An Interview with Rebecca Godfrey on her Multidisciplinary Show Girls in Trees

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17-Nov-16
At Columbia’s School of the Arts, where programs are often divided by medium or concentration, it’s easy to assume that professors and students mostly stick to their chosen practices—painters with paint, directors with film, writers with the written word. But Columbia faculty, alumni, and students are in fact continually embarking on cross-genre projects, which allow them to both challenge the boundaries of their own mediums and to take in the principles and techniques of others. One recent example of an artist venturing beyond her medium is Rebecca Godfrey, a member of the Writing Program adjunct faculty, who opened a multidisciplinary show, Girls in Trees, in Germantown, NY, last month. The show, which also inspired a book by the same name, includes photographs, text, and other artistic materials all circulating around the theme of girlhood and nature. We spoke with Godfrey about what inspired the show, what it was like to work with artists from other disciplines, and what the idea of “girls in trees” means to her.
 
Tell us about the spark that led to Girls in Trees. What was the moment that got you thinking about the project?
My friend Dawn Breeze opened an art space this summer in an old Odd Fellows Hall in Germantown, which is in the Hudson Valley, where I live. She asked if I had any ideas for a show, and we discussed the idea of gathering together writers and artists who live upstate to contribute work exploring the theme of girls and nature. A lot of us have moved upstate after years in Brooklyn or New York City, and there’s a heightened quality to the experience of living in a landscape of forests and orchards. I suppose the personal spark for me was an offhand photograph I’d taken of my seven-year-old daughter, swinging upside down in an apple tree. I was struck by the blissful, fleeting quality of the moment. Dawn and I were interested to see how other artists experience such moments, and aimed to create a collection of work with sharply different takes on this idyllic or feral image.
 
The project includes contributions from many disciplines. What were some of the contributions that most surprised you, or most affected you?
The Nick Flynn poem surprised me, because it’s rare, and really exciting, to see a male poet adopt the voice of a young girl, and to imagine this kind of dreamlike origin story of a past time when girls were elusive warriors, a time “in the beginning …when girls ran across burning fields with swords made of sticks; girls hid in trees, stones heavy in their hands.”
 
It was also exciting to see a lot of artists feel that the project, or theme, allowed them to cross genres. The novelist Jenny Offill contributed a photograph of her daughter, as well as her young daughter’s beautiful, careful embroidery of her favorite tree. The painter Lisa Sanditz dug up her letters from when she was a teenage girl at a sleepaway summer camp, letters that are aching and charming. Stephanie Savage, a screenwriter and television producer contributed a darkly funny essay about her adolescent fall from a tree during a rowdy teenage party.  The novelist Darcey Steinke gave an excerpt from her memoir, in which she and a friend have a philosophical debate about whether a tree is finite or infinite. And the sculptors Julianne Swartz and Diann Bauer both gave iPhone photos of their daughters, which seem, at first, casual and informal, but which both capture what Dawn calls the “mythical essence” of a girl in a tree.
 
 
What does the idea of a “girl in a tree” mean to you?
There’s a certain danger and ascent; there’s also solitude and escape. There’s also the need for agility; it’s actually quite difficult and perilous to scale branches. I love the idea of excavating or inciting moments when girls are agile, joyful. There’s a real sense of triumph when they’re up so high, literally above the rest of us.
 
We have a very well known, familiar cultural history and imagery of the boy adventurer, from Huck Finn on, but the images of girls as adventurers, as figures in a rough landscape, are less common. So I wanted to present more of those moments, particularly as it seems, when you’re raising a daughter, that we’re all bombarded with a constant sentimental princess imagery—pinkness and softness and glitter.
 
Several School of the Arts community members, including fellow Writing Program faculty member Darcey Steinke, served as contributors. Were there any other ways in which the School of the Arts supported the effort?
I’ve taught two seminars in the MFA program, Anti-Heroines and The Estranged, where, as in Girls In Trees, the idea of escape is a focus. It was through the work and ideas of students in those seminars that I started to think about the theme of girls in nature more deliberately, because I started seeing it recur in their work. I was really inspired by the students in my recent thesis workshop as well, because there was such a feral, lush quality in their stories. It’s exciting to see a new generation of writers invent female characters navigating places of wildness and wilderness. I included two of their novel excerpts in the book, Afia Atakora’s Black-Eyed Bean and Devyn White’s Lion Teeth. I’ve been inspired by the work of many of my students during the past several years of teaching seminars and workshops at Columbia; the work they’re doing is very daring and lyrical.
 
Three of the other contributors are also adjunct professors at Columbia: Darcey Steinke, Cate Marvin, and Jenny Offill. Their work, and our conversations about daughters, and living outside of NYC, certainly helped me develop the project. I think their inventive work, as with the work of other contributors like Diane Williams, Sharon Olds and Mary Gaitskill, has  opened up new possibilities for younger women writers, so I was really excited to have these different generations of writers appear together.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.