Now, Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions is partnering with fellow production company Temple Hill (Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars, Fatherhood) to develop Blackout as what The Hollywood Reporter (THR) describes as “a film and TV ‘event'” for Netflix. “The project,” THR explains, “is being developed concurrently as a TV series and film adaptation. That means that some of the six stories could wind up in the film, while others are in the TV show.”
Netflix says of the project, “From the perspective of 12 teens with six shots at love, Blackout takes place as a heatwave blankets New York City in darkness and causes an electric chaos. When the lights go out and people reveal hidden truths, love blossoms, friendships transform, and all possibilities take flight.”
In addition to Clayton, Blackout features stories by Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon. Since its publication in June, the collection has earned wide acclaim. NPR’s review states, “In Blackout, young Black love with all its insecurities, mistakes, emotion, honesty, and humanity makes for a lush read. Even amidst their fears, these characters are wonderfully respectful of each other’s choices. You will root for them all to find their own right love at their own right time. And though it was written for young adults, Blackout is a must-read for all generations.” Publishers Weekly calls it a “joyful collaboration” that “brings a necessary elation to stories of Black love, queer love, and alternative forms of affection, all of which are all tenderly highlighted in these narratives.” And, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books remarks, “There’s plenty to smile, sigh, or swoon at here, and readers will happily keep the lights on to see these charming romances to the end.”
All six of Blackout‘s authors are on board as screenwriters for the Netflix adaptation. An air date has not been announced.
Blackout will be Clayton’s second association with Netflix. In 2019, the internet TV network ordered 10 episodes of Tiny Pretty Things, an hour-long series based on the novel co-written by Clayton and Sona Charaipotra. The first season of the series premiered in December 2020 and follows the triumphs and challenges of students at an elite dance academy where the competition to succeed is fierce.
Originally from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., Clayton holds a B.A. from Wake Forest University. After earning her M.A. in children’s literature at Hollins, she completed her M.F.A. in creative writing at The New School. A former secondary school teacher and elementary and middle school librarian, she is co-founder of CAKE Literary, which is described as “a creative kitchen whipping up decadent – and decidedly diverse – literary confections for middle grade, young adult, and women’s fiction readers,” and is also chief operating officer of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Her other works include The Belles (her debut solo novel, released in 2018) and The Everlasting Rose (Book Two in The Belles series, published in 2019). She has also contributed to the story collections Black Enough: Stories of Being Young and Black in America; Meet Cute: Some People Are Destined to Meet; and Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens. Her middle grade fantasy series, The Marvellers, is forthcoming. She joined the faculty of Hollins’ graduate programs in children’s literature in 2020.
When Erin Brookshier Edmonds worked as a morning reporter for Roanoke’s WSLS 10, there was one aspect of the job she enjoyed the most. “It was just great to go out and meet people in the community and share their stories,” she recalls.
Among her regular pieces were ones that originated from local schools. “We would do a high school football kickoff segment every Friday morning and go to different schools around the region. In addition to the players and the cheerleaders, we’d interview teachers and other students. Those were always just my favorite stories, and once I saw myself gravitating more and more toward that environment, I decided I needed to do something different.”
Edmonds loved broadcast journalism, “but waking up at 3 a.m. every morning to go to work was hard. It became even more difficult once I got married and started having a family.” At the same time, the idea of pursuing a career in education “was something that really began speaking to me – hanging out with the students and being in school every day, the place I loved doing stories.” Her mother, who teaches at Roanoke County’s Glenvar High School (which Edmonds attended), also had a profound influence on her. “That was the lifestyle we grew up with – my mom was off on the days we were off and she was home during the summer. That was something that was always in the back of my mind.”
For Edmonds, the tipping point came after she had to cover a particularly tough story about a house fire. “I called my mom and told her I didn’t want to do this anymore, and that I was interested in teaching.” A crucial potential stumbling block was whether Edmonds would have to go back to college and complete a significant number of undergraduate classes in order to make a career change a reality. Her mom knew of several people who had transitioned into teaching and suggested that she reach out to Lorraine Lange, director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, Master of Arts in Teaching, and Master of Arts in Teaching and Learning graduate programs at Hollins University, for advice. “I asked Dr. Lange, ‘How do I go about doing this? How does this work? Is there something that Hollins offers?’ I got a lot of information from her and from one of my former principals.”
