’ very first Common Book, meant to be read by all freshmen and taught in core courses like journalism, psychology, sociology, and business.  The book is composed of a collection of personal essays by Biss. They detail her experiences with race in different places, from a little town in Mexico to New York City to the desegregated utopia of Buxton, Iowa.  Each essay balances research and anecdotal experience, which I personally loved. Her writing style is so personable and unique.

Now, I’m not incredibly familiar with essay-style non-fiction books and especially not with books that question what I understand about being a white girl from western Kansas. I usually stick to ever-popular dystopian novels and good old fantasy fiction. But when I finished this book, it immediately passed some of my preferred stories to float around at the top of my favorites list.  It’s just so different. It made me think, it invited me to evaluate myself, and I was able to ask myself some questions that I’d never considered before. Am I aware of the still significant divide when it comes to race? Is there a part of me that wishes I wasn’t white?

The only way I can describe my personal response to this book is as a positive struggle. Rather than just invite you to read, it asks you to interact. I scribbled notes in the margins, underlined sentences that struck me as beautiful and marked passages that deserve to be revisited. I’m sure I’ll wear down the spine over time as I return to those fundamental questions.

I realize now that while I took the book pretty well, there are a lot of students who didn’t. One professor told me a student voiced that she felt attacked by the book. Why? Because she’s white. A student told me she thought Biss wasn’t necessarily experienced enough to write a critically acclaimed book (I’ll let you decide that one for yourself). I ended up writing a story over the controversy for a journalism class and had the fortune of calling Biss to discuss the book. I about peed my pants when I finally got her number. I told her about some of the reactions, and she, quite gracefully, told me she appreciated the not-so-golden feedback. In fact, she encouraged it.

“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry,” she quietly explained. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”

She was soft-spoken and contemplative but voiced large ideas and opinions—a style of speaking that exactly mirrors the writing in Notes from No Man’s Land.

Would I read this book again? Yes, and I’m sure I will read it many times over. Is it an easy read? No. Is it rewarding? Well, that’s up to the reader. For me, it was. I experienced a range of reactions and heard even more from the people I spoke to. How will you react?

(This was posted on The Siren Journal’s website on November 14, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original post here.)

KU’s Common Book Author Eula Biss sparks discussion of race, identity and culture

By Kayla Overbey

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Critically acclaimed author Eula Biss spoke to more than 700 readers about her controversial book, “Notes from No Man’s Land,” on Oct. 4 at the University of Kansas. The discussion included topics of community and neighbors as well as excerpts from the book, which is composed of essays focusing on race and identity in America.

The book won the National Books Critic Circle Award and is in use as the inaugural book for the KU Common Book Program. Incoming freshmen were given “Notes from No Man’s Land” as part of a “campus wide initiative to engage first-year students” and build community, according to the KU Common Book website.

Race and Identity

“Notes from No Man’s Land” tackles racial identity and prejudice in America through a blend of personal experience and research. Biss reflects on her experiences working as a “black news” reporter, resisting tourism in Mexico, living in New York City and recognizing the diversity inherent in different locations and cultures. The introduction, which initially explains the history of telephone poles and then develops into a discussion about lynching, sets a radical tone.

“I do see it as my responsibility to exist within this skin, this body, this identity, in the most ethical way possible,” Biss explained. “This book is my struggle with that thinking. And I don’t think it’s easy thinking.”

One of the main goals for the book is to facilitate discussion. However, race and equality are not always easy to chat about. Sarah Crawford-Parker, assistant vice provost and director of First Year Experience, said that a university atmosphere is perfect for such dense subject matter.

“We need to understand [racial] complexities,” Crawford-Parker explained. “We need to understand where people are coming from. If we can’t have those conversations here, where will our students have [them] once they go out into the world of work?”

“Notes from No Man’s Land” has inspired course material in sociology, journalism and psychology classes, among others. Despite its adaptability, the reception has not been universally positive.

White Guilt

For some students, the readings have resulted in cases of “white guilt,” a collective emotion felt by some white people for the racist treatment of people of color, both historically and presently. Scholarly authors like Shelby Steele and Judith Katz helped to develop this idea. Howard Graham, associate director for academic programs in the First Year Experience program, said one of his students felt “accused” while reading the book.

“The question almost verbatim was—and I give the student so much credit for being honest—they said, ‘I just feel like she’s accusing me of something,’” Graham said. “It’s interesting that some students are feeling ‘attacked,’ I think. Vulnerable is a better word.”

