Kseniya Thomas '01

Kseniya Thomas '01, in her Carlisle letterpress studio. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

The impact of the Stellfox Prize reverberates across campus and beyond

by Tony Moore

Inspired by her 1959 meeting with Robert Frost, Jean Louise Stellfox ’60 spent the 39 years after graduation as a high school English teacher in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. It’s a good story, but most good stories need a twist to become great. And this one has it: Upon Stellfox’s 2003 death, her will revealed that she had socked away more than $1.5 million. It also revealed that she was leaving most of it to Dickinson, so the college could start a program to bring such literary luminaries as Frost to her alma mater annually.

Two years later, Dickinson launched the Harold and Ethel L. Stellfox Visiting Scholars and Writers Program, named for Stellfox’s parents, and Ian McEwan, the Man Booker-winning writer, became the accompanying award’s first recipient.

“That Dickinson has the Stellfox is fairly extraordinary,” says Siobhan Phillips, assistant professor of English. “It’s pretty amazing for a place of this size that we have people of this stature with such close contact.”

The annual Stellfox visit includes several events, both campuswide and intimate. But Philips notes that the program’s influence reverberates around campus, inspiring events such as a production of Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes and performances of musical settings of poems by Paul Muldoon and Heaney.

“You’re reminded of how artistic activity is bubbling all the time,” Phillips says, “and with Stellfox, all of the bubbles come to the surface in one place.” One artistic bubble that has been surfacing annually since 2006 can be found in the commemorative broadsides depicting representations of the author’s works. The broadsides are created by Kseniya Thomas ’01, in conjunction with artists she commissions each year, in her Carlisle letterpress studio.

“A broadside is like a beautiful page of a book that you can hang on your wall,” says Thomas. “You have to walk right up to it, to examine all that detail. That’s the point of a broadside: The art catches your eye, and then you walk up close to see what it says.”

This year, two seniors, Mary Naydan and Laura Hart, curated an exhibition of the broadsides to mark the Stellfox Award’s 10th anniversary, which was punctuated by McEwan’s return as the 2015 Commencement speaker.

“Some of my best memories from Dickinson are my interactions with writers like Lorrie Moore and Paul Muldoon—something I imagine would be quite rare at larger universities,” Naydan says. “I hope that 
exhibition has inspired students to really take advantage of the opportunities the Stellfox program offers in coming years.”

Read more from the summer 2015 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

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Published July 28, 2015