With their encouragement, Edmonds successfully took her Praxis examinations (important components of Virginia’s licensure and certification process, these exams help demonstrate knowledge of content, pedagogy, and instructional abilities) and the Virginia Communication and Literary Assessment (VCLA) examination, a basic skills test. “And then, Roanoke County actually hired me,” she says. Edmonds spent her first year of teaching splitting her time between Northside High School and Glenvar. She also enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching and Learning (M.A.T.L.) program at Hollins.
“Teaching and completing my M.A.T.L. at the same time was great. The program is so flexible. Being able to take those classes in the evening and take them online fit perfectly with my teaching schedule.” Edmonds says she needed five classes to get her teaching licensure and four more to get her master’s degree “so I just went ahead and did the full thing. I was surprised at how quick it was, it only took about a year and a half. And as I was teaching, I was learning a lot about the fundamentals of classroom management and other things you really need to know.”
Edmonds says she also benefited from the program’s intimate, close-knit environment. “The classroom settings were super-comfortable and relatively small-sized, so you could meet and get to know other students on an individual basis. We were working together and you knew what everyone else was teaching or wanting to teach. It was helpful to get ideas from people who were interested in the same things as you, or learn something completely different to get a new perspective as well.”
Edmonds is now beginning her fourth year as a teacher. After dividing her time between Northside and Glenvar during her first year, Edmonds moved solely to Glenvar, where she teaches 10th grade and 12th grade English.
“I’ve always been interested in literature and writing and my minor in college (she is a graduate of Virginia Tech) was actually in English, so it was kind of a perfect fit. A lot of the classes I took as an undergrad helped me with what I am doing now.”
Coming back to Glenvar has reunited Edmonds with many of the instructors who actually taught her when she was in high school. “It’s really cool to come back and be able to be friends with people who were my teachers,” and of course serve on the same faculty as her most important mentor, her mom.
But what has been especially gratifying to Edmonds has been the opportunity to form personal relationships with her students. “I had a lot of those relationships with the teachers who are now my coworkers. I love being able to help students decide what the next step is for them after high school, it’s a big time in their lives with a lot of choices they are making.” Her ability to get to know students on an individual basis is bolstered by the fact that Glenvar boasts small class sizes, and as Edmonds notes, “Teaching 10th graders and 12th graders means I get to have lot of those students twice. It’s neat to be able to look at my roster this year and see 15 to 20 students that I taught two years ago when they were sophomores and I’m getting to teach them again now that they are seniors.”
Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge Edmonds has faced during her teaching career in terms of developing those connections has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Some of it was really difficult. Having the hybrid classes, some students online and others in person, it’s not what any of us are used to. You have to make those connections in person, and the students who are online, you just see them through this screen image.”
Yet, Edmonds adds there were some silver linings to the pandemic experience, noting that the perspective everyone had gained when full in-person learning resumed last spring “made us all appreciate each other more. I think students and teachers alike were surprised we were able to do it, and I feel like everyone did a great job last year. Teachers and students both worked really hard to make sure nobody would fall behind.”
During her four years in education, Edmonds says she has discovered a good teacher must embody several characteristics to be successful. She explains that “caring, understanding, and finding a way to introduce material in a way that’s interesting to the students” are musts. “British literature isn’t always the most exciting thing for 12th graders, I think there are ways you can approach it that gets them excited in reading and learning more about it.”
And even though she has switched career paths, Edmonds has found the skills she acquired as a television reporter have come in handy. She admits, “I still get nervous those first few days of school talking in front of my students, and I think I probably always will. But, having the broadcast journalism background helps push those nerves down a bit.”
Whether they are urban, suburban, or rural, Virginia’s 132 school divisions are all facing a major challenge: a severe shortage of teachers. The Virginia Department of Education reports that there are currently more than 1,000 openings for teachers across the commonwealth, reflecting a rising trend over the past decade.
Students interested in pursuing dual enrollment (DE) classes at Daleville’s Lord Botetourt High School (LBHS) are among those impacted by this deficit. The DE program, which enables LBHS students to earn credits at Virginia Western Community College while completing their high school graduation requirements, had no instructors available to teach mathematics for a year.
“Elizabeth mentioned that they could use our help to endorse teachers to teach dual enrollment,” Lange explained. “In order to conduct DE classes at the high school level in Virginia, teachers in Virginia must have a master’s degree and 18 graduate hours in the specific content they would like to teach. So, we began offering online graduate classes in mathematics, English, and history to help teachers throughout the Roanoke Valley and across Virginia qualify to teach DE classes.”
