English Education major, Dany Batchelor, shares her love for Greeley through her iconoclastic writing on her Instagram (@letters_2_strangers)
Hi my name is Dany Batchelor, I’m a sophomore here at UNC majoring in English education, getting my endorsement in culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms. On campus I work in the Office of Admissions as a tour guide and as a gear shop attendant at Outdoor Pursuits. I’m also a producer with Operation Cheesecake.
I learned recently in one of my English classes, this term Iconoclast. Now broken down into its
simplest definition it means “image breaker” so someone who attacks institutional beliefs (in
history they were known to have destroyed religious images and political structures and things like that.) And they deconstructed these institutions by just naming the injustices they represented. For example, during the French Revolution, iconoclast protesters attempted to destroy all the symbols their old government represented and there have been plenty of other examples of iconoclast figures in history that we’re familiar with but have never been defined as iconoclast, like revolutionary Egyptians who scratched out the image of recently deceased Pharaohs, all the way to Martin Luther King Jr and the Black Lives Matter movement today.
Now in art, an iconoclast deploys the same tactics (of exposing truths and reflecting reality) to
convey a message... But what message? With most revolutionary iconoclasts that I mentioned before question is kind of easy, they call out society in hopes that it will change. As my English professor Dr. Kraver put it in her lecture, “an iconoclast artist emphasizes the authenticity of human experience through honesty and rawness,” but this is the means… the rhetoric if you will… the message is still entirely up to the artist.
Now I have a problem with this. And the problem stems from the use of the phrase “authenticity
of the human experience” From what I got from Dr. Kraver’s lecture and (admittedly) my long
winded google search in preparation for this podcast, an iconoclast can only exist in a world with conflict, and that any authentic portrait of the human experience must focus on such tensions.
Now I’m not saying the human experience is devoid of conflict, after all we have history books
full of wars and genocide and manipulation and colonization and all of those things prevail into
our everyday lives in some way. To say we authentically live in consistent agreement would be
libel on my part. But, I think the inherent issue with the iconoclast perspective is that’s all
they reflect of the human experience. Yeah, we are angry and ignored and put in pain as humans
and it’s important to call out those injustices, but we are also bored and confused and sometimes
just blank and I think the disregard are these unprofound states of being is a serious disservice
to human kind.
At least, that’s the message I want to convey in my iconoclast exercises. Which I have no way of
knowing is appropriate for the definition, which I realize totally destroys my credibility as a speaker but I’d like to be totally clear with you on that. I would have asked Dr. Kraver in class, but anyone who’s been lucky enough to study with her will know that she flits around class like excited eyes on a page, and it can be difficult to get a word in. Besides, I like watching her in class, she’s one of those teachers whose passion for their content shines through, which is something I’ve always admired (and I’m not just saying that because she gives me my grade.) Often times I’ll get lost in her ramblings and then
all of a sudden, the class is pulled into reality from the sounds of notebooks slapping closed and
the zipping of bags. And just as everyone shuffles away, I’m used to overhearing an inescapable
conversation between friends, that usually goes a little something like this:
So what’d you do this weekend?
Oh nothing, I stayed in Greeley
Oh, I’m sorry.
Oh yeah it’s whatever, I was gonna head out of town next weekend, there’s nothing to do
Yeah Greeley is pretty boring
This conversation is what has inspired my writing project. Letters to Strangers is an anonymous
art project where I write letters and draw pictures in public settings about how I feel and what I
notice. These letters are then folded tightly and left for someone, anyone to find. I started this
project mid-June 2019 because I was in a writing block. I was so concerned with people noticing
I was smart and profound and the pressure I put on myself to create for approval weighed me
down into inactivity. The idea was given to me by my friend Ben Peyton (I’ll give credit where
it’s due.) He told me that I had to find my reason for writing without an audience. I liked his idea because it allowed me to send something out into the world and accept that my words were not
going to be meaningful for everyone. Letters to Strangers gave me a new freedom to express
myself without the stress of being perceived. And then I started collecting them in this Instagram page and people could find them and follow me and ask questions and I started creating this weird community and where I went with my prose transformed me into an iconoclast before I even knew the phrase meant.
