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Professor's multimedia installation highlights the women who supported, loved Poe
Oct. 17, 2013
Assistant Professor of Computer Studies Sandra Luzzi Sneesby has held on to a foggy memory all these years. In it, her father had just finished his workday and, still wearing his suit, was walking a young version of her down Benefit Street to visit a small shop where they liked to buy nuts. The pair stopped in front of an historic house, one that once belonged to Sarah Helen Whitman. “This is the woman that Edgar Allen Poe courted,” he told her.
At the time, she was just beginning to study Poe in school and had been fascinated by the dark, complicated tales and their haunted scribe. She said she couldn’t believe that he had been here in her hometown, attempting to woo a local woman. But, much like her memory of that day, she found much of the story about Poe and his leading ladies to be apocryphal.
“The way I understood the story was that it was kind of like a Romeo and Juliet sort of romance. That they were madly in love, and they were broken up by her mother. But as I did more research, I found out that wasn’t the case,” she said.
It was this memory, and the contradictions that she had begun to find, that would inspire Sneesby to create “The Women Who Loved Poe,” a multimedia installation on exhibit Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum this month. The installation, which fulfills the requirements of Sneesby’s Master of Fine Arts in media art at Emerson College, represents the intersection of many of her lifelong passions and curiosities.
“I’ve always been into film and photography, and was fascinated by technology. I remember looking up at a projector during the movies, thinking about how it worked,” she said, detailing the path of her professional and artistic careers – going from walking to the movies with a childhood friend to working in television studios and editing and producing independent features.
After earning her master’s degree from Emerson, Sneesby and other recent graduates were encouraged to go back for their Master of Fine Arts degree in the newly created program. Sneesby received a fellowship and entered the program at advanced standing. It was then that she began to research Poe and his life again in earnest, discovering a common narrative thread in the women he loved and who loved him: his mother, his stepmother, his wife and two girlfriends (Sarah Helen Whitman, his last love, and then Sarah Royster, his childhood flame).
She said that what she learned added nuance to her perspective of Poe, softening the reputation that he had of being a difficult monster and making him appear more to be a damaged man. “I found that many of the men in his life abandoned him, but that the women sustained him. I thought it was really wonderful that this famous author who was so talented was really propped up by the women around him,” she said.
Her own father, who was so instrumental in her fascination with Poe, was another inspiration for Sneesby’s research and, eventually, the project. Now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Sneesby said her father was a loving, though very emotional, man. She said she saw parallels between her father and Poe, who had a reputation for being irascible and was misunderstood. She saw that his work, once given the proper historical context, didn’t belie a death-obsessed maniac, but rather a very sensitive soul who had dealt with an enormous amount of pain as those he loved left and died from illnesses of the time. “I realized these women really loved him. And he loved them. And that shows another side to him, a very good side,” she said of the writer.
To that end, Sneesby’s exhibit assembles a special cast of characters in a sort of séance for the modern audience. In the Lippitt House dining room, a table is set for six: one for each visitor to the installation, and then five for the projections that hold the spirits of Poe’s long-lost loves. The exhibit runs about 30 minutes, and will give visitors a sense of intimacy and immersion. Sneesby said the Lippitt House, which was secured by her brother, Michael, who is helping to produce the project, is a “perfect match” for her installation as it was built close to the time Poe was alive. “They’ve been amazingly supportive,” she said of the museum staff as well as Preserve Rhode Island, which runs the property.
Sneesby said she hopes that visitors will take a few things away from her work: first, to understand and appreciate Poe’s “softer side,” as she has grown to; to make them question the prevailing historical opinion and rumor about the writer; and ultimately, to understand a particular truth about humanity – one she knows from experience. “I want them to think about how people can have another layer, and even though they might be challenged in some way, they can have a beautiful side, a loveable side.”
The exhibit will be open on Oct. 17, 19 and 21 to 24 at the Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum, 190 Hope St., Providence. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, and an artist talk will take place from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19, with Sneesby and Poe expert Chris Semtner. More information is available online.
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