Emma Skurnick began recording her experiences in Bynum 25 years ago. Today, her collection of illustrated essays is a time capsule of the community’s history.
By Brooke Spach | Photography by John Michael Simpson
New York native Emma Skurnick first visited Bynum General Store in 1997. As she approached the historical building, she overheard several locals gathered on the storefront porch, swapping outlandish stories.
“Did you ever hear the one about the time I almost beat the [you-know-what] out of Santa Claus?” The late Roy Hatley’s story stopped her in her tracks. That story became the first of many colorful accounts Emma, a professional illustrator, brings to life in her book, “Becoming a Local – Letters from a Small Town.”
Other handwritten essays inside the book chronicle conversations and images Emma has noted from her experiences in the mill town since moving from San Francisco 25 years ago. She self-published the 121-page book last year, and it serves as a time capsule of sorts for a town’s “transition from one population, the old-timers, to the newcomers.”
Emma works out of her in-home studio in Bynum, where she lives along the Haw River with her husband, Jan Burger, co-founder of Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and daughter, Niko Skurnick, 8. Over time, Emma would hear stories from older neighbors when stopping to check the mailbox or walking along the narrow streets down to the river. “There was this definite feeling of preemptive nostalgia on my part,” she says. “I knew they weren’t going to be around forever. And [I had] this real longing to spend time with them and just be a part of this community while it was in this phase.”
“Having come from New York, I hate to say it, but [I had] these stereotypes and really feared they would have stereotypes about me. But [the community] completely defied my expectations by welcoming me in with such humor and love and ridiculousness. They made it very easy for me to write this book.”
Emma says she was inspired to start compiling these stories by books that were popular at the time like “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “A Year in Provence.” “I loved those books,” she says. “I would get every one of them that came out. I was also so incredibly annoyed by those authors because there was this assumption that you had to go away to someplace in Europe or Mexico or Morocco to find a community like that.”
At first, Emma says the letters were a way to keep her long-distance friends up to date on her life and the happenings of her new hometown. Emma eventually expanded the project into an email subscription list of readers throughout the country with the thought of, “If you think Provence is amazing, wait till you see Bynum.” She even got some letters back.
“People would often say, ‘I grew up in a town just like Bynum, but I lived in Ohio, or I lived in Kentucky,’” she says. “It was always really great to get that confirmation that yes, these wonderful places are everywhere.”
On their property in Bynum, Emma built another studio and has been holding art classes there for 15 years. The classes, called Open Studio, are suited for artists of all skill levels and tend to have six to eight students working on individual projects.
In her professional “day job,” Emma works with biologists to create scientific illustrations for educational materials. She says she’d always had an equal interest in art and science growing up.
“There’s a real parallel between what artists do and what scientists do, which is that we look very, very carefully at the world,” she says. “I think that was always the attraction for me, that really close attention to what’s in front of me. Both art and science allow me to fulfill that drive.”
Inside her book, Emma says her favorite letter is titled “Stitches.” “It’s a summation of what I was trying to do in the book, which talks about how when you live in a little town, there’s not one dramatic action that brings people together,” she says. “It’s this day in and day out, tiny gestures of affection or even tolerance between one neighbor and the next.”
Emma says just getting the mail with Niko often turns into an hourlong adventure with neighbors stopping to say hello and chat about life.
After 25 years living in Bynum, she fondly recalls that initial conversation with her husband, who had been there to work at the Haw River Festival. Jan told her, “I know a perfect place for us to move. It’s a tiny town in the middle of North Carolina, and it would be perfect for us.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Emma remembers saying. “But Jan insisted, ‘Just come take a look.’ … He was right; I haven’t even thought of being anywhere other than here since then.”