Through Hollins, LBHS teacher Jimmy Yager this summer completed certification to teach DE, and LBHS is now able to restart its dual enrollment class in mathematics beginning this fall.
“Hollins was overwhelmingly helpful as I sought this additional certification,” Yager said. “I examined numerous online programs during my initial inquiry about dual enrollment certification, and I found the flexibility of a complete asynchronous virtual learning program at the university to be a great plus. As a practicing teacher, it is very difficult to have to attend a virtual class at a specific time. The self-paced learning and instructor availability were extremely beneficial. And, I valued the focused approach of a stand-alone path for DE certification.”
Yager added, “There has been a great need for dual enrollment teachers in our district and I am extremely grateful for the efforts of Hollins to help.”
Lange said teachers from as far away as Henry County and Richmond are taking advantage of Hollins’ online courses for DE certification. “We are proud to help teachers, but the real ‘winners’ are the students who will be able to get dual enrollment credit and be ahead when they go to college.”
Lange noted that Hollins will start a new cohort of mathematics classes for DE certification in the spring of 2022; teachers who wish to pursue dual enrollment credit in English and history can start at any time. Contact email@example.com for more information.
Poets Maddie Gallo and Gabriel Reed became close friends after they enrolled in Hollins’ Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in creative writing program two years ago and were in the same first-year tutorial class. Fittingly this spring, they not only celebrated together the completion of their respective M.F.A. degrees, but also the achievement of another milestone in their lives: the publication of each writer’s first collections of poetry.
Gallo’s Acorn, Eggshell, Honeycomb and Reed’s Springbook have both been accepted for publication by Groundhog Poetry Press (GPP). Founded by Professor of English and editor of The Hollins Critic R.H.W. Dillard, GPP describes itself as “a small, independent press dedicated to publishing absolutely the best poetry we can find without regard to any factor other than quality.”
The news came as a complete surprise to Gallo. “I wasn’t thinking of it as a book at all until it got accepted as a book,” she says. For Reed, his work is actually composed of two separate projects. Nevertheless, he says, those projects “resonate with one another. The more I thought about how they spoke to one another, the more I was sure that I wanted them together.”
“I Never Thought This Would Happen So Fast”
Gallo was pursuing a Master’s degree in English literature at Wake Forest University when she had an epiphany.
“It was a great program, but I realized I was more interested in creative writing than literary analysis,” she recalls. One of her professors suggested Gallo explore enrolling in an M.F.A. program.
“Because I’m from Radford (located approximately 50 miles from Roanoke), I already knew about Hollins’ creative writing M.F.A. program from people who had gone there. Since I’d been in North Carolina for two years, I thought it would be nice to be closer to home in Virginia.”
Other factors convinced Gallo to apply to Hollins as her first choice. “I could study poetry, which is my favorite genre, but Hollins is kind of unique in that it encourages you to write in other genres as well. A lot of M.F.A. programs are strict in that you can only write poetry or fiction. I wanted to be able to experiment with fiction as well as nonfiction. I applied to some other places, but when I got into Hollins, it was settled.”
Gallo praises Dillard, who taught her first-year tutorial class, for “helping me find my footing and voice in poetry. In my second year, I was more confident in who I was as a writer and the kind of ideas I wanted to write about.” Her second-year tutorial professor, Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing Thorpe Moeckel, furthered that guidance.
“I felt that he gave me the permission to be experimental and strange with my poetry,” she explains. “I’ve always had anxiety about writing poem after poem on the same topic and I can get bored with that repetition.” She worried about how the various subjects and themes she addresses throughout what would become Acorn, Eggshell, Honeycomb would come together into a cohesive whole, but Moeckel “reminded me that the unifying factor of every collection, whether it’s a one-themed project or just a book of unique pieces, is the poet’s voice. He told me, ‘A Maddie poem is always a Maddie poem,’ and while that might seem like a simple comment, it was an enlightening moment for me.”
Gallo adds it was “inspirational” to be in classes where “for the first time I was around a bunch of extremely talented and amazing creative writers. Hollins is good about giving you the time and the right people to work with. They challenged me to become a better writer. I look back at my poems before Hollins, and I think, ‘Who wrote those?’ I feel like I grew so much and in so many different ways. I was able to carve out space and dedicate so much time to doing something I always loved my whole life. I experienced a sense of community there.”
