Art in Paradise: 1,000 Ways

It’s unavoidably the season of love. You can’t escape the stuff. Thing is, it’s only one particular kind of love that gets its overheated due on Valentine’s Day, according to Dalia Shevin. She says the holiday only seems to celebrate “the ideas of really early, sexual and romantic love.” Of course, most people haven’t just struck up a hot new relationship. “The holiday, the way it’s presented, really cuts out most of the population,” says Shevin.

That thought brought her a big idea. “It just arrived in a flash,” she says, “and then, the more I thought about it, the more important it seemed.”

It’s safe to say she thought big. Shevin wanted to encourage expressions of love writ large—love between people in non-romantic relationships, love for pets, love for objects and ideas. She decided to create a space in Brattleboro in which people could write love letters. Lots of love letters—the goal is 1,000. It’s a big goal, considering that Brattleboro isn’t a huge place.

Shevin knew she needed funds to make the project a reality, and it quickly became clear that the idea struck a nerve. She set up a Kickstarter fundraising campaign online, and in a matter of hours exceeded her goal. People kept contributing, Shevin says, even after the deadline, and contributions came from as far away as Australia.

It’s easy to see the appeal. Shevin’s venue—a storefront at 47 Flat St. in Brattleboro dubbed the Letter Lab—is a public space in which the task at hand is something highly personal. It fosters and celebrates the loftiest of emotions. It’s hard to come up with an equivalent experience. “You are greeted by a friendly staffer who welcomes you and points you to the table where there’s hot beverages, then a wall with instructions,” she says. “There are three manual typewriters, one electric, pens, paper, art supplies of all kinds. There’s a rug for kids to play on. You see a long room with lots of seating options with people writing quietly. It’s cell-phone free.

“At the risk of sounding like someone I might like to scratch in the face, it’s kind of a sacred environment,” says Shevin. “It’s a place to be vulnerable and think about love, and I want to think about that. People get up and they’ve obviously been crying, but it’s a celebratory space. It feels really good in here—really warm and welcoming. When it’s dark, we have a lot of lanterns—it’s warm and beautiful.”

Things have gone very well so far. “There are clotheslines full of letters running the entire length of the back wall,” she says. “I’m going to get binders with plastic sleeves for more. Right now we’re at 500-some letters.”

The letters are full of just the kind of expansive idea of love Shevin was after. “People, right out of the gate, are doing what I hoped—really expanding the idea of love. It’s really an intimate view of our community. The further afield and the more inclusive people get about what love is and what a love letter is, the more romantic love letters are almost in the minority. Which is kind of what I was hoping would happen.”

The recipients of all that good will are a varied lot. “Parent to child and child to parent are huge,” says Shevin. Other objets d’amour include pets, famous musicians, people’s houses, and even foods.

Shevin offers a personal example she came up with while she was talking to a friend: “We realized that our first cassettes were the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, so my girlfriend and I wrote a letter to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. I think the further we go, the further people will take it.”

On Feb. 15, the project culminates in an evening of letter reading. Shevin explains that the plan includes the airing of a broad selection of letters, often read aloud by someone entirely different from the letter writer. That’s in part to offer anonymity.

Shevin says Brattleboro’s won’t be the last such event—she’s already spawned interest in similar events elsewhere. “I’m gushing.” she says. And in a way, that’s true. It’s clear that she’s tapped into some deep well of good vibrations that a lot of people want in on. Spending so many hours surrounded by expressions of love seems to have resonated well with Shevin, and with an idea so intuitively appealing, it could even be that she gets what she says she now wants most: “I wish I could find a way to do this for the rest of my life.”•

Author: James Heflin

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