Many white readers have experienced an automatic, defensive reaction against the idea of racism during book discussions. While Biss said her intention was never to attack anyone, she does believe that these moments of discomfort inspire deeper thinking.

“Actually, I would be very, very disappointed if the book did not make some people uncomfortable, defensive, angry…” Biss said. “I think all of those negative emotions are necessary and inevitable when encountering some of these ideas for the first time.”

Biss is no stranger to the thoughts her essays present. She admitted to feeling troubled by the content, even to the point that she no longer wanted to write the book. However, she worked through the dilemma, just as students should in uneasy classrooms situations.

“It means that they’re being challenged in ways that are deeply uncomfortable. And I actually think that’s fundamental to education,” Biss said.

Difference of Opinions

The common book has caused students to form a range of reactions. KU junior Nicole Rissky from Tecumseh, Kan., said she enjoyed “Notes from No Man’s Land” because she, and many students entering college, could relate to the idea of self-evaluation. However, Rissky “felt naïve” after reading about “obvious” societal inequalities.

“I really do think it’s a good addition to the curriculum,” Rissky said. “I think that it challenges students and gives them a chance to get a taste of the kind of thinking they’ll be doing in this new chapter of their lives.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Lexie Coutts, a KU junior from Atchinson, Kan., who said during a sociology class that the implicit message of white guilt offended her. Coutts has lived throughout the Midwest and as a result, the content did not surprise her.

“To me, [Biss] seems very whimsical in her life and ideals,” Coutts said. “I’ve lived lots of different places so I don’t really feel like I was learning anything from Eula Biss.”

Rhavean King, an African-American KU freshman from Memphis, Tenn., read the book during a summer course and Skyped Biss during the class. She said she appreciated Biss’ head-on approach to racism in America and found it unusual to see a white woman writing about race in such a contemporary way.

“When I read about things like this, I always get it from an African-American standpoint, because a lot of times those are the only people comfortable enough to talk about it,” King said. “But having a Caucasian woman write about her experiences—being discriminated against, being in African-American neighborhoods, things like that—that really struck me.”

Crawford-Parker and Graham both emphasized that the goal of the common book is to inspire thought within readers, despite differing opinions.

“We’re all bringing our own lens and we all see slightly different things,” Crawford-Parker said. “That’s what generates the conversation, the discourse, the exploring of some of these ideas further. Again, we didn’t want everyone to think the same exact thing about some of these issues.”

After hearing the struggle students are experiencing, Biss expressed one wish she had for this book: She hoped that all readers would walk away with more questions than answers.

“I would love for the reader to engage with the most challenging and most difficult questions that the book presents, and I think that among those are questions of identity,” she said gently. “I mean that in the most expansive, metaphysical sense possible. I mean that in a ‘what is the cost of being human?’ kind of way.”

Contact  at kayla@politicalfiber.com.

Photo contributed by KU Common Book Committee.

(I wrote this story as a student reporter for Political Fiber on Oct. 4, 2012. I’m posting it here to archive my work. Read the original publication on their website.)

2012 Western Cast Iron Art Conference embraces a unique community

By Kayla Overbey

Monday, October 8, 2012

College students arrive in droves, eagerly scanning their surroundings. People hurry past, creating sporadic movement as preparation takes place. At the registration table, devilishly formed miniature skulls with horns and deep-set eye sockets are on sale, along with shirts, patches and welding hats.

The next room hosts a variety of eccentric young faces that watch as people rush past, preparing rooms for planned workshops and demonstrations. Beyond, a sculpture yard is full of twisted bits of rusted metal. To many, these contorted shapes may mean nothing, but to participants of the Third Biennial Western Cast Iron Art Conference (WCIAC), the pieces of metal comprise meaningful art formed by skillful hands.

Fort Hays State University hosted the WCIAC for the first time this year from May 23-26. This conference, held biennially, attracts national attention and includes visitors from almost every state, as well as international visitors.

The immense amount of work to hold iron cast conferences requires effort from students and professionals alike. For recent Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson, the conference was a personal experience.

“Basically I’ve been helping to set up the conference for a year now,” Thompson said with a smile. “It’s been a really great conference. I’d say it’s the best I’ve been to.”Photo by Kayla Overbey

Thompson attended her first iron pour conference at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyo. At the annual conference, she was exposed to the fast-paced, hands-on experience of iron pouring and casting, and she became addicted.

Prior to the conference, Thompsonenrolled in sculpture and blacksmithing classes, which prompted her to change her major from interior design to sculpture. The conference in Wyoming and each one she participated in after that confirmed her decision to make iron art a permanent part of her life.