From the outset, Gallo’s goal as a graduate student was to write “a really good final thesis” of poetry that reflected how she wanted to go about being a writer and the kind of work she hoped to craft. “It was something long-term where I could come back to these poems. I was going to dedicate the whole summer after I got my M.F.A. to working with them, and then see if somewhere in the future I could find a home for them with a publisher.” Gallo admits she is “prone to doing constant surgery on my work. I’ll work on a poem forever, and I’ve got poems from years ago I’m still editing. But, I’m trying to give my poems room to breathe and focus only on the edits that need to be done.”
When Gallo submitted her thesis, Dillard recognized the progress she had made in her writing since coming to Hollins. “A few days later, he reached out to me and said, ‘I think this is book material,’ and that his press would love to publish it with their next batch of books. I was stunned. I never thought this would happen so fast.”
Acorn, Eggshell, Honeycomb features themes of femininity (“Women’s relationships to others and themselves, particularly the anxieties concerning their own bodies.”); nature (“It’s a constant comfort to me.”); and poetry itself (“The art of poetry is nearly always a positive thing amid the global and daily tragedies we face.”). The book draws its title from the headings of each of the book’s three sections, which each contain about 15 poems. “I’m obsessed with the ordering of books and collections,” she says. “When I get a book of poetry I think about why the author chose to put one poem first and another poem last, why certain poems are in the middle, and so on. I thought a lot about the order in which I wanted things to appear in Acorn, Eggshell, Honeycomb before I was even considering it as a book. For me, there’s a definite kind of logic and system for each section, but one of the things I enjoyed hearing from my classmates when they read the draft was that they got to decide for themselves what differentiates an ‘Acorn’ poem from an ‘Eggshell’ or ‘Honeycomb’ poem. It’s a fun thing to leave that open-ended for other readers, too. For me, the reader’s perspective is a huge part of what poetry is. I don’t expect and I don’t want readers to think like me. I want each poem to have its own meaning for each person.”
Bringing Acorn, Eggshell, Honeycomb to fruition was certainly a highlight of Gallo’s time in Hollins’ creative writing M.F.A. program. Serving as a teaching fellow and working with undergraduates for the past year was another. “I taught fundamentals of poetry and fiction writing, and it was so much fun helping students fall in love with poetry. Of course I want to keep writing, but after that experience I have to continue teaching. It’s really important for me to keep encouraging other people to want to write. There’s no feeling like that.”
“I’d Always Hoped This Would End Up Being My First Book”
While he had always loved poetry, Reed was firmly grounded in fiction writing until the end of his senior year as an undergraduate at Carson-Newman University in his home state of Tennessee. “I started writing poems the way a lot of people do through self-expressive diary type writing,” he recalls. The mentorship of Appalachian poet Susan O’Dell Underwood profoundly influenced him, as did the fact that in writing workshops, “people liked my poems a lot more than my fiction. So, I stuck with it.”
Reed had already been applying to creative writing M.F.A. programs, but only in fiction. “I was afraid my M.F.A. applications were going to be a waste because I wanted to write poetry now, but then I came across Hollins’ website.” He says he was struck by Hollins’ philosophy “that wasn’t so much specialization in a genre as an interest in the voice you want to curate. And, it’s so writing intensive. It was exactly what I needed.”
In the creative writing M.F.A. program at Hollins, Reed says “I never felt like I wasn’t getting respect and attention from my peers.” During his first year, he was part of a four-person tutorial group led by Dillard where “we were all writing very different poems, but I got the freedom and the room to play, explore, and find my way.” He also started reading more formal poetry and was particularly drawn to the sonnet, which consists of 14 lines and uses a standard rhyme scheme.
Working with Professor of English Cathryn Hankla during his second year at Hollins, Reed says he began “shifting my thinking about my poetry. I narrowed in on what I was attempting to write, and Cathy was perfect for helping me find that voice. One thing she enabled me to see is that the poem has a life of its own, especially if the reader comes away with something separate from what you had in mind. Sometimes someone will have an understanding of your work that’s so much better than what you intended. I had some amazing experiences with visiting writers, too, in broadening my definition of what poetry can be and what it can do.”
Another experience that tremendously impacted Reed and his writing was the birth in January of his daughter, Eloise. Juggling fatherhood as well as serving as a teaching fellow meant “I had less time to waste. I was forced to focus more instead of being in the freeform mode I was in, and I feel like I did the best work of my life this past year.”
