Contributed by Leslie Wayne / On February 13th, Lesley Dill will open with an installation of new work at Nohra Haime’s new Chelsea Gallery space. The exhibition, entitled, “Wilderness: Words are Where What I Catch is Me” will be Dill’s first solo show with Haime, and it represents an expansion of her abiding interest in language and spirituality, focusing on a pantheon of remarkable early New England figures who helped shape the American voice. The exhibit will include several large drawings and a group of hanging hand sewn garments representing a Puritan wife and mother of fourteen who fought the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a minister’s wife who was taken hostage by the Algonquin Indians, a pastor and physician who also wrote poetry, a Puritan preacher, a former slave, a militant abolitionist, a novelist, a poet, a shunned adulterist, and her beloved Emily Dickinson. Our conversation took place at her studio, over several days in mid-January, 2018.
LW: Lesley, we have been friends for many years. For as long as I’ve known you, your work has focused largely on the language and metaphysical force of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. This show is a dramatic – I wouldn’t say departure for you – but definitely a shift. Can you talk a little bit about this new focus?
LD: Yes, it’s true … I have spent my art life shaping words and imagery. For me, this exhibit marks a turning point because for the first time I am looking to history as a context and theme. All these years I’ve worked with poetry as its own separate floating entity of inspiration. The American voice, in the North at least, grew on New England settler obsessions with divinity and deviltry, of fears of the “wilderness” out there, and wilderness inside us. Both places were seen as more a devil’s world than divine.
You know, my forbears landed in Massachusetts on May 14, 1634. So these themes stir something deep in my New England roots. I grew up in Maine, and summered with my high school teacher parents in the Adirondacks. Unconsciously at first I think the idea of the wilderness – haunted yet beautiful – is what drew me to Emily Dickinson as my muse for many years. Her strange and poetic text inspired me and as you know is physically present in decades of my art.
LW: Yes, she has been such a dominant force in your work for so many years. So I don’t think you ever told me how you first came to discover her.
LD: My mother gave me an enormous Dickinson book of poetry one day, and my inside mind said “ohh noo! Do I have to read this? I’m not a poetry person!” But I opened the book and it changed my life! I got – truly – a startling charge from reading words like “Electrical the Embryo but we demand the Flame,” and “The Soul has Bandaged Moments.” As I turned the pages, phrases jumped off and flew down my throat like birds. In a place deep inside me, images for art making began to be born. It was as if my animal self woke up to these words. It was tangible …the shift from a reading cognitive mind to one where an ocean of images rose up – images directly in response to reading the words. For 7 years I only read from this book. I was afraid that this unasked for experience might fade, and I would be left without the confidence of words + image = art. But I eventually found that if I slowly slowly approached reading other writers like Neruda, Rilke, and contemporary poets like Tom Sleigh that I could now trust that this inspiration would still happen.
LW : That’s a very visceral and otherworldly response to language. I can say that I’ve had spiritual responses to nature, but they’ve always been outside of language. In fact I’ve felt that the way in which I wanted that translated into my work was for it to be precisely pre-lingual. To work with language as form and content the way you do is complex both conceptually and formally. Your letters are very specific fonts. And they are often written large and small in the same sentences.
LD: I feel that animistic sense in your paintings. There is a forthright and thoughtful unself-conscious presence. It’s as if color and shape walked into the room.
LW: I’m glad to know you think so! So let’s talk about the actual work in your show. These vestments are huge – larger than life. And they’re very elongated as if they were pronouncing their loftiness, like Gothic arches that reach for the sky and inspire you to look up. And then each garment is obsessively covered with the words of its phantom wearer, again in large and small letters. Some are painted, and others are embroidered with long hanging threads that are like halos of afterthought hovering in our space. How do you decide what you want painted and what you want embroidered? And do you have a complete vision in your mind beforehand about how you want each piece to appear, or does that evolve as you go? After all, it’s very labor intensive work and changing some of the elements, especially the embroidery, is not something you would easily alter.
