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Tunnel visions

Twin sisters Amy Pirkle (left) and Sara Pirkle Hughes are collaborating on “tunnel books” that incorporate Sara’s poetry and Amy’s book arts. The books are being printed at Red Dragonfly Press on the Tower View campus in Red Wing during the sisters' one-month residency in May 2017. Ruth Nerhaugen / contributor1 / 3
Amy Pirkle is creating “tunnel books” in the Red Dragonfly Press print shop while at the Anderson Center in May 2017. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor2 / 3
Sara Pirkle Hughes found her writing niche on the third floor of the Anderson Center residence. She is spending a month at the Red Wing arts facility during May 2017. Ruth Nerhaugen / Contributor3 / 3

Amy Pirkle and Sara Pirkle Hughes have been best friends and collaborators all their lives, but being identical twins does not mean they are the same.

Amy, who is elder by about a minute, has taken on the role of big sister.

"She was always treated like the older twin. She bossed me around," Sara said.

"I didn't," Amy countered.

"Amy was the leader and I was the follower," Sara insisted.

They smiled identical smiles that clearly said each sister knew exactly what the other was thinking and saying, for probably the umpteenth time in their 36-plus years together.

Amy and Sara are in residence this month at the Anderson Center, working on a joint project. Amy, a printmaker and book artist, is creating a "tunnel book" that will feature a new work by Sara, who is a poet.

They've collaborated many times before, but this is the first time they have had a joint residency.

"It's the longest we've ever lived together since we shared an apartment our senior year in college," Sara said.

Both discovered their creative sides early in life, perhaps while coloring at the kitchen table or doing "crafty" projects with their mother.

For Amy, an important moment came in second grade, when she won an elementary art contest and she realized, "Hey, they value what I'm doing."

At the same time, she pointed out, "Sara won a coloring contest. She wrote little stories and illustrated them." Their "Cabbage Patch Kids" went on elaborate adventures.

In seventh grade, Sara said, "I had to write a descriptive paragraph." The teacher loved it, and when she saw Sara revising it, said, "It's like working with a little author." The comment was beyond flattering. "She made me feel like I was a writer."

Their creative approaches began to diverge in high school. Amy explored drawing and painting, while Sara began writing poetry.

They advanced to Mercer College in Macon, Ga., their home state.

Amy discovered book art when she spent her junior year in Cortona, Italy. Although she was there to study painting, "I realized what I was supposed to do. ... It was perfect for me" — papermaking, printmaking and bookbinding, combined with creative writing.

After she got her degree in painting, she went on to earn a master's in book arts from the University of Alabama, where she now teaches.

Sara continued her literary pursuits at Mercer, learning the rules and types of poetry.

"That's where my real education began," she said. She went on to earn a master's in creative writing in Georgia, where she teaches.

Her master's thesis was a collection of poems, plus she also enjoys writing creative nonfiction. Her dissertation, "The Disappearing Act," recently won an award and will be published next year.

En route to their college posts, both taught at the Macon Montessori School, although not at the same time. Amy taught art; Sara taught creative writing.

The sisters both married men who were their "sweethearts" in college and graduate school. Amy's husband is a sculptor; Sara's is a writer.

Although the sisters are living in different states, distance has not hindered their collaborations. Amy took a class in letterpress printing so she could print Sara's poems.

"She made a broadside of the very first poem I ever had published nationally," Sara said: "Pretend You Don't Owe Me a Thing."

Amy also created a body of work called "The Things We Shared," which depicts the eight bedrooms they shared while growing up. Each wrote one memory of each room for the book project.

Other favorites include "My Twin Sister in the Print Shop" and "The Twin Code."

Sara has been writing more creative nonfiction in the wake of a breast cancer diagnosis three years ago.

"I spent a lot of time on cancer and how it impacts the creative process — the sort of urgency you feel," she said.

"It changed my approach to writing," prompting an aggressive approach to getting her work published. "I sent my poems everywhere. It jump-started my career. ... Even now I still feel that urgency to write" and submit her work for publication.

"I'm cancer-free now, a two-year survivor," Sara said. "It was a really scary time for me."

Like other facets of their lives, the sisters faced it together.

"Amy was always confident, 'You're going to beat this,'" Sara said.

"She's in her head too much," Amy injected.

Though she lived four hours away, Amy was there when Sara needed her. "I never had to ask," Sara said.

They know that because they're identical twins, Amy is also at high risk for breast cancer.

Both are working on projects as a result of Sara's cancer. Amy is making a book, "A Solemn Request," while Sara is writing about the experience.

Their major collaborative project while at Tower View is a series of "tunnel books" exploring how a shared space can influence identical twins in different ways.

Each book features one of Sara's poems on the inside cover and Amy's three-dimensional print work.

Sara writes in a room on the third floor of the Anderson Center residence, while Amy is spending time both in an artist studio and the Red Dragonfly Press print shop located in a historic granary at Tower View. Both described the location in one word: "Perfect."

In the first week, Amy had completed three books and was working on the fourth, plus she made a "flip book" and posted it on Instagram. Meanwhile, Sara had finished five new poems and a couple of short nonfiction pieces.

Samples of their work can be seen on their websites, and