That work included his graduate thesis. Written in two parts, the thesis’ first section consists of a long narrative poem about “two people on a farm and how they fall in love with the land,” while the second is made up of sonnets that Reed penned in anticipation of his daughter’s birth. He says he conceived the latter as a response to The Dolphin, a book of sonnets by the American poet Robert Lowell “that ruthlessly chronicles Lowell’s leaving his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and daughter, Harriet. Lowell even steals lines from Hardwick’s letters throughout. I was trying to write the anti-Dolphin. Whereas The Dolphin remembers the time in Lowell’s life when he was moving away, I was trying to lean into a celebratory space of the everyday, what it meant to me to become a father, and how to be faithful to and inhabit that.” Reed adds that he conceived of the long poem that opens his thesis as a way to “prepare the reader for a personal encounter.”
Based on Hankla’s recommendation, Dillard welcomed Reed’s thesis for publication by GPP. “I’d always hoped this would end up being my first book,” Reed says. Inspired by a work he admires called The Summer Book, he decided to call his collection Springbook. “One of the sonnets that ends the book is a birth poem and the process of witnessing that. My daughter was born on January 2, thus the book ends in winter and I’m looking ahead. It’s that cliché of spring representing rebirth and new life.”
After living in Roanoke for the past two years to attend Hollins, Reed has moved back to where he’s originally from in the Knoxville area to complete a Ph.D. in poetry at the University of Tennessee. He plans to pursue both teaching and writing, and he says Springbook will continue to resonate for him beyond being his debut book publication. “I see this book as not just kind of a craft project, but also as a time stamp of my life in Roanoke, the beginning of my family and my daughter’s life.”
Hollins University has announced the appointment of Steven E. Laymon, Ph.D., as vice president for graduate programs and continuing studies. He will provide leadership for and oversight of the university’s existing programs and develop new initiatives.
Laymon comes to Hollins from the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, where he has worked in several key capacities since 2014. As associate dean for academic programs and services, he was responsible for development, management, and evaluation of two undergraduate degree programs; business and professional certificates; design and strategic expansion of corporate training and outreach; and management of non-credit programs offered by the School. He worked with staff to engineer improvements in long-term sustainability by enhancing enrollment, improving operational efficiency, and creating new programs when he served for three years as the School’s interim dean. As associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs, he taught face-to-face and online courses in social sciences, leadership, and political science; managed academic programs; and created strategies to improve the quality of instruction. And, he taught courses on nationalism, American and popular culture, and social science theory as an associate professor general faculty/lecturer.
Prior to his service at UVa, Laymon spent nearly a decade as associate dean for graduate and professional programs in the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies.
Laymon holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago, where he also earned an M.A. in international relations. He completed his B.A. in international history and political science at Miami University.
“Steven is a dynamic, enthusiastic, and collaborative leader,” said Hollins President Mary Dana Hinton. “In addition to supporting our current programs, he will create innovative new graduate, certificate, and not-for-credit programs that will meet adult learners’ interests and needs while upholding Hollins’ liberal arts mission. He will help grow the university’s national and international reputation in graduate education and continuing studies.”
“I think we have a tremendous opportunity to build graduate and continuing education programs that speak to the complex needs of the twenty-first century,” said Laymon. “We live in a dynamic world, where analytical skills, critical thinking, creativity, and inclusive perspectives are as important as pragmatic and practical skills. Hollins’ tradition of liberal arts learning provides the best jumping off point for those kinds of graduate and continuing education programs. I am excited to begin to collaborate with my colleagues at Hollins.”
Laymon will begin his duties as vice president for graduate programs and continuing studies on July 19.
Amanda Becker, who is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree in children’s literature at Hollins, has been honored with a 2021 Graduate Essay Award by the Children’s Literature Association (ChLA).
A four-member committee of children’s literature scholars selected Becker’s essay, “A Story in Fragments: An Analysis of Poetry and Perspective in October Mourning,” as the winner of this year’s master’s level award.
The Graduate Student Essay Awards recognize outstanding papers written on the graduate level in the field of children’s literature. They are considered annually and awarded as warranted. In 2008, the ChLA Board approved giving two separate awards each year, one for an essay written at the master’s level and one for an essay written at the doctoral level.
“A Story in Fragments” focuses on Leslea Newman’s October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, a novel in verse responding to the 1998 murder of Shepherd, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. “Written with love, anger, regret, and other profound emotions, this is a truly important book that deserves the widest readership, not only among independent readers but among students in a classroom setting, as well,” noted Booklist in its review. “Most importantly, the book will introduce Matthew Shepard to a generation too young to remember the tragic circumstances of his death. Grades 8-12.”
