Project news

The Slow Read lecture at Kenyon College

This past week I gave a ‘Mesaros Lecture’ at Kenyon College, at the invitation of Ellen Sheffield who teaches book arts there. My lecture was titled ‘Kidnapped by Cather! How one novel hijacked eight years of an artist’s studio practice’. I spoke about the background to all the ‘Cather Projects’, the projects themselves ending with the Slow Read. It was a great audience, a combination of Kenyon Review-types and faculty/students from the art department, who engaged me in lively conversation during and after the lecture. The college is beautiful and special. I’m glad to have had a chance to visit and bring this project to their community.

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Tomorrow! September 21st, marks THE 100-year anniversary of My Ántonia

The specific ‘birthday’ of Cather’s novel, ie the date of its publication, is September 21st. Tomorrow marks the 100-year anniversary of its publication and many events have been scheduled to celebrate, including a marathon reading of the novel in Nebraska. If I can locate a live broadcast, I’ll post that here on the blog.

Read here for more information:

University of Nebraska-Omaha's 'Common Reader' Project

'My Ántonia' will be the focus of Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha's Common Reader project this year. The library has been a host of the Slow Read this summer and has asked for continued access as a part of this. Check out their website and await a repeat of the Slow Read!

Many bittersweet feelings as we enter the final Book and final Week of My Antonia

"Cuzak's Boys" is the final "Book" in My Antonia. Its a short and full of emotion. I found tears streaming down my face as I read the moment of reunion between Jim and Antonia. This as I stood with the early morning street people on the corner in St. Johns where one of the public monitors is situated. I diligently advance the file each day at this location (The Working Library) and so the Slow Read has become more than a ritual of reading, but a ritual of biking through the neighborhoods to St. Johns, and then hanging at my new favorite coffee shop, St. Johns Roaster, where the workers have learned my name and my coffee preference. I'll miss all of these things when this project ends on the 11th.

And fortunately/unfortunately I will be in Shanghai for the final week, giving a talk at the opening of Lu Jingren's 40-year retrospective. My first trip to China!

AND I just heard from the Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha which informed me that they have had a monitor set up in their Criss Library since June, just forgot to mention this. So the above image was sent by Todd Richardson, who is the angel who put together this site. Thank you, Todd and UN-O.


 The Slow Read at Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha / Criss Library

The Slow Read at Univ. of Nebraska-Omaha / Criss Library

From some readers in Germany...

Hi Barb,

We really love your Cather project. Peter’s copy of "My Ántonia“ (although from 1926, the New Edition from Houghton Mifflin) has exactly the same layout as the first edition.  So it’s great to go to your website while holding the real book in hands and seeing that it’s the same typeface and makeup. Our daily schedule doesn’t allow to do this every day as Linda Smith does, but pretty often we are doing the same here in the "Old World“ and are sharing her feeling of being aware that there are other readers in the world.

And, as Cather writes on today’s page 155: „… that seemed to bring the Old World very close.“

With a kiss on your hand we say good by

Peter and Ines  

p.s. find attached a proof about Peter’s copy, showing today’s pages 154-155:

Peter Malutzki     k und m design
Hauptstraße 39

65439 Flörsheim am Main

Telefon 06145. 544958


Mark your calendars! Lecture/event at PNCA Sunday, July 29th 7pm

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You're invited to join the Willa Cather Foundation and Portland-based artist Barb Tetenbaum for an evening celebrating the 100th publication anniversary of Willa Cather's novel My Ántonia. The event is free and open to the public.

Please see the information that follows or the attached poster for more details. I hope to see you there!

Who:  Barb Tetenbaum, creator of The Slow Read (a summer-long simulcast of My Ántonia) and Ashley Olson, Executive Director of the Willa Cather Foundation in Red Cloud, Nebraska

What:  An evening celebrating the 100th publication anniversary of My Ántonia with talks about the inspiration for My Ántonia, its ongoing relevance, and The Slow Read project.

When:  Sunday, July 29, at 7:00 p.m.

Where:  Shipley Collins Mediatheque at PNCA. 511 NW Broadway

This event is sponsored in part by The Oregon Arts Commission, The Oregon Community Foundation, RACC, The Willa Cather Foundation and the University of Lincoln-Nebraska.

Interview on Nebraska's All Things Considered on Thursday July 5

Tune in this Thursday July 5, to NET (morning and late afternoon spots) for an interview with Jack Williams, host of Nebraska public radio's All Things Considered. I was WAY more eloquent in speaking at the Cather conference last month, so you will hear much nervousness unless they did a good job editing it out!