So would you mind sharing some of the iconoclast archives?
Yes, absolutely. So here's my profile letters to strangers, and in the bio, the description, I just write how much can be shared and then it has a little icon that says Greeley, Colorado. Right now I have 40 followers, which is impressive for me and around 70 posts. Here we'll go down to the beginning. You can see these first couple ones. I, I don't have any art attached to it. Um, I didn't start drawing until way later. Cause I, I figured and it started with, with these, um, portraits of music that I was listening to while I was writing it. And I could just draw like the screen on my phone of what the music looked like and I was hoping that people would, you know, listen to these songs and find something new or something that they've never heard before and it would kind of go along with the tone of what I was writing about.
Yeah, kind of bring them into the environment that you were
So where, where did you begin writing these or drawing in these? Which one came first?
So the writing came first and I was just drawing from my own personal like notebook and then I decided to bring them together on a trip to California. Um, but I started writing the letters just here at UNC this summer while I was working as a tour guide. And the first one I left was in the campus commons right by those windows.
Like up on the second floor?
Yeah. Do you want to hear it?
Alright, so this is the very first one. So I didn't really know where I was going with it yet. Um, and to be honest, the handwriting is a little atrocious, which my mom has commented on many times. She follows the page.
That's just love.
It is, it is. So this was written June 17th, 2019:
Dear stranger, have you ever noticed how there's a melody to some people's footsteps? I remember when I was a kid, I would drag my feet. I can see myself walking through the slick Bump free floors of home Depot dragging my feet with relentlessly lazy fluidity till finally my sister commanded me to stop. The sound was annoying her. So I stopped and in turn decided to also be annoyed by the people who dragged their feet. Now I hear the scuffed riff of footsteps around me and a conditioned headache creeps into remind me hardly anything comes from my own perception of the world. It's always what someone else thinks, how someone else feels or reacts. The only reason I walked when I was a kid with both feet on the ground like a magnet gliding was because I had attached some subtle identity to the way the walk looked. I thought it looked cute and effortless all at seven years old. And I always seek out approval, not from everyone, just the people whose opinions I weighed. I'd seek out mentors and older friends who teach me about life and listen to my stories and encouraged my writing and I never felt like there was anything wrong with that. I was proud even of my ability to seek out help and validation. Lately though, I've come to the realization that without that validation, I can't trust in myself. I'll write something down and won't let myself be proud of it till someone else tells me it's good. Or if they tell me I'm bad or it needs work, I'll depress into an intense writer's block till the next comment of encouragement comes along. But I don't want to drag my feet any longer and I'm tired of waiting for someone else to tell me how I should feel or what I should do. So I'm going to write and I'm going to release it and I'm not going to worry how you perceive this because after all, you're just a stranger who happened to sit in the same place I did. And why should I care what you think?
Ooh, I liked that ending. Do you have, uh, a certain notebook that you're taking these pages from?
So I started out in a notebook that my sister gave me and it's, it's small, you know, it's just like maybe as big as a hand, which I liked that cause it, you know, it's subtle, it's not too much writing. It's easy to be, you know, perceived I think. And then I ran out of pages and I started writing on lined paper or flyers that people gave me. So, um, there's a lot of different mediums. I even wrote one in the gym on the whiteboard in the, um, the group fit room at one time. Yeah. And it was just short. But yeah,
It's just a little message whenever you have the chance and youre able to share. Do you find some, some, almost therapeutic practice when doing these?
Absolutely, yes. I, I can't even explain how, how different I feel about where I am and what I'm feeling after I've written one of these letters.
Is there ever a time where you, you finish one and you say, no, I'm not happy with that because these seem like, you know, I don't want to say disposable, but you're not holding onto these. So are you, are you proud with every single one?
