There are various ways to access the history of a village like Norwich. It’s easy if you’re a student at the Marion Cross School, because Norwich history is a part of the curriculum there. New residents, on the other hand, can drop by the Norwich Historical Society (NHS), examine the maps and exhibits, and purchase a copy of Norwich, Vermont: A History. In the summer, NHS offers historical walking tours around the village. Visitors (and residents!) can learn more by listening to a historical podcast as they cruise the back roads of Norwich. Now, as supplements to the school curriculum and podcasts, there are four new illustrated histories of our town – a creative collaboration between artist Emily Zea, NHS Director Sarah Rooker, and retired Marion Cross School teacher Wendy Thompson.

The first step in Zea’s artistic process: a thumbnail sketch

Zea, who grew up in Norwich, credits her elementary school art teacher, Tracy Smith, with the inspiration to become an artist. “I still have a lot of the projects from her classes. I turned one watercolor flower that I completed in class into stationary,” Zea says. After high school and college, Zea returned to the Upper Valley and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Along with a passion for art, Zea grew up in a family that valued history. “During my childhood, my parents worked at many different museums. My brother and I were raised as ‘museum kids’,” she says.

Since she earned her master’s degree in 2020, Zea has created two illustrated town histories along with several pocket-sized history guides. One guide is about engraving a powder horn (a personal piece of equipment that held black musket powder and was worn by the owner), which includes the art process that goes into making them and the museums with the best collections. According to Zea, “Powder horns were used to tell the stories of their owners… It is fascinating to discern their stories through the pictographs they carved.” She also developed a New England graveyard art pocket guide that can be used to decipher the meaning of all the art carved into gravestones. “Every carving is purposeful and has a significant meaning,” she says. “With this pocket guide, you can learn even more about the people buried in our small-town plots, what was important to them, and what kind of lives they led.” At the end of the day, Zea admits that she is more of an artist than a historian. “But my love for history is undeniable!” she says. “I love using my art to teach myself about new topics.”

The next step in Zea’s process in pencil (shown here) followed by pen and ink

In 2019, Zea, Rooker, and Thompson brainstormed topic ideas for a series of illustrated histories of Norwich. Entitled The Early Years and Rivers and Mills, they were created to be podcast companions for two of the NHS driving tours. Next, they matched up several critical issues in the world today with events in Norwich’s history.

“We wanted to share more about Abenaki history than the fact that they were simply here before us,” says Rooker. “In the histories, we talk about how the Abenaki people and the first settlers from Connecticut interacted with and supported one another. We also wanted to have stories of women and people of color. That’s why we focused on the stories of Lucy Terry Prince and Lydia Brigham.” In Norwich Town Meeting and The Women of Norwich: Change Makers, the focus is on civic duties. “We had so many new people coming to town during Covid,” Rooker adds, “that town meeting might be a new concept for some people.”  

Along with introducing newcomers to local history, the illustrated histories connect to topics taught at Marion Cross. “It’s been a perfect way to get kids excited about history,” says Zea. “The graphic histories provide visual information while one is reading and create two different avenues to get the topic across at the same time. It makes history very accessible.”

Several steps were involved in the process of creating the illustrated histories. First, Rooker and Thompson selected topics and a script was outlined. Next, Rooker created digital folders with historical photos for Zea, who selected the information that would best translate visually on the page. The illustrations of architecture, geography, and clothing had to be carefully drawn. “Every little detail had to be historically accurate,” says Rooker.

Zea drew a thumbnail sketch for each page. Then she edited the page so the image and text fit together. From there, Zea made pencil drawings of each page, followed by a pen-and-ink version. She then scanned the drawings and incorporated the text. Zea admitted that she faced several challenges, and the photos were difficult to draw. “Transportation with the interstate took a long time,” she says. The two-page drawing contained a rope ferry, railroads, and bridges. As Zea points out, “It’s a mix of times. But when you read it, it goes in order.” Some of the histories took six to nine months to complete. The Rivers and Mills booklet took a year.

Zea’s final product for page 19 of Norwich, Vermont: A History.
Zea’s final product for page 19 of Norwich, Vermont: A History.

The overriding goal for all of the illustrated histories is to encourage students and newcomers to get involved and engaged in Norwich. According to Rooker, the histories are designed to build “a strong sense of place and attachment to the community… When you become more involved you become more attached, so it’s circular.” Knowing the history “creates a tighter, more cohesive community,” Rooker points out. “We all want to feel like we belong and these books are geared for that.”

To follow up on this theme, at the end of each history booklet there is a page that offers ideas on how to become more involved in the community. Rivers and Mills suggests you go canoeing on the Connecticut River and imagine what it would have been like when the area was largely a wilderness. In The Early Years history, readers are encouraged to find Norwich’s town charter – signed by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth – at Tracy Hall.

Talking to Zea and Rooker underscores that the creation of the illustrated histories was much more than a simple art history project. “I do think it’s an incredible story,” Rooker says, “about a youth growing up in our community as an artist and coming full circle and helping others connect to the town. Zea has a strong sense of place, as you can see in her drawings”

“My mom was very involved in the history of our town,” notes Zea. “And it’s important for me to continue that work.” Zea’s mother, Kim King Zea, was a curator at NHS and championed the move to Lewis House as a new home for the society in 2003. Rooker appreciates the connection.  “There’s something very special about having Zea working on projects at the historical society. It feels good to continue the history of Norwich with her. It feels good having her here.”

Zea’s illustration with the original print from NHS archives

Soon all four illustrated histories will be assembled into one book. In addition, later this spring a new exhibit at Norwich Historical Society will display all the drawings, showing the steps that Zea went through to create the histories, as well as the artifacts and archival documents that were used in the research, writing, and drawing.