A writer, artist and anthropologist, Dana Walrath, likes to cross borders and disciplines with her work. After years of using stories to teach medical students at University of Vermont’s College of Medicine, she turned to writing her own. Her award winning verse novel, Like Water on Stone, was completed during the year she spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia. Her graphic memoir series, Aliceheimer’shas brought her throughout North America and Eurasia to speak about the role of comics in healing including talks at TEDx Battenkill and TEDx Yerevan. Her recent essays have appeared in Slate and Foreign Policy
I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina but my parents moved us back to New York City before I could even hold my head up. Like all young primates, I started out using my eyes and hands long before I began to use words. Reading came late—when it did I was crazy for books. The windows of my childhood bedroom were high and faced the street. After I was tucked in for the night, I would stand in my bed and read by streetlight. Still, unlike most writers, I never kept a journal or wrote a story or poem in grade school. Instead, I was always outside running or climbing or sledding or drawing or making something with my hands.
As a young New Yorker at Barnard College, Columbia University, I continued to avoid writing, and split my courses between visual arts and biology: painting with Milton Resnick, printmaking with Tony Smith, and lab work on the eye-brain connections of zebrafish. My oil paintings and intaglio prints were abstractions inspired by natural and biological forms of all scales. I was equally drawn to imagery seen under the microscope, and the sweep of the earth’s surface particularly when it has been worked and touched by humans for millennia.
A teaching thread in my life began when, fresh out of 10th grade, I landed with my family in Taiz, Yemen, and was promptly hired to teach 6th and 7th grade science and math at Yemen’s first experiment in bilingual co-education. More teaching continued out of college as an artist in residence for the Dobbs Ferry New York Public Schools, and as a Biology Lab Instructor at Barnard. As a young mother struggling to find time to make art, I decided to get “practical” (I know!) and wrote a dissertation on the anthropology of childbirth to earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Anthropology—a discipline all about connections between every facet of being human— welcomed art and science and unlocked the creative writing door for me.
Since moving to the mountains of Vermont with my husband and three sons in the summer of 2000, I’ve used stories and art to teach medical students at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine. Creative writing and artwork was done mostly during hours stolen from sleep and squeezed between other responsibilities. The balance tipped toward creative work shortly after my mother, Alice, and dementia moved in with us. Alice had always wanted me to be a doctor. When she stood in my kitchen in early 2008, admiring the cabinet knobs I had hand painted and said, “You should quit your job and make art full time,” I listened, and I haven’t looked back. When Alice lived with us, I had the great pleasure of earning an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I love margins and edges and always look to cross borders and boundaries.