Some of your comments this week

Thanks to an email that my friend Kathy Kuehn sent to her community, explaining why this slow reading of Cather's text has had an impact on her life, I've been receiving some inspiring comments in reply. Here is one from Portland artist, Linda Hutchins, who graciously has allowed me to share her comments with you:

Dear Barb,

Thanks so much for the prompt. I thought I was too busy for this but Kathy’s note made it sound doable so I decided to give it a try. I started this morning and of course I immediately got drawn in. I made it through June 13 today and expect to catch up with the rest of you soon so I can join you at the slow read pace for the remainder of the summer. My grandmother recommended My Antonia to me years ago and it’s easy to see why as I read it now.

I’m curious if others have commented on the rhythm of the 6 page daily quota? I have the oddest feeling of suspension when I find my click has taken me back to the first page of the day instead of on to the next. There I am in mid-sentence or even mid-word, fully anticipating the thread to continue spooling. Instead it abruptly pulls me back six pages. My sense of anticipation is replaced by a feeling of comfort and familiarity when I realize I’m now re-reading words I encountered just moments ago. The feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever gotten from reading before, and even after I repeated the scenario multiple times today, it still catches my breath. It’s almost a feeling of light-headedness - quite lovely, and addicting. I look forward to seeing how it changes when it happens only once a day, and I have to wait until the next day to continue.

Thanks again, Linda

Feedback from a reader

This came from Linda Smith, who gave me permission to post this on this website blog:

I have been a long-time Cather enthusiast since I began reading her about 20 years ago, and My Antonia has always been one of my favorites. I've followed along with your My Antonia project from its inception a number of years ago, after learning about it at one of your presentations at a College Book Art Association conference. Making the project participatory and public facing seems an inspired next step in your process. And as you've already noted, so many of the themes are still so relevant today.


I am loving the ritual of reading along each morning, knowing that there are others in the world doing the same. It's a wonderful way to begin the day. There's always a sense of anticipation about what the next day will bring, as readings often stop mid-sentence. I could, of course, go to my print edition of My Antonia to solve daily mysteries about what's next, but I don't want to "spoil" the daily, community ritual of reading the assigned pages, so I wait patiently for the next day's revelations. I find that I am falling in love all over again with My Antonia. Thank you, thank you for this project.



Thoughts on today's pages: June 18

I am enjoying Cather's subtle way of comparing cultures and showing how circumstances affect the way people behave. The linking of these two moments: the weather is a bit warmer and these two bulls start going at each other. As Cather relates, they would have torn each other to pieces if they had not been dehorned. Then it starts snowing again, the worst snow they've seen in ten years, and the family and the livestock are all stuck in their frozen homes. Otto makes some comment about the gathered herd and the ferocious bulls now warming each other's backs. "This'll take the bile out of 'em!". This scene comes directly after Antonia's mother comes over to visit the Burden's home, angry that no one is helping her family which is suffering from lack of food, warm shelter and farming knowledge. After she leaves, Jim is annoyed with the arrogance of her demands, but Jim's grandmother reminds him that no one knows what traits will emerge when people experience poverty.

Shared culture and culture clashing in the last two days of My Ántonia

As I wrote in a previous post, I feel like I'm reading this book for the first time. There are many details that I must have vaulted over in the past 8 years. Now that I'm reading these 6 pages each morning: there is much that appears new to me. Of course, I wouldn't have forgotten Cather's moment of scrap-booking that showed up today (Jim making a Christmas gift for Ántonia's sister Yulka) the description of which could make Martha Stewart smile. This particular section has the two families sharing parts of their culture with each other as a way of expressing thanks in the best way they know how. Some gifts are welcome, others such as the dried Bohemian mushrooms, don't make it past suspicious noses. The Christmas tree becomes a meeting point of the cultures represented: popcorn strung, gingerbread figures, Otto's treasured paper cutouts sent each year by his mother back in Austria. Mr. Shimerda's intense Catholic reaction when the tree was suddenly lit and Grandfather Burden's Protestant gesture of acceptance. Cather painted a picture of shared and colliding cultures, that could have taken more words to say.

The book showing us who we are each time we approach it.

An observation I've been having since launching the Slow Read: I've read My Ántonia over and over again for 8 years now and today's reading was nearly a total surprise to me. Isn't it odd that we are the ones who bring the meaning to these books we read? The text is fixed and the reader changes.

Salt Lake City kinda rocks!

Last night was so wonderful. People brought chairs to the evening's projection in Salt Lake City behind a couple hip restaurants off of 200 S. A few passersby stopped and - noticing a group of people reading text on the wall, realized they knew the novel. One person said 'that book was written bout people from my country' and sure enough, he was from Prague. After further interview, we realized we all live in Portland and then mentioning OCAC, turns out they are friends of Becca Biggs. Such a small world. After reading the 6 official day's pages, we decided to start at the beginning of the book and take turns reading aloud. This was fantastic. I know a family that is choosing to do the Slow Read this way, and now having experienced it, it was like being at church or at a Passover Seder.


