The epistolary novel gained popularity in 18th-century Europe as a dramatic plot device through which stories unfold in a series of letters, diary entries, and the like. As a storytelling strategy it was useful in revealing a character’s inner thoughts and opinions, or to lend a sense of authenticity to important plot details. Though less prevalent in modern literature, the genre is frequently rehashed in contemporary film and television as an alternative to character monologue. (Think 13 Reasons Why or Star Trek)
The fabric collages presented in Shelby Donnelly’s Letters stem from mail correspondences initiated by Donnelly to people with whom she’s experienced various levels of intimacy. But unlike book chapters and T.V. episodes, Donnelly’s individual works don’t fit together to form one linear narrative, nor do they illustrate specific conversations. Instead, the sentiments relating to her original exchanges are pictorialized in a series of hand-embroidered fabric vignettes. The stiff, puppet-like characters depicted are seen conversing with each other or with themselves, within a theatrical tableau, acting out the anxieties arising from complicated relationships.
Letters emphasis on communication and companionship reminds us of the value of intimacy. In an increasingly post-private society, where everybody shares everything from the most banal to the intensely personal, it’s important to ask how it has affected our ability to carry on real relationships. Are we less able to relate to one another, to self-reflect? Donnelly’s collages represent an effort to preserve and reanimate private exchanges free from the market-driven public platforms that dominate our social lives.