“I was just hooked. After [watching] my first iron pour, I wanted be a part of that,” Thompson said.

For many, the friendly atmosphere at conferences spurs the addiction of pouring iron. While the Fort Hays State WCIAC was filled with workshops, molding, performances and lectures, there was one constant: community. Each iron art conference held seems to attract and hold the attention of a unique, inviting group of people.

Lee Powers ’70, Department chair of Art and Design, described the conference as educational for students and a community experience for the established iron casters and citizens involved. The art of casting iron is an exceptional, team-driven act that draws in a variety of participants and creates meaningful relationships.

“You know, sculptors carve stone; they carve wood. They work in a variety of materials. Well, the folks who pour iron are even a unique part of the pouring community,” said Powers. “There’s something about the process of creating iron in the kind of furnaces they use that bonds these folks together as iron-pouring specialists.”

The conference encourages anyone interested in sculpture and iron casting to become involved, regardless of experience. Walter Ware III from the University of Colorado, Denver, agreed that the close-knit community is what draws newcomers into iron conferences. As he forged a lump of iron that would eventually become a knife, Ware smiled and chatted with newfound friends and acquaintances.

“There are a lot of folks here from different places. Everybody sees you, and they act like they know you,” Ware said. “I think the coolest thing about it is the camaraderie.”

Ware, who has worked in blacksmithing and is familiar with the iron pouring process, believes that working in different areas and with different people make the conferences extremely worthwhile. The experience students can gain from conferences is memorable simply because it is unlike any craft that they may have specialized in before.

For Alfred University, Alfred, N.Y., student Cory Nacniven, the experience at the Fort Hays State WCIAC exposed him to new art. Nacniven concentrated mostly in digital media during his time in school and decided to try iron casting after encouragement from his professor and because he needed one more credit to graduate.

Photo by Andrew Marsh“I had a feeling that metal was going to be a lot of fun,” Nacniven said. “I figured it was time to try something different. And this is really different. It’s a lot of fun and I’m starting to wish I did it more.”

Nacniven is only one of a few completely inexperienced students who participated in the iron pour. While most of the attendees are professionals and experts, Powers explained that the purpose of the conference is to broaden the iron casting community and provide students with a variety of educational experiences. The art of shaping molds and pouring molten iron, like many other hands-on art forms, is learned through mistakes.

“Sometimes there are some things that just don’t turn out, like anything we do. Not everything’s guaranteed. You gain through experience that quality of making [the molds] so they’ll pour correctly and break out well and the piece won’t have voids in it,” Powers explained.

After spending hours in workshops creating molds, Nacniven gained appreciation for the effort professional iron casters and sculptors put into their work. He said his time at the conference showed him a different kind of work ethic and learning technique than he could experience with digital media.

“It’s definitely a more hands-on experience. And even when it messes up, you feel like you learned something. Whereas in the digital world, if you mess up, you don’t really learn anything, you just undo it,” Nacniven said.

Even for those invested in sculpture and iron casting, the experiences acquired at Fort Hays State provide incentive to participate in more iron art conferences. For Peter Leones, also a student from Alfred University, working with iron broadened his academic and career goals from exclusively photographic to include sculpture.

After he applied and was accepted to art school for photography, Leones found himself interested in sculpture. This eventually led him to participate in “Meltdown,” an iron melting festival at his university sponsored by the National Casting Center Foundry.

“I realized I could do both photo and the whole hands-on sculpture stuff. And it could be a part of what I do,” Leones said.

After his initial conference, Leones found himself surrounded by artistic comrades and friends whom he could relate to. This is what drove him to cast iron art conferences again and again.
Photo by Andrew Marsh
“I like the community that surrounds it. I like how excited people are, how enthusiastic they are,” Leones explained. “And the majority of them are pyromaniacs, and I am too. So I guess it’s just a combination of that. And a drive to make sculpture, to make artwork.”

Leones, like many who have participated in the art of cast iron, has no doubt that he will continue to integrate iron conferences into his life in the future. Fort Hays State alum Jillian Thompson feels the same. She will begin graduate school in fall of 2012 at Southern Illinois University for sculpture, all because of her first sculpture class at Fort Hays State.

“So it’s definitely going to be a part of my life,” Thompson said. “For the rest of my life.”

(I wrote this article for FHSU’s TigerTalk Magazine in summer of 2012. It was published online and in print during July. I’m posting it here to archive my work. You can find the original online publication here.)