North Callaway School District Librarian Justin Hamm, who writes poetry and documents rural life through photography, will hold a gallery opening starting 2 p.m., July 14, at the Florence Meeks Atkins Gallery of Presser Performing Arts Center. The gallery show will be available through Aug. 11.
The gallery opening and poetry reading at Presser will focus on his newest book, “Midwestern.”
Originally from central Illinois, Hamm travels extensively presenting his photography and poetry, most recently at the Normal Public Library in Normal, Illinois.
“I’m really interested in the Midwest, and I’m interested in a lot of the things other people overlook,” he said.
Hamm shoots most of his photography in Missouri and Illinois, documenting structures such as barns, aging farm equipment and vehicles. “Things that remind us of the past of this region and things that hopefully will evoke an emotional response in the people who are seeing the pictures,” he said.
One of Hamm’s poems, “Goodbye, Sancho Panza,” also will be included in the curriculum of the World Scholar’s Cup this month. He will fly to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to speak about his poem. More than 140 countries participate in the World Scholar’s Cup and Hamm has received questions from students in India and Vietnam about his poem. Hamm was asked in May if he would be available to speak at the competition. He will spend nine days in the Netherlands, where he plans to participate in different aspects of the competition.
“Obviously, this is an enormous opportunity I’m really excited for,” he said.
Hamm will use the photographs he takes to generate inspiration for his poetry, which focuses on family struggles, working class people of the Midwest and landscape descriptions. His poetry and photography allows Hamm to explore Midwestern communities. It allows him a chance to slow down and experience where he lives and visits, he said
“The process of creativity is extremely valuable regardless of the end product,” he said. “I love being in front of people and sharing (my work).”
While “Midwestern” will be the focus of the photo gallery opening, Hamm plans to read poetry from his six collected works.
Teachers encouraged Hamm to study poetry at an early age, sparking his passion for the craft.
“Whereas some kids turn their ear off when they hear poetry in school, I had the opposite reaction to that. My teachers introduced me to it,” he said.
Hamm’s degree is in creative writing. He wrote poetry through high school and college, but published short stories after graduation. He returned to poetry approximately 10 years ago, and he’s continued writing poetry ever since, he said.
“It just seems like what I have to say as a writer, fits that form really well. That tends to be the best format for that,” he said.
His work in photography began as a way to inspire poems. Family and friends suggested that Hamm incorporate it into a book and sell prints after they saw his photography.
Hamm wants to show that the Midwest is more than what is sometimes described as flyover territory when he writes poetry and takes pictures.
“My work kind of sets out to say, ‘Wait a minute. There’s lots of things to look at out here and there is lots of human drama out here in the Midwest.’ It’s definitely not flyover country. This is the stuff that makes literature and art,” he said.
Hamm’s first gallery opening was at the now-closed Craft Beer Cellar in Columbia. The show ran for a couple months. After his show at Presser, he will present his work at the Mississippi River Gallery in Hannibal, before traveling to Yankton, South Dakota, where he will perform a reading and present a portion of his “Midwestern.” show.
Hamm also is an educator. He has served as the district librarian and media specialist for the North Callaway School District for the past 15 years. He helps run a student literary magazine. “I try to be an advocate for kids to write and to give them an outlet through publishing it,” he said.
He also assists art class students when they are learning about photography. He also coordinates a yearly poetry contest through the Auxvasse Creative Arts Council and works as a liaison between the council and the school district.
Hamm recently has started creating photographic collages. He started doing collage work, because it is something different and keeps from getting into a rut with his photography and writing, he said.
“I always want to try some other thing. I guess I have a restless sense of creativity. You can’t stick with the same thing all the time,” he said. “I don’t take the collages too seriously, but I like to make them and share them because I get joy out of it, even if I don’t really plan on doing something big with those.”