Karen Snouffer commemorates her father's WWII service in art
When art professor Karen Snouffer's father, John E. Fry, passed away in 2000, she found herself drawn to the things he'd left behind: the World War II army uniform he'd worn as an MP serving under General George S. Patton, several boxes of wartime letters Fry had written to his wife from France and Germany, and tape recordings of war stories he'd made during the last five years of his life. "I wanted to see the places he'd seen and touch the things he had touched," says Snouffer. "I wanted to see how objects and place and memory come together."
These thoughts gave birth, over the course of seven years, to an extensive body of work Snouffer calls "Souvenir," from the French verb meaning "to remember" but also signifying an aid to memory. The lengthy process from conception and extensive research through creation and exhibition eventually produced a moving tribute to her father's wartime experience.
"Souvenir" is composed of thirty-two canvases of varying dimensions, each combining paint and photography into a photo collage. As spectators view the canvases, they simultaneously hear her father's tape recordings and her mother's voice reading from Fry's letters.
The photo collages evoke such well-known sites as Normandy and Buchenwald (where her father appeared in a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White during the liberation of the camp that was published in Life magazine). But Snouffer eventually focused her travel and attention on the small French town of Epernay, in the Champagne country of the Marne, where her father was stationed for a short period in 1944. The citizens of occupied Epernay welcomed the Allies and the hope of liberation they brought. "His time there was a respite for him," says Snouffer. "I wanted to get to know this place better, and to meet people who had experienced the war there."
Snouffer made several visits to Epernay, for which she prepared by enrolling in Kenyon's first-year French language course with professor Mort Guiney. "It was a humbling experience to sit side by side with students, some of whom I had taught," Snouffer recalls. "As a professor, you're used to being the one who knows, and suddenly I knew as little as they did. But it was inspiring to observe Mort's tricks for keeping the class energized and engaged. Being his student taught me a lot about teaching."
In Epernay, Snouffer was shown important war sites by the former head of the French police who had been a member of the Resistance. They visited the school where Fry had been billeted and where, he had recalled, a young girl would visit the American soldiers every day, bringing them a bottle of champagne in token of the town's gratitude. Other survivors came forward, including a ninety-year-old woman who had fought in the Resistance and eventually survived the concentration camp in Ravensbruck.
To thank the people of Epernay for their care of her father in 1944 and their generosity during her three visits, Snouffer offered to exhibit her work there. In May 2007, she traveled back for the opening of "Souvenirs Retrouvés" ("memories rediscovered") at the town's cultural arts center. One visitor to the show afterwards mailed Snouffer a copy of a poem she had written in August 1944, as a girl of eleven, to celebrate the liberation of her hometown.
Snouffer's art has inspired other writing closer to home. During a winter 2007 exhibition in Kenyon's Olin Gallery, students in visiting art history instructor Denise Hinnant's class analyzed the photo collages. Creative writing student Lucia Pizzo '09 composed a poem inspired by one of the canvases.
As it happens, the connections among Kenyon, Snouffer's family, and paint date back many years. In his postwar life, Fry sold commercial paint in central Ohio and numbered Kenyon among his accounts. "It all comes around," says Snouffer with a laugh. "When I got a job teaching at Kenyon, it made my father very happy."
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