Photographs by Andrea Eis capture ‘silent conversations’ with President Emerita Meta Glass

Andrea Eis, “Getting what one wants” (Sophocles, Antigone; American Book Co., 1891), from the “Marginalia” series, 2008, archival pigment print
Andrea Eis, “Getting what one wants” (Sophocles, Antigone; American Book Co., 1891), from the “Marginalia” series, 2008, archival pigment print

Andrea Eis first encountered Meta Glass in Athens, Greece, in the margins of a water-stained copy of Sophocles’ “Antigone” at Dikemes Library. It was 2008 and Eis, an artist, filmmaker and professor, was on sabbatical studying feminism and the classics. Several of the Greek histories, plays and poetry books she consulted contained Glass’ name, address and the years 1909 through 1911. There were also lots of notes indicating Glass’ thoughts as she translated each work. Eis was intrigued.

An internet search revealed that Glass was a Ph.D. student at Columbia University at the time and would later become Sweet Briar College’s third president, serving from 1925 until her retirement in 1946.

“It’s not just: ‘Oh, I found these great books.’ It’s: ‘Oh, I found this person,’ ” Eis explains. “She seemed to me like a powerhouse of a woman. She was a role model. … She was someone who had a serious commitment to everything.”

Her own academic background in ancient Greek and her career as a college professor made Eis feel connected with Glass. But the artist in her was intrigued by something else: Glass’ “humanity,” revealed in the questions and musings she had scribbled into the books’ margins.

Eis knew she wanted to “make art from photographing her books.”

Presidents Mary K. Benedict (from left) and Meta Glass with science professor Connie Guion
Presidents Meta Glass (center) and Mary K. Benedict (left) with chemistry and physics professor Connie Guion

The result is “Marginalia,” which will be on view in Babcock Gallery Aug. 22 through Oct. 9, with a reception and artist’s talk taking place on Oct. 4.

The exhibition features a small sample of Eis’ treasure: Since 2008, she has taken thousands of photographs of the books, returning in 2014 for more. The pictures were just part of her project. Soon after finding out who Glass was, Eis contacted former Sweet Briar librarian Lisa Johnston and visited the College to learn more about its late president. That’s how she caught the attention of Sweet Briar galleries director Karol Lawson.

“I was taken with her work — photographs that layer the texts and margin notes with images of ancient sculpture to create a tapestry-like effect,” Lawson said. “The notion that a scholar’s quick, informal study marks in a book — her private thinking made manifest — wait a century and more in a book for another mind to discover them and realize their special magic is fascinating to me.”

Some of the later pieces are printed on fabric to create a translucent look, signifying that “the past and present infuse each other,” Eis notes. In her artist’s statement, Eis describes her “silent conversations” with Glass and, by extension, the ancient Greek writers.

“The handwritten notes mark out the translator’s intellectual correspondence with the ancient Greeks, her mental journey as she grappled with understanding,” she writes. “Her handwriting reveals her personality, her frustrations, her sense of humor, all brought vividly to life for me as I photographed the found poetry of her translation notes. …

Andrea Eis, “My pain” (Sophocles, “Antigone”; American Book Co., 1891), 2012, archival pigment print on silk habotai

“The ‘Marginalia’ works represent my silent conversations with Meta Glass’s words from over one hundred years ago, and with the texts of the original Greek writers, from thousands of years earlier.”

According to Eis, nobody knows exactly how the books ended up at Dikemes Library — only that they will stay there. But now they are in a special collection.

Eis is an artist working in photography, film and on fabric. She has shown her work in France, China, Greece, Hungary, Scotland and Sweden, as well as around the United States. Eis holds an M.F.A. in photography from Cranbrook Academy of Art; a B.F.A. in photography/film/video from Minneapolis College of Art and Design; and a B.A. in classics and anthropology from Beloit College. She is a cinema studies professor at Oakland University in Michigan.

“Andrea Eis: Marginalia” is free and open to the public. Babcock Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The gallery closes when the College is not in session; it is recommended that visitors call ahead to confirm hours. For more information, email Sweet Briar galleries director Karol Lawson at klawson@sbc.edu or call (434) 381-6248.