LD: First, I made a little navy blue puritan woman and a little puritan man, just to see. And then I thought, oh…they should be big! These personages, whose written voices still speak large to us today. I had time. I had time to think, hmm – I would love to embroider by hand, letter by letter, words in blue thread for Anne Hutchinson, in white horsehair for Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mary Rowlandson, orange thread and orange horsehair for Walt! Sewing with thread feels soft, caring through stitching. And sewing with horsehair feels almost feral and appropriate for these of-the-wilderness people. And then….stencil-joy! You know, I love to stencil with different medleys of fonts. It’s like a giant musical crossword puzzle. I hum and rock and speed-choose – 8” gothic “A,” then Dauphin 2,’ then Bible 6,“ then Times 2,” then Daniella 6.” I weave lines of language together. I think of them as music, often as a melodic unintelligibility, not unlike the kind of music I would hear in India when we were living there for 2 years. But it is also declarative language, strong for Dickinson, strong for Sojourner Truth, Jonathan Edwards, Edward Taylor – these writers and preachers and orators.
LW: You studied literature as an undergrad at Trinity College before going on to Smith for an MA and to MICA for your MFA. So I know that you are a voracious reader. What makes this new body of work different from your past endeavors is the intense historical research that has gone into each persona. What is your relationship to these staunch believers and how did you come to choose them over so many others?
LD: I wondered about the context of Dickinson’s language. I read books about the middle 1800’s, which is the American Civil War, and that led to my first big drawing, “Emily Dickinson & the Voices of Her Time,” which depicts Truth, Walt Whitman, Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. This is how Walt Whitman and Sojourner Truth first came into my lexicon. Walt because he, like Dickinson, defined a very distinctive American voice in poetry, and Sojourner Truth on discovering she lived in Amherst just 6 miles from Dickinson. Sojourner was an orator and preacher and activist. She was a woman full of force of language and righteous action. John Brown was one of the first characters I went deeply into after that. He is depicted in an 8½ foot sculpture with a knee-length horsehair beard… I call him “Seer” rather than by his name because to me he is an Old Testament mythic figure – a prophet for the end of slavery, who carried love, righteous belief and a savage, vengeful violence within him. A man who contained inside him the twin poles of Wilderness, and acted out both of them. He was also a man who had a vision after which he pledged himself to his cause. “ I, John Brown, do solemnly swear to purge this land of slavery with blood…”
Brown’s name has also had a deep personal place in my life. I grew up in Maine but my parents, as I mentioned before, were teachers and we always spent our long summers in the Adirondacks, in an old log house, deep in the woods. On the way there and back as a child, I passed the sign for his grave in Lake Placid so often that it is a groove in my memory. He’d started a farm there, then welcomed in freed slaves, and it’s where he asked to be buried.
LW: So interesting. It’s as if this work has brought you back full circle to your New England roots, and to your own personal roots as well. You’ve spoken to me in the past about your father and I know what an impact he’s had on you.
LD: My father was deeply at home in the Adirondack woods. It was his parents’ summer place. He was a loving, funny man, a much beloved teacher and very generous. But also someone plagued by invisible demons. When I was 5 years old he was diagnosed as schizophrenic. Most people took him as eccentric more than crazy. But in the family it was a more obvious and destructive force. So the wilderness without and within him, my fears and attraction to the unpredictable, the irrational, to “the other,” to secret meanings in words – are all things I’ve lived with my whole life.
LW: I feel like the spiritual journeys you’ve made with your work over the years have taken you to some very interesting places and with some amazing people. Some of them have involved projects that on the face of it seem very outside of what one would expect from a petite blond woman from New England. Like the project you did with the African American community in North Carolina and the Emmanuel Baptist Church, and with Rev. John Mendez who worked with the elderly Gullah Spiritual Choir. This body of work feels like you’ve come back home. Does that sound right?
LD: Thank you for asking that. You are such a good interviewer! I do feel like I am centered in the middle of searching for the early New England & New York Voice. This is where I was born. Yet I am also the person that lived in India for 2 years, that has done projects in North Carolina, New Orleans, and Boulder, and has even, as you know, directed an opera, much to my amazement! So now I aim to continue this research on faith and inspiration and make more work about these early brave, renunciatory & luminous American people.
LW: I for one, look forward to seeing what you do next! Thanks for the great interview.
“Lesley Dill: Wilderness: Words are Where What I Catch is Me,” Nohra Haime, Chelsea, New York, NY. February 13 – March 14, 2018.
About the author: New York artist Leslie Wayne is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Wayne is an occasional writer and curator, and has received numerous grants and awards for her painting objects, including a 2017 John Simon Guggenhheim Foundation Fellowship.