In the Shetland Archive: letters to Jenny

Notes from my SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive

Jenny did not throw anything out. Ever. So her archive is full of letters, letters to her, carbon copies of letters from her, notes made from phonecalls in response to letters.

Here Arctic letters are full of description about the events in the settlements and pleas for more letters. As she returned from the Arctic and set up home in Exnaboe, she begins to move through her eighties. Here her letters become more fraught. Aware the clock is ticking, she desperately seeks funds to edit and finish the films she had been commissioned to make for the Museum of Man/Civilisation/History (it changes its name) in Ottawa about Inuit hunting and making kamiks. She doesn’t find the money and she dies in 1990, the films unfinished.

Frustrations and rejections: this is a large part of being someone who wants to create, particularly one who does it from the outside. That she didn’t throw anything out means these letters afford us a sense of the whole of her experience as an independent, self-funded filmmaker and as a woman, a wife, a mother and a friend.

InukchildlettertoJG.SMABut then, in the archive, comes moments of relief.  A pile of letters in a folder that are letters from her Inuit friends in Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord.

Some, tell of life’s struggles, babies born, weddings, deaths. But then, a run of letters from young girls – and young women – who continued to write to Jenny after she’d left the Arctic. I see myself in these young girls, listing the things they bought with money Jenny had sent them, telling her about how annoying boys are, wanting to write but struggling to find something to say.

And one, with something so simply done but so beautiful.

“here is incy wincey spiders hand. Nancy’s hand”

Jenny must have loved to receive that.


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