Greetings from Red Cloud! Day 3 of the Slow Read



Day 3 / Red Cloud, NE

I'm typing from Red Cloud, Nebraska having just stepped off the podium at the 63rd Cather Spring Conference. I spoke about the background to the Slow Read and the 8 years of installations and printed work I have created in response to reading this novel.

The conference has been game-changing, not only for the Slow Read project, but for myself as an artist/teacher/human. This is a special group of people, definitely not limited to literary scholars. So much generosity of spirit in this group of 200+ attendees with their hearts firmly linked to My Ántonia and their work aimed at community and education.

The first day of the Slow Read surprised and delighted me: the first lines of the novel described exactly my experience: "Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa in a season of intense heat...." (it is quite hot here). Reading the 6 pages each day has allowed me to find meaning and inspiration that I can then walk away with and ponder. I'm liking this.

The Cather Foundation has installed two Slow Read monitors: one for day time visitors to the museum and one in the window to be viewed at night. In another week, over 500 BRAN (Bike Ride Across Nebraska) bicyclists will be staying overnight in Red Cloud. Knowing the revelry that can take place in the wee hours (I once did 1/2 a RAGBRAI) I'm imagining some strange interactions with the Slow Read!

I drove through and stayed overnight at Constellation Studios in Lincoln. The monitor looks beautiful in the front window of the gallery and faces the Spillway park which has its own Cather quotes embedded in the cement structures. CS is also a Pokemon Go site, so lets see if this grabs new readers! The monitor at the Love Library is also up and running and looks great.

Portland sites are also going. The Working Library in St. Johns, the Centrum at OCAC, the Library at PNCA and the reading room at PICA are all taking part.

Sunday I will drive through the Sand Hills to Alliance, NE (home of Carhenge) with the aim to project the Slow Read on a wall of a building while I'm there. Then on to Boulder, Vail, Salt Lake City and Boise to attempt other outdoor projections before returning to Portland.

AND the site host list is growing! This conference unearthed some new opportunities. I will post in another blog page as these are confirmed.

— Barb


Ready, get set...Slow Read

I'm packing for the Slow Read trip. I'll be driving my mom's car back from Chicago, stopping in Iowa City to see old friends before heading to Lincoln, NE (Constellation Studios, UN-L's Love Library and Union College will each be hosting a public site) and Red Cloud where I'll attend and present at the Cather Spring Conference. Then will begin outdoor projections of the Slow Read as I drive on to Alliance (home of Carhenge), Boulder, Vail, Salt Lake City and Boise. I'm excited and nervous. The Slow Read has been three years in the making and it all begins on the 30th. Follow along on your ipads, computer laptops, at a public site or a one-night pop-up event with the rest of the planet as we all read Willa Cather's 'My Ántonia' together.


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Synopsis of My Ántonia

My Ántonia is a story about life on the prairie in the late 1800s. It is told from the perspective of a young boy from Virginia who has moved to Nebraska to live with his grandparents on the family farm. He arrives on the same train as Ántonia Shimerda and her family; recent immigrants from Bohemia. The story spans their friendship from childhood to later adulthood. Nearly every incident in the novel is based on the author’s own experience growing up in Nebraska. Her text serves as a window to this time and place: the hardships experienced by immigrant people, small town life and the beauty of the land before the roads went in. 

Introducing the Slow Read

 The artist Barbara Tetenbaum began working with Cather’s novel while in residence at Reed College in 2010.

The artist Barbara Tetenbaum began working with Cather’s novel while in residence at Reed College in 2010.

An introduction to the Cather Projects; or, how one person can spend ten years reading one book.

In the summer of 2010 I spent a month in the gallery at Reed College in Portland, Oregon listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia. I had wanted to put myself in the position of a first-time reader and respond to the story however it moved me. I assumed I would draw directly on the walls as I listened and that this would be the basis for the exhibition. Instead I became amazed at the pure gorgeousness of Cather’s writing—in particular her descriptions of the landscape and the sky. I surrendered myself to her words, retyping sentences and paragraphs onto many scraps of paper and pinning them to the walls of the gallery or suspending them from fishing line for viewers to bump into. 

On the floor of the gallery I mapped out the novel using colored drafting and electrical tapes, assigning color or tape width to each character. The end result looked like a London Underground map and the room was a kind of exploded view of the novel. 

From this show, an artist book and a second installation were envisioned. The book served partly to take the Reed College experience and put it back into book form. The second installation, at Oregon College of Art and Craft, formalized some of the ideas that emerged in the making of both the original installation and the book. 

At OCAC I offered the visitor a chance to “see” the novel as though visiting a National Park memorial: Visitors first encountered a viewing platform overlooking the gallery. The orientation panel mounted on the platform contained lines of sight and texts explaining key moments in the novel. Cather’s story was mapped out with painted lines and text on the gallery floor and walls. Excerpts from the novel were printed on single folios of paper, mounted to bookstands placed at intervals on this large map. Visitors could wander over the map, chart a character’s path and read small excerpts as they became entwined in the story.