Of Becker’s essay, a judge stated, “One thing good scholarship does is strengthen its readers’ commitment to the literature it discusses: it prompts some to return to works they thought they knew and others to pick up those works for the first time. I think this is good scholarship. The analysis of the poetic effects of diverse perspectives…is sharply focused, sensitive to textual detail, and above all resists the temptation of reductive readings.” Another judge called it “original and interesting – not just related to interpretation of the specific text but also to the larger genre of poetry.”
Becker will receive a $400 award, a one-year complimentary ChLA membership, and an invitation to present her paper at the ChLA’s annual conference, which will be held virtually this year, June 9 – 13.
ChLA is a nonprofit association of scholars, critics, professors, students, librarians, teachers, and institutions dedicated to the academic study of literature for children.
Samantha Macher M.F.A. ’12 won the Gold Award for Best Writer for To the New Girl, based on the critically acclaimed play of the same name that she wrote in 2010.
The film, which was made by an all-woman cast and creative team, also won a Gold Award for Best Feature – First Time Filmmaker for directors Aurora J. Culver, Ambika Leigh, and Adriana Gonzalez-Vega, a Silver Award for Best Actress (Skyler Vallo), and an Honorable Mention for Best Editing (Hillary Wills).
“It’s such an honor to be recognized by the Queen Palm Film Festival,” Macher told Digital Journal. “We’re so appreciative that they recognized so many creative and technical elements of the project and are looking forward to celebrating (virtually) with our cast and crew.”
An anthology film released by New Girl Pictures and available through Amazon Prime Video, To the New Girl follows ten women scorned as they directly address their exes’ new wives and lovers at an open mic night in Los Angeles. Created by a group of emerging filmmakers at a time when audiences are demanding films made both by and for women, the 80-minute movie taps into a social and political climate that’s left women poised to take back their voices and be heard.
“What I love about the project is that Samantha’s writing really connects with audiences on a universal level and our actresses bring the words to life with these phenomenal performances,” producer Laura Hunter Drago said last summer. “I’m so excited that we’re able to share that with audiences and spark some interesting conversations about how we all process heartbreak and relationships.”
Macher’s play was first produced at SkyPilot Theatre in Los Angeles and at Studio Roanoke with the Playwright’s Lab, and went on to earn enthusiastic reviews, including “A bracing blitz of pure estrogen” (Los Angeles Times), “Smart and sophisticated, witty and charming” (NoHo Arts District), and “A provocative study of the deep pain of ‘cheating’ by your ‘one and only'” (Tolucan Times).
Funded through a Kickstarter campaign by supporters of women in entertainment, To the New Girl was filmed in just three days on location in Los Angeles with a budget under $20,000.
As an undergraduate student at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Amanda Kelly decided to embark on an ambitious artistic project: purchasing and building a Willow Dollhouse Kit. Because of its size, assembling the kit in her dorm room would in and of itself become an ambitious undertaking. But, she also struggled to acquire the modern miniature objects that were essential to filling each of the dollhouse rooms.
“Through my study of illustration and oil painting, I had developed the patience and creative eye for miniature making,” Kelly, who currently is pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching degree with a visual arts endorsement at Hollins University, recalls. “So, when I wanted something specific, I attempted to create it myself.”
Kelly found collecting and making miniatures to be an exhilarating process. Soon, her work began attracting admirers who sought out her creations, and this in turn led her to launch her own business, Panda Miniatures, as well as a dedicated Instagram page that currently boasts more than 34,000 followers. The presence of Kelly’s miniatures on social media also captured the attention of the producers of a new HGTV holiday series for 2020: Biggest Little Christmas Showdown, a four-episode competition in which “the nation’s best miniaturists…face off to create the merriest mini holiday houses, complete with all the festive, tiny trimmings.” Kelly and her fiancée and partner in Panda Miniatures, Bree Sepulveda, were subsequently invited to vie for the grand prize of $50,000, which Kelly notes “would be amazing for our wedding.” The pair successfully competed against two other teams in the series’ debut episode (which originally aired November 27 and is available for viewing in its entirety online) and will be among the three finalists when Biggest Little Christmas Showdown concludes on December 18.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, who recently relocated to Roanoke (she teaches art at a local middle school), Kelly believes miniatures “are such a mystifying art form because of their ability to teleport the viewer into another world.” She considers creating realistic and contemporary miniatures and scenes her “go-to style. I love when miniature scenes or dollhouses have a cluttered and lived-in look to them as if someone just left. An empty glass, receipts on a counter, trash overflowing, half-eaten chocolate bars – those are the details that bring a miniature scene to life.”