Yes. Yes. But it took a lot of work to get to that place and especially with the drawing because that was something that was really new to me,
And super vulnerable. And so I would set out to write a letter and I'm like, this is what I want to talk about. This is where I'm sitting right now. Let me just draw what's in front of me and then I'll look and I'm like, this is gross. This is a bad drawing. And I can express that. And that's what feels so good about it. Like, I can express on the page that like I don't like the way that this looks, but I'm going to send it out anyway. And through the process of writing about it and just being honest, my perception of that drawing or that prose that I've just written down changes,
It seems like a release. And I feel like, especially like in school, we almost have to always give our best because we're looking for that grade. But there's no grade here. It's just the satisfaction of you being able to release these, these ideas and thoughts and observations onto a piece of paper for strangers.
Right. And there's something so validating about that, especially because I'm not receiving anything back.
Yeah. That's great. So have you received anyone like, following you based on finding these letters?
Yeah, actually I've only had one interaction.
So far, so far. Here, let me read the letter that she responded to. Um, it's pretty short. It's just, you can see just on this little scrap of paper that I found:
Dear stranger, this moment feels like a reset. I'm in limbo, trapped, cozy between endless periods of rapid unconsciousness, the promise of busy beginnings and my deep desire to create slowly this whole week has passed by with no moments of mindful reflection, equal parts, mundane and mind consuming. But I sit here now, really truly now, enthralled by the beauty of my own hand and the shadow it casts on this table. If anything, I'm proud of my ability to come back from romantic projections to bad date stories, gullible optimism to cautious resilience and loving self rapport to formidable misunderstanding. I always come back. What do you need to come back to? Take this as a welcome invitation. I promise you have all you need.
Now, I wrote this the very first week of school right after I got back from this trip and I left it at Margie's, and it was funny because I was sitting in one of these square tables that they have in there. And afterwards I was doing my homework and just, you know, all this busy work that I had to do. And finally a booth opened up. And so I left the letter on that square table and I moved to the booth. And then right after I left, the woman who received this letter, I saw her and I got to see her, read it and see her follow me. And I could just like, I just like noticed her and her reaction to receiving this letter and it felt so good. It felt like a secret, you know? But something that was like really magical.
Now I could just sit down and reflect on where I was and how I felt about it and how I felt about
feeling about it, all for this faceless recipient, but really it was for me. And once I started sharing
all the tiny things I had once cast away as insignificant I realized the power in simply naming
something. It didn’t have to be bad or profound or important, it just was and it felt revolutionary.
All of a sudden I find myself in relationship with my surroundings. My walk to class isn’t just a
walk to class because I hold my own story about the faces I see on my way there. A casual coffee
break at Margies isn’t just coffee because the effects of the espresso force me into embodiment.
A long day at work isn’t just a long day at work, because I have the ability to attach personal
significance to my service. Commonplace occurrences that rarely find their way into the world of
fine art and yet they hold significance simply because they are a part of what it means to be
human. Through written self reflection and release my experience with Greeley went from
insignificant to one of the most important relationships with home I’ve ever had.
And after that, any passive comment I overheard about this town felt like a personal offense. I
mean, how could they say such things like “boring” when they haven’t spent time in the Kress
blanketed in pre-recorded jazz music and the smell of popcorn as they sit expectantly in their
velvet thrown awaiting their 8$ movie, or by night descend into the Speakeasy where a UNC
student plays piano and plenty of faces greet you as the hostess leads you through the secret
door. How could anyone say “Greeley has nothing to do,” when they could casually step into
Cranford’s every Wednesday night and watch round old men pick the Blues with their puffy
fingers on delicate mandolins, or visit Luna’s Taco’s on a Tuesday night when the booths are
full and the line chefs belt Mariachi from the kitchen. And how could anyone say “Greeley is
ugly” when they haven’t visited Glenmere park where the cicadas scream the song of summer
and where the lake freezes over in the winter for ducks to walk along like students on their way
to class. I just don’t get it.
I know Greeley can seem boring, especially when we compare it to other college towns like
Denver or Boulder, but I’m asking you to not shy away from that feeling. Delve in and explore
your mundane significance with this strange town and know that you are experiencing the
essential qualities that make us human, because as long as we’re asking the iconoclasts, your participation and attention to those realities is one of the most important things you can do.
If you want to read more, you can follow me on Instagram at letters_2_strangers
Ben Peyton and Amaya Arevalo – Alice in Wonderland
Ben Peyton and Amaya Arevalo – Dear Old Stockholm