Brownsville Elementary fifth grader Brenna Lafave won 1st Honorable Mention in the grade 3-5 section of the 35th annual Writer’s Eye event, a poetry and prose writing competition put on by the Fralin Museum of Art at UVA. A popular contest that draws students from schools in Albemarle, Charlottesville, and surrounding counties, Writer’s Eye offers part of the museum’s art collection as a jumping-off point for creative writing.
For the competition, special museum docents give participants a guided tour of nine works of art, from which they can select one as inspiration for a poetry or prose submission. For Brenna, a small detail caught her attention. “We came to this room, and it had prints, black and white prints and drawings,” she said. “There was a picture about a philosopher and his air pump and there was a bird in it. And everyone was talking about the people in the painting, but I wanted to know about the bird. What is the bird’s point of view of getting put in an air pump?”
The artwork was a 1769 painting by British artist Valentine Green depicting a group of ten people surrounding a contraption with a glass enclosure that holds a bird pressed against the side with its wings outstretched. All of the figures are adults except for a young girl who gazes up at the experiment with an expression of worry. Though the scene is painted in black and white, Brenna said she immediately saw it in color.
“I just pictured it with color—the women had hair that was blonde or brunette, and I pictured them with dangling earrings and makeup,” she said. “In my mind, it was color.” In her prose piece, Brenna added color to all of the figures’ clothing, and she imagined a flashback scene where the bird and its friends watched colorful humans from the their “favorite perch of a sweet-smelling peach tree.”
“I wanted to give it some movement and some color and maybe emotion,” she said.
Brenna infused her writing with descriptors that conveyed those emotions, as when she described a man near the little girl as speaking “through clenched teeth, he looked like a doberman about to strike,” The girl, whom she named Donatella, had her “hands balled into fists [as they] rested on her orange lace dress.” Brenna wove a tight web of psychic connections between the characters. “I wanted to make it sort of about the girl and the bird,” she said. “I wanted to feel like the bird was mirrored in the girl. She was being bossed by her father—he was leaning over her and being oppressive while the bird was being pressed by this air pump.”
Brenna said she enjoyed the experience and plans to try submitting to Writer’s Eye again in the future. “Well, I like to write,” she said. “I don’t write all the time, but it’s a hobby. Pouring my emotions into a piece of paper, it helps me definitely bring things out.” She said she didn’t feel competitive about participating in Writer’s Eye. “This was my mindset at the time: it doesn’t matter if I win or lose,” she said. “I wanted to get my work out there, and I just thought it was something I wanted to do. It was for self-enjoyment.”
The experience was made possible by Brenna’s teacher, Susan Greenwood, who, because of the county’s current prohibition on field trips due to pandemic protocols, offered to take the eight students who were interested in Writer’s Eye to the museum on a Saturday. “We all met at the Fralin and we had our tour, and then they wrote down some quick ideas, or ‘blips,’ while we were still there,” said Greenwood. “I had packed a picnic, and we walked over to UVA and saw the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers and walked around and danced and laughed and played. And it was a really fun Saturday.”
Greenwood made only light editorial suggestions to her students’ submissions and didn’t wordsmith or correct all punctuation. “There were a couple of instances that we sort of moved things around a bit, just to make something flow a little easier,” she said. “We can share the documents on Google and I can see what they are doing, but I was mostly hands off. I wanted [the submissions] to be their own authentic writing. I think sometimes when you’re 10 or 11, it’s hard to trust your talent, and this [competition] gives them a chance to do that.”
Brenna’s writing, Greenwood said, reflects her spirit. “Brenna is new to Brownsville this year and she is this really cool soul who is expressive and feels a lot,” said Greenwood. “Writing is her vehicle to get it out. Everyone has a writing journal and if there’s anything going on with them, I encourage them to write it down, and she does and it works for her. She reads a lot, so her vocabulary is quite extensive, and her language is very flowy and descriptive—it’s sort of like an ocean wave, it goes up and down and you’re going on this little journey with her.”
Greenwood said it felt good just to be doing a familiar thing with the students. “With the pandemic, the last couple years have been so weird, so abnormal,” she said. “And I felt like, let’s go do something that maybe we were used to doing before, like going to the museum, because that used to be a fifth-grade field trip every year.”
And how about spending a Saturday with your students? “That’s the fun stuff,” she said. “That’s like the ice cream on top of the cake.”
“Bird’s Perspective” by Brenna Lafave
1st Honorable Mention, 2021 Writer’s Eye Competition
I never knew that it would end. . . Well, at least not like this. I am surrounded by humans and have probably broken Skyra law and order number one, never communicate or come near human beings. These humans aren’t like the ones my two friends and I would watch from our favorite perch of a sweet smelling peach tree. There were women dressed in satin dresses and had curly hair pulled into neat knots at the back of their heads, long hooped earrings hung from their ears. They had charming voices and their eyes and lips were heavily laden in what looked like colorful fruit juices. The men had long white curly hair, wrinkles under their tired eyes, and they had high collars with blue cloaks. I violently shifted in the cage, fluttering my wings and pecking at the glass. A man and a woman on the left side of the wood table exchanged guilty looks. The man beside my glass prison had a green coat and tan pants. He had a pinched face and beady eyes. He yelled something and a man in the back of the room who looked worn out and beat came out. “Bring forth the air pump!” He yelled, his eyes still on me. I heard a loud sniff from the right and turned to see a little girl with blonde hair and blue eyes was looking at me. I saw her mouth silently say “let the little bird have mercy”. Tears poured down her rosy cheeks, her pink lips quivering. “Donatella, don’t cry-”The man with the green coat said through clenched teeth, he looked like a doberman about to strike. “Or maybe I should never have let you come.” A snide expression crept across his face. “No I can handle it, father.” Donatella said. She gave her father a fierce look. “Robert, please don’t start right now.” Said a woman next to Donatella. That must be her mother! I thought. “As you wish, Calista,” the man named Robert said. Donatella’s hands were balled into fists and rested on her orange lace dress. Suddenly a scuffling came from behind me and an instrument was lifted up by Robert’s servant. It was a pipe with what looked like a nozzle was attached. I felt a powerful suction pull at my wings. Suddenly I was being forced to the top of the prison. I was winded and the space started to feel smaller than before. I shrieked in outrage and my eyes watered. I wasn’t crying about the air pressure pushing at my eyes but, because I couldn’t breathe. I felt a crippling pain and I knew that this might be the end. Then I had a flashback of almost all the moments of my life. This is about the beginning.