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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Rail Life Stories

Writers and printmakers celebrate the Transcontinental Railroad with a uniquely collaborative project.


Stefanie Dykes with chapters of Train Tracts - COLETTE FINNEY
  • Colette Finney
  • Stefanie Dykes with chapters of Train Tracts

A quote attributed to Lao Tzu attests that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. However, when it comes to the original Transcontinental Railroad, this 1,776-mile-long path—completed with a golden spike—has generated an infinite number of stories. Culminating Utah's 150th anniversary celebration of this monumental achievement in May, two artists will present Train Tracts, a traveling literary experiment of connection between passengers and strangers.

Featuring a collaboration between New Mexico writer Amie Tullius and local artist Stefanie Dykes, the journal is an innovative vision made up of 12 chapters, each one a carefully selected partnership between an artist and a writer. While the overall piece is short, each chapter is a unique work of art created by printmakers from around the world that complements transformative personal stories. But the greatest innovation comes from the part of this process that's still ongoing: putting these chapters into the hands of actual rail passengers and letting them continue the creative process.

"Right now, I'm thinking a lot about connection," Tullius, editor of the project, says. "How to reach across the divide with strangers. Because usually—almost always, really—it's not hard to connect with another human. It is hard to be vulnerable, though, and take the risk. It's often easier to say nothing and not be friendly. But there is power in those small moments with strangers when you do reach out—even if just in a small way."

Given the broad writing prompt to create a nonfiction piece about making connections, the stories form an eclectic collection with subjects covering immigration, childbirth, complicated friendships and even a conversation between trees, in elegant prose. The resulting tales were then carefully matched with the printmakers, who further reveal the narrative's beauty.

Tullius, a gallery director and writer in Santa Fe, teamed up with Dykes, a contributor to the original 2008 version of Train Tracts and co-founder of Saltgrass Printmakers, a non-profit printmaking studio located in Salt Lake City. Dykes reached out last year to printmakers, while the artists reviewed the texts and created mini art books, each a freestanding chapter.

Using traditional printmaking and detailed bookmaking techniques, the text is often hand letter-pressed. Some editions include art supplies so readers can add drawings or notes as they move from passenger to passenger, while others add small gifts of appreciation. Most appear as traditional books on high-quality paper, but others take advantage of open-ended creativity with colorful materials. All are true works of art.

Completed chapters of the 2019 edition of Train Tracts - COLETTE FINNEY
  • Colette Finney
  • Completed chapters of the 2019 edition of Train Tracts

With completed chapters in hand, volunteers then spent time over Valentine's Day weekend at Amtrak stations, interacting with travelers, selecting participants based on their interest and sending the tracts on their way. The books were intended to travel the rails for one week before being dropped into the mailbox, self-addressed and stamped for Saltgrass.

"Right now, it feels especially brazen to walk up to a stranger and give them a work of art they weren't expecting," Tullius says. "So, there's a way in which the project is a peace offering in this fraught time: 'Let's be good to each other. I'll go first.'"

The possible temptation for riders to keep the books instead of sending them back was a risk Tullius and Dykes were willing to take. "We know most of them will not come back, but we still hope some will respond to this story we put in their hands," Dykes says. "Honestly, I'd be happy if they would treasure them, and so would the writers."

However, having an original set as a backup will help. "Knowing the end result was going to coincide with the 150th anniversary, we had to have an extra set to fall back on for the exhibit just in case," Dykes adds. Once back in Utah, the books will be curated in time for an exhibit at the Rio Gallery, beginning in late April and running the length of the statewide celebration.

Even though the books might still be lingering on trains as of press time, the impact on their carriers is taking effect. "We are already seeing stories starting to come in from writers of the encounters they have made and the sweet moments that have come out of the experience," Dykes says.

To read more about the real-time travel of these moving masterpieces, search #traintracts2019 on Instagram.