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Elia's path to UB runs through Warhol Museum

Marie Elia

Since arriving at UB in November, Marie Elia has been cataloging materials on abstract expressionist painter Harry Jacobus. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By CORY NEALON

Published January 30, 2014

“The challenge was how to describe each object and connect it to other objects in a meaningful and insightful manner.”
Marie Elia, processing archivist
Poetry Collection

Marie Elia’s path to UB was formed by Andy Warhol, the Great Recession and a love of literature.

UB’s recently hired processing archivist in the Poetry Collection, Elia received a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008. A native of Hopewell Junction, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, she didn’t necessarily plan to stay in the Steel City. But with bills to pay and the Great Recession in full swing, she needed a job fast.

Luckily for her, the Andy Warhol Museum, also in Pittsburgh, was hiring. She wouldn’t be working with books. Instead, the job she landed entailed sifting through hundreds of cardboard storage file boxes of the iconic pop artist’s personal effects.

A serial artwork called “Time Capsules,” the boxes contain roughly 500,000 objects – everything from fingernail clippings and wigs to photographs and audio recordings – that Warhol kept from the 1960s until his death in 1987.

Working with two other archivists and many interns, Elia spent roughly five years meticulously cataloging the boxes’ contents and building a database that researchers, artists and Warhol fans can use to delve deeper into the artist’s life and work.

“In a way, it was kind of like doing fancy inventory,” Elia says jokingly during a December interview in Capen Hall. “But it was interesting because almost every item was unique in its own way. The challenge was how to describe each object and connect it to other objects in a meaningful and insightful manner.”

National Public Radio featured Elia in a report about the collection in November, around the same time the team finished cataloging the boxes. Another story aired on the NPR program “This American Life.”

The Warhol project was grant-funded, so when Elia finished it she needed to find a new job.

Enter UB’s Poetry Collection, which, since its founding in 1937, has amassed one of the nation’s foremost libraries of materials on 20th century writers and poets. The Poetry Collection’s artifacts on James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan are well established. But other materials — everything from newly acquired Robert Frost materials to little literary magazine archives — need to be properly cataloged, says James Maynard, the Poetry Collection’s associate curator.

Elia, who has a master’s degree in fine arts specializing in creative writing and poetry from Columbia University, was taken aback when she found the job posting on UB’s website.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I love literature, but I didn’t think my MFA would ever help me land a job.”

It did. Elia arrived at UB in November and began cataloging materials on Harry Jacobus, an obscure but influential abstract expressionist who worked with members of the Beat Generation in San Francisco in the 1950s.

The work is rewarding, she says, because it can give voice to people or events that aren’t fully appreciated.

“I can’t imagine a better job for what I want to do,” she says.