Making Silence Visual

Molly Williams and her stunning artwork
Molly Williams and her stunning artwork

The students in my class, The Sounds of Silence: A Biodiversity of Mute and Quiet Women in a World of Brutal Noise,* made silence visual. Molly Williams painted a deeply affecting image of a crucified nightingale. She depicts “violently imposed silence such as Philomela’s, God imposed silenced such as the case with Teresa de Cartagena, and self-imposed silence seen with Julian of Norwich.”

As Molly explains, “The thread woven through the nightingale’s beak represents the violent silencing Philomela experienced as Tereus’ hands…The second symbol is the crucifixion, which represents fifteenth-century nun Teresa de Cartagena’s God imposed silence….The symbol of the cross is representative of the self imposed silence of Julian of Norwich.” Molly chose to “represent these silences above all others because they were the most striking and poignant to me.” To the entire class and me as well! Thank you, Molly!

* This is the course description:

This course looks at silent women, quiet women, and mute women. Sometimes their hush is self-imposed, other times it is violently forced upon them. Passing, they erase their race and gender orientation. Yet, even with their tongues cut out, women speak. Sexually violated, they insist on their story. Enslaved, they shape their ends. Philomela—raped and mutilated—survives as a mythic emblem of female voicelessness. Some texts we look at are modern novels that tell the stories of women denied their chance at speech—in feminist versions of Homer’s Odyssey, Beowulf, and Jane Eyre. In a variety of texts –from Roman myth, Icelandic saga, and medieval religious sign language texts to a cross-dressed female knight, victimized wife, and deaf nun—we will attempt to hear these quiet voices from the past and rowdily proclaim their vibrancy for their future.


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