Kelly admits that “making tiny objects by hand is tedious at times, but it has taught me to be a perfectionist and to be proficient in scale accuracy. These became essential skills when I began 3D modeling and utilizing my 3D printers for unique miniature creations.” Her professional opportunities have included making miniature props and sets for clients such as Coca-Cola and Swarovski as well as various TV shows.
Another benefit Kelly cites from her work is the camaraderie she has experienced with others who echo her passion. “The community of miniature artisans has always been so welcoming to me as a young artist, and I appreciate how everyone is eager to share designs with each other.” With so many miniature conventions canceled this year due to COVID-19, she enjoyed seeing other miniaturist friends on the Biggest Little Christmas Showdown set. “It’s a pretty close-knit community…you could say it’s a ‘small world,’” she adds, laughing.
In their preliminary competition, Kelly and Sepulveda and the two other teams were challenged by Tony Award-winning actor and series host James Monroe Iglehart to “take tropical Hawaiian vibes and make a structure inspired by the island greeting ‘Mele Kalikimaka,’ Hawaii’s way to say ‘Merry Christmas.’” The contestants were given a month in advance to begin building their projects and finish up to half of their miniatures; Biggest Little Christmas Showdown’s November 27 episode covers the 12 hours the teams had to complete their designs. At the end of the time period, a panel of judges evaluated each creation based on three criteria: interpretation of the theme, creativity, and execution.
“‘Mele Kalikimaka’ is the perfect theme for Christmas because it forces you to think out of the box,” Kelly says during the show. She and Sepulveda created a floating tiki bar, a pontoon they dubbed “Santa’s Tiki Boat,” augmented by a sandy beach, a palm tree, and even two “sand people” in the classic snowmen shape.
Kelly and Sepulveda skillfully overcame some unexpected challenges and setbacks during the 12-hour construction marathon and emerged triumphant with the judges, who praised their structure as a “completely unexpected approach” and “Jimmy Buffett having Christmas on the beach.”
“What set us apart from the other teams is our attention to detail,” Kelly says, “things that just take it to next level of realism.”
As she and Sepulveda prepare for the competition final, Kelly continues to find encouragement in a particularly cherished childhood memory.
“When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was play with my Grandma Kelly’s dollhouse. It was built from scratch in the 1980s and filled with vintage miniature furniture. During special occasions, Grandma Kelly would hide a miniature chocolate bar inside one of the rooms of the dollhouse and encourage me to search for it. I would carefully open tiny drawers and peek behind little cabinets until I found the hidden treasure. When I found the miniature chocolate bar, Grandma Kelly rewarded me with a handful of M&Ms. We continued this tradition until I inherited Grandma Kelly’s dollhouse after she passed away in 2016.
“As 2020 comes to a close, I think of the miniaturists who came before me, like my Grandma Kelly, who inspired me to keep creating and bringing the joy of miniatures to the world.”
Top photo: Miniatures of Amanda Kelly (left) and Bree Sepulveda from the Biggest Little Christmas Showdown wrap party.
At MDCHS, Hollins students who meet qualifications will be guaranteed the opportunity to interview for the following programs: Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, Doctor of Physical Therapy, and Doctor of Occupational Therapy.
Students who take an outlined course sequence at Hollins can gain early acceptance to Virginia Tech’s Master of Engineering in Computer Science program. The alliance between Hollins and VT Engineering seeks to increase the number of liberal arts students who are growing the tech talent pipeline in Virginia.
In addition to partnering with MDCHS and VT Engineering, Hollins has agreements in place with Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy; the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; the Middlebury Institute for International Studies; the University of Pikeville’s School of Optometry, School of Osteopathic Medicine, and Coleman School of Business; and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.
From his service as a U.S. Army officer and a career teaching high school English to embracing a stint as a stay-at-home father, Kelly Stephenson M.F.A. ’20 had always cherished a desire to someday write a novel.
So, while his daughter Clare was preparing to graduate from high school, Kelly and his wife began seriously considering “the next phase of my life. We were talking about what’s next, and she said, ‘why don’t you apply to grad schools and see where you get in?’ Hollins University was at the top of my list because I knew it had a really strong writing program. I applied, I got accepted, and we decided that it must be fate.”
“I was terrified,” he recalls. “I was older and I hadn’t been to school in 30 years except to earn my teaching license. It was nerve-wracking, too, because my family wouldn’t join me here,” but remain at their home in Princeton, New Jersey, until Clare finished high school. “I was going to be a geographical bachelor.”
