UA's Alison Deming Named Guggenheim Fellow

University of Arizona professor Alison Hawthorne Deming is among the 175 scientists, artists and scholars from the United States and Canada to receive a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship Award.

Deming, a professor in the Department of English in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, will use her one-year fellowship to work on a new book of essays. Her research will take her from the fishing villages along the Canadian coast to the fashion parlors of Paris and New York City during the Gilded Age.

"I was astonished and totally thrilled," Deming said about hearing the news. "It's dream to be recognized by the Guggenheim Foundation and to be given the gift of time to do your work."

Guggenheim Fellowships are intended for those "who have already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts," according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Deming, whose work often explores nature and science, is the author of four books of poetry and four of nonfiction and is the editor of two anthologies. Her most recent nonfiction book, "Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit," has garnered accolades from reviewers such as Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist.

She has received many awards for her writing, including the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, the Pushcart Prize and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. This year, Deming was named an inaugural chair of the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the UA.

Although the working title of Deming's Guggenheim project is "Lament of the Makers" — an homage to a W.S. Merwin book that honors the work of 23 influential poets — the similarity of Deming’s project to Merwin's is thin.

"I loved the idea of honoring those who came before you as a way of articulating your values and making sure they are carried forward," Deming said. "In his case, he was writing about the poets who came before him. My project is a lament of two small-scale industries that were perfectly suited for their time or environment but are now gone or going because of the radical changes to environment and culture in the world."

Deming's first stop will be to Grand Manan Island — population 2,500 — off the coast of New Brunswick. She has spent her summers on the island since she was a child and has watched the slow erosion of a way of life.

For 200 years, Grand Manan has been the site of a successful fishing community, with locals catching herring in weirs. (Weir fishing is an ancient technique that uses barriers to direct fish.) The culture is now in a period of transition because of a decline of fish in the North Atlantic, with some residents heading west to work in the oil fields of Alberta or to work on fishing vessels in the Pacific.

"This island was known as the sardine capital of the world," Deming said. "There is this great sense of pride and community and dignity in that work. But now, because of changing patterns in the sea and warming waters, the herring aren’t coming into the fishing weirs anymore."

Thanks to funding from the Haury program, three UA creative-writing graduate students will accompany Deming to the island this summer to explore how the arts can contribute to understanding and responding to the loss of natural and cultural diversity. The students also will help island youth tell their stories of coming of age in a place where sustainability of the local culture is deeply tied to the sustainability of marine life.

The other strand of Deming's essay collection is quite different but also stems from a family connection. Her great-grandmother, Louisa de Ste Ille, emigrated from Paris to New York City around 1864, the same year the family's cottage on the Grand Manan Island was built. She had been a dressmaker in Paris for Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III.

"So this 30-year-old French woman who doesn't speak any English establishes a dressmaking salon in New York City in the 1860s that lasts through her life into my grandmother’s life into the 1920s," Deming said.

Deming's foray into the world of high fashion is a notable departure from her usual subject matter. And an exciting one, she says. With not much in the way of family documents about her great-grandmother, research will be "a real detective mission," she said, especially in light of the fact that "women-run businesses were not usually listed in business directories of the time."

Deming realizes that at first blush the two communities have little in common.

"One of these is a male rural culture and one is a female urban culture," she said. "I want to track the trajectories of these two cultures as they rose and as they declined to see what we can learn about human inventiveness. I will be exploring these two different strands and seeing how they weave together into a narrative."

The stories also will serve to illustrate the connection between environment and culture.

"What I will be trying to do," Deming said, "is show how each is a story of environment and a story of culture, and you never can really peel them apart."


Published Date: 

04/29/2015 - 10:04am