Visuals: discovered!

I’m catching my breath after the Visual Discovery conference, where I tromped around Ohio, frantically photographed archival books, and recollected Ye Olde College Dayes by sleeping in a dorm.

I gave a talk!


I saw incredibly cool talks from Catherine Ma, Karl Gude, Michael Stoll, and more!


Then I got full-on obsessed with a theater restoration project in Shawnee, Ohio.


Let me explain.

Visual Discovery is a workshop-based conference for students. Attendees choose one of three themes, then split up into smaller teams. Each team creates a visual story over the next few days. I chose the theme of mining, and joined a team focused on the people, history, and culture of coal mining towns.

The larger mining group travelled around the Hocking Valley to see what used to be coal country. Along the way, we stopped in a town called Shawnee, whose main street has been largely abandoned:

Photo credit: Makayla Hughes

We also got to see the Tecumseh Theater, which was shuttered in the 1950’s and is currently under restoration.


Our itinerary listed Shawnee as a ghost town, but people still live there. (A schoolbus full of children emptied onto the main street while we were looking around, as if to prove the point.) So my team called ourselves the Ghostbusters, and decided to make a website about Shawnee’s past and present. We profiled three residents of the Hocking Valley, traveling from the coal boom to the present. We also told the story of the Tecumseh Theater, which reflects the town’s boom, bust, and hopes for the future.

We spent Friday exploring, Saturday researching, and Sunday creating, so that we could share our visual stories bright and early on Monday. It was amazing to discover what we could do in a day—and humbling to discover what we couldn’t.

We all contributed to the website, and Norbert Fosu made a great video timeline of the theater. (I do want to note that the theater was built by an organization with a racist name. We use that name in the website for the sake of accurately reporting the past, but the name was wrong then and it’s wrong now.) I contributed this infographic:


Far from perfect, but not terrible for a day’s work!

Here’s what I learned along the way:

  • Perspective and passion served us far better than neutral distance. Outsiders continually framed Shawnee as a ghost town, but two of our team members knew better. One had grown up near Shawnee, and hated that the town was treated as a relic instead of a living place. She tried to tell the larger mining group that Shawnee was not a ghost town, but the message never seemed to stick. Her ties to the community inspired our project. As an outsider, it was easy to accept the ghost town framing, but Amelia and Grace knew better.
  • I can be replaced by a robot that repeats the following phrases: “it’s on Slack,” “have you checked the spreadsheet?” and “can you be more specific?”

    Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 8.34.52 PM
  • Delegating focus and flexibility worked. Four team members focused almost entirely on a specific part of the project: Mikayla created the website, Norbert worked on the video, Bailey made a beautiful illustration of Main Street, and I made the infographic. The other four team members took on lots of shorter tasks, handled unforeseen issues, and took advantage of the great ideas that always show up at the last minute. Without the focused team members, we wouldn’t have the more ambitious parts of the project; without the flexible team members, the project never would have made it online.

    Team Ghostbusters in the zone. Photo credit: Lara Thiel
  • ARCHIVES ARE REALLY COOL. There. I said it. You can shove me in a locker now.

    THIS TABLE, THOUGH. (From An Empire of Industry: Hocking Valley Mining in the Gilded Age, by Ian Tribe
  • Pile sand in the sandbox before you build your castle. We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do until Saturday evening. If we had waited to have the perfect idea before researching, we never would have made anything. Instead, we cast a broad net, researched everything, and then slowly filtered down to what we actually wanted to use.
  • Done is better than perfect. Here is the first vector illustration I made for the infographic, at the start of the day:Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 8.03.57 PM

    I can see a few spots that I didn’t color correctly or my lines went astray, but generally, not bad!

    Aaaaand here’s the last illustration I made, as my deadline sprinted towards me:

    Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 8.04.35 PM

    Yikes! That’s a mess. Regular-Alyssa would refuse to share anything that sloppy. However, conference-Alyssa had thirty minutes left before her deadline and knew that the illustration in the infographic would be really, really small. Conference-Alyssa got it done. (Regular-Alyssa is going to redo it, though.)

  • Whatever I’m doing, I’m probably not the first. We were able to make the website because lots of other people before us were passionate about preserving the history of Shawnee and sharing their stories. The Little Cities of the Black Diamond archive and the Shawnee, Ohio Facebook page were invaluable resources. It’s fun to think of yourself as a trailblazer, but it’s way better to acknowledge the work of others and build on what already exists.

I’m going to keep working on this graphic now that Visual Discovery is over: it desperately needs a mobile-friendly version, I’m dying to do something with the stenciling on the walls of the theater, and I know way too much about strikes and depression in the 1890s to let it go. I just have to catch up on my homework first!

Ghostbusters, OUT:


The team:
Bailey Feick
Norbert Fosu
Makayla Hughes
Amelia Myers
Jonathen Sweeney
Lara Thiel
Grace Wolfe

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