KNOXVILLE — One Johnson University student recently traveled to New York and took center stage as many of her poems were featured in a visual arts exhibition.
McKenna Estes, an English major at Johnson, was featured in an exhibition in downtown New York City that paired works of visual art with poetry from her original collection.
The event took place Oct. 20.
In an e-mail interview, Estes explained how the opportunity came about, describing how her uncle, Grayson Handy, approached her three months ago with the idea. He proposed the idea of having multiple visual artists choose one of her poems and create their own work inspired by the poem.
“After I agreed to the show, Grayson reached out to a variety of artists and asked them if they would like to be involved,” she said. “An overwhelming majority of the artists were eager to participate, and the show developed from there.”
The artists were not given context for what the poems were about other than what they read which Estes said led to great diversity within the event while maintaining that it left, “The only common denominator for the pieces to be the fact that they were all inspired by poems written by me.”
Estes spoke about the process of naming the event The Equivalent of the Scarred, which is the title of her larger collection from which all the poetry for the event was selected.
“The poems have different themes and were written about different experiences in my life, but they all center on the idea of invisible scars — invisible scars from emotionally charged experiences that left their mark on either me or those around me,” she said. “Although these experiences shaped me, and at times emotionally scarred me, they were not things that you could physically see or touch.”
McKenna’s mother, Kelly Estes, Director of Academic Support at Johnson, chimed in on the event.
“As a parent you always think your child is talented, but seeing the response to her work by well-known artists confirmed my thoughts about her work,”she said. “McKenna is very creative and I feel will use her talents to reach people in ways that others may not be able to reach.”
Kelly explained that this talent became obvious very early on in McKenna’s life when her second grade writing teacher encouraged her to explore her gift.
“McKenna gave me a writing assignment to read and she had used conversation between characters in her assignment,” she said. “I thought she had copied it from a book or from online.”
McKenna shared why she became interested in writing, and what has made it so important to her during the course of her life.
“The earliest poem in this collection was written when I was 15 years old. My life has been plagued by a lot of painful and difficult experiences, so poetry has always served as my outlet for sorting through those emotions in a safe place. Writing allows me to feel what I need to feel without worrying about other people’s opinions of what my struggle should look like.
I draw inspiration from a variety of mediums, ranging from imagery that I see that causes a certain line to form in my head to a conversation with my best friend to a story that I feel needs to be told, but my one constant is exposing the things that we too often hide and reveling in the uncomfortable.
I have learned throughout my life that within society there is a hesitation to recognize the ways that the most painful experiences from people and permanently alter them. Our culture has a tendency to only ever want to hear the good in people’s lives, distancing us from the things that are not easy. The times that we struggle are often the loneliest and that isolation we feel only exacerbates the situation. The lack of validation for some of the most important things people experience is what drove me to attempt to capture those emotions in a place that people can safely experience them and find support. The majority of the poems are written about my personal struggles, but suffering is a universal language no matter the catalyst. My biggest hope is that people discover pieces of themselves in my poems and that through them they recognize that their own struggles are valid and do not need to be tucked away just for the sake of others’ comfort.”
Despite the depth of her involvement in this event, Estes said that at first she only expected it to be, “an interesting project and a cool way to share my poetry with a community that I may not have reached otherwise.”
But in retrospect Estes described it as one of the best nights of her life.
“The event granted me an understanding that my message and my struggles are shared by others, and my work can be an impactful force upon them,” she said. “The opportunity to feel such a deep connection to complete strangers truly blessed me, and is something I will hold onto forever.”
Estes plans on continuing her work in some capacity after graduation but maintains that she is unsure of what that will look like.
“It could be through publishing, teaching, or even practicing law,” she said. “I also hope to write multiple types of books, but because I want to ensure that it is never corrupted as an emotional outlet, I never want creative writing to become something on which my livelihood depends.”
Photos taken by Kelly Estes