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Koolish exhibit

The Literary Portrait Collections: Celebrating Legacies, Finding Inspiration

Welcome Back!  As our campus rolls into the fall semester, you’ll likely be spending some of your valuable time getting reacquainted with the library.  While many of you might be focused on reviewing library research tools and materials, please note that our facilities staff has done a great job of creating comfortable and inviting library spaces, and they have accomplished this by paying attention to more than just the furniture and the carpets!  Our library’s aesthetics benefit greatly from the exhibit of a variety of artworks, including our historical murals and other student artwork. 

In addition, we are fortunate that the generosity of library donors enabled us some years ago to also assemble two world-class collections of author portraits that have long served to inspire students and other library users.  Whether you find motivation in the lives and words of the authors depicted or are simply interested in the composition of portrait photography, we hope that these collections help make the hours you spend in the library more pleasant and also serve as a reminder of our common academic endeavors.

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One of the two collections is located on the first floor of the Library Addition, adjacent to the dome, in the Research Services area.  Titled The Weather of Change and Clear Light: Photographs of African American Writers, this extraordinary collection was created by Lynda Koolish, whose decades-long interest in photography complemented her work as an English professor.  Now retired, Koolish was a faculty member in SDSU’s Department of English and Comparative Literature from 1989-2011 where she taught a variety of courses on such topics as African-American literature, Post-Colonial literature, and feminist poetry.

In 2001, Koolish published African American Writers: Portraits and Visions (University Press of Mississippi), which features several of these portraits along with her written commentary. In the book’s dedication, Koolish writes “My photographs are a celebration of the passion, the ethical and creative genius of the writers whose work I care about.  My work is intentional, deliberate, passionately subjective.  Despite the intensely personal quality of my work, it is, in its deepest sense, a collaboration.  I try to listen with my eyes, pay profound attention to the self that someone else is revealing to me.”

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Exhibits of Koolish’s portraits have been held at such locations as the Cork Gallery in the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York City, the Rosenberg Gallery at Goucher College, and the Ilan-Lael Foundation.  We are pleased that they have also found a permanent home in the Research Services Area of the SDSU library.  SDSU’s Koolish collection features a veritable “who’s who” of African American writers of the last generation.  Included are Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (1993), former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove (1993-1995), and former California Poet Laureate Al Young (2005-2008).  Maya Angelou, who appeared at SDSU’s arena (then called Cox Arena) as part of the 2002 Border Voices event in front of over 7500 people is included, as is Wanda Coleman, the late poet who spent time as an SDSU visiting faculty member in creative writing.  Some of the other featured authors include Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sapphire, Samuel Delany, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed, and August Wilson.  The list goes on and on.

A few of the writers (e.g. Maya Angelou, Derek Walcott) whose portraits appear in the Koolish collection are also featured in The Importance of Being by Christopher Felver, located mostly on the basement level of the Library Addition, although a few are located in the Research Services area on the first floor.  The title is taken from a comprehensive collection of Felver portraits published by Arena Editions in 2001. Although the SDSU Felver collection focuses almost exclusively on writers, Felver’s book also includes portraits of creative people working in related fields like music and film.

The library’s initial acquisition of Felver portraits focused on Native American writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday, and Joy Harjo (who recently completed her term as US Poet Laureate, the first Native American to serve in that position).  However, subsequent acquisitions of Felver portraits have included a wider range of diverse authors. 

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Felver is widely acknowledged as one of the premier portrait photographers of Beat Generation writers, so it is not surprising to find portraits of William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Michael McClure; however, the SDSU collection also features such mainstream literary legends as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates.  It also features a number of writers who have made appearances at past events held at SDSU, including Peter Matthiessen (the only writer to win a National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction categories), Gary Snyder (winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Award), feminist icon Adrienne Rich, Edward Albee (winner of three Pulitzer Prizes and two Tony Awards), Maxine Hong Kingston (winner of a National Book Award for The Woman Warrior) and Galway Kinnell (legendary poet who won both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award).

Together, these two collections reflect SDSU’s commitment to the Creative Arts and to the essentialness of writing.  They are a representation of our shared values.  We hope they will continue to be a source of strength and inspiration to library users for many years to come.

-Markel Tumlin