Nevertheless, Kelly came to Hollins motivated to finally begin writing that novel. “I decided at my first tutorial that I had a good idea and I was going to push forward with it. For the first half of my first year, I wrote fervently and completed seven chapters. In the second half, I started revising.”
Kelly states that the amount of writing he completed in his first year at Hollins “was great. The instruction I got from my professors in terms of taking my writing to the next level was wonderful.” And while he missed his family, “having my space to write was fantastic. It really did make a big difference with my writing and what I was able to accomplish.”
One of the attributes of the creative writing program that Kelly praises is its emphasis on the rewriting process. “During my revisions, I was encouraged to deepen my characters’ inner life, and I started assimilating that naturally into my writing. I also learned my strengths and my blind spots as a writer. I was definitely enriched by the instruction I received. I thought I would improve around the edges, but I got the opportunity to not only write a lot, but also to write better.”
Kelly believes the M.F.A. in creative writing at Hollins offers a unique and beneficial approach in other ways. “They have a sense of what the student needs, and one of those things is the fire to write. If you’re just getting slammed, it’s discouraging. They want you to keep doing what you’re doing well. The philosophy during rewrites is not that what you’ve done is a disaster, but how can you build upon what you’ve already done. I had some things worth polishing.”
He adds that he was inspired to pursue writing in different genres. “I wanted to be a novelist, but I was encouraged to write poetry and creative nonfiction, and I have eight good short stories that I’m proud of. Some programs have a tendency to put you into a certain genre.”
Kelly sees further upsides when comparing Hollins to other creative writing schools. “There’s much more competition in those programs between the writers themselves and in getting attention from faculty. At Hollins, it’s not like that. I was never made to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to write better than this person.’”
The sense of destiny that Kelly and his wife feel led him to Hollins may have also played a role in determining Clare’s college destination. “I had a class in high school that focused on helping you find what you want out of college and where the best fit might be,” she explains. “I was very interested in single-sex colleges, and Hollins kept coming up for me.”
At the same time he was on the Hollins campus with Clare for a visit, Kelly learned that he had been accepted into the M.F.A. program in creative writing. On top of that welcome news, Clare was forming a very good impression of the university. “I liked the feel of community during my tour. The vibe was very comforting to me. It felt good in terms of how women grow into the type of person I wanted to be. As a liberal arts school it really was set up to help me to explore what I really wanted to do in life.”
Clare, who is also an aspiring author (she hopes to double major in creative writing and the performing arts), was accepted at Hollins during Kelly’s first fall at Hollins. She became a residential first-year student during her dad’s second year in the creative writing program, when he also taught an undergraduate class, Fundamentals of Writing Poetry and Fiction.
In order to give Clare space to grow and engage in her education on her own, Kelly says he purposefully kept their interaction on campus to a minimum. “We didn’t see each other that much except on weekends, and that was more as a father and daughter rather than fellow students.” There was the occasional overlap: Kelly shared a faculty office with Visiting Lecturer in English Sydney Tammarine, who taught Clare in a creative writing class (“I made it a point not to talk about Clare with Sydney at all.”), and this spring, they actually shared the same instructor (“Clare had Karen Bender [Hollins’ Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing] for a class and I had her for a tutorial.”). Still, Kelly says Clare’s first-year experience “was so great. She’s really found a great group of friends who are very nurturing and helped her acclimate into a study routine.”
Clare adds, “It helped that I was close enough to my parents’ apartment in Roanoke where I could come over whenever I wanted.”
When Hollins transitioned to remote instruction in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly and Clare found that their individual academic experiences became a bit more intertwined when they both had to complete their studies for the semester from that apartment.
“I think for Clare it was a weird experience sitting at a kitchen table and me coming in to get a snack,” Kelly says. “Plus, my wife was working in the next room, so we had several people at any given time in the pockets of our apartment.”
Moving forward, Kelly is seeking to finish his novel as well as a memoir about his time as a stay-at-home dad. “I’m taking another year to get a big chunk of writing done with a goal of getting publication. As one of the oldest graduates of the M.F.A. program, I realize I have a narrower window to see my dreams come true.”
Clare is excited to return to campus this fall, and hopes to expand her Hollins experience beyond the classroom. “I’m looking into internship opportunities and considering study abroad.”
“I’m so happy she is here in this kind of environment,” Kelly says. “Not everyone gets to see their son’s or daughter’s educational experience up close, and I think Clare made a great choice in Hollins.”