Artist Lesley Dill brings her Dickinson- inspired art to Birmingham.
By Phillip Ratliff
Artist Lesley Dill’s fascination with language is literally written all over her work. Scan a catalogue of Dill’s mysterious works of art and you’ll find cursive text projected onto and woven in—single words hennaed on skin of models, lengthy passages of poetry painted in ransom note fonts.
Dill says the poetry of Emily Dickinson has been an especially fertile source, and she can rattle off line after line. She describes her discovery of her fellow New Englander’s poems with the sumptuous detail of a romance novel. Dill was in her 20s, living in New York and struggling to find her artistic voice when her mother gave her a book of Dickinson poetry. As her eyes floated over the lines of poetry, Dill felt a spark. “There was a meaning inside of me. Her words woke up that meaning. It’s like falling in love. You have love in you, but you meet a person and that feeling is awakened. This language lit me up, like fireworks,” Dill recalls.
Throughout April, Birmingham will celebrate Emily Dickinson as part of the Big Read Birmingham Initiative. There will be Dickinson-themed poetry workshops at Desert Island Supply Company, discussion groups in metro Birmingham libraries, and on April 5, a lecture by Tulane University Dickinson scholar Michelle Kohler at Birmingham-Southern College, which has spearheaded the month-long Dickinson celebration.
A collection of Dill’s works will offer Dickinson enthusiasts what might prove to be the most personal, intuitive interpretation of Dickinson’s poems. A total of 18 of Dill’s works will be on display at Durbin Gallery on the Birmingham-Southern College campus, each with Dill’s personal connection to the Belle of Amherst.
Those personal connections can be surprising. Dill drew from the henna tattoos she saw on people’s hands while living in India to create a suite of four photographs titled A Word Made Flesh. She tattooed single lines of Dickinson poetry on the arms, backbone, neck, or torso of various friends, photographed them and worked them into prints. The poses of her models are fragile, hyperextended in a couple of instances. The dark lighting and metallic textures recall Civil War-era daguerreotypes. How these visual components relate to her text is mysterious— a private meaning, in Dill’s words.
How she decides a line of text has found its match is intuitive. “I think it would be something like an aroma, and understanding of a kind. You wouldn’t necessary walk away saying ‘I get it,’ but it seems to work. [It’s like] two people dating who you think wouldn’t get along, but they get along,” Dill says. But what’s more intriguing is why the match works. Why does Dill consider the text “I am afraid to own a body / I am afraid to own a soul” the appropriate passage to tattoo on the neck of her model, or the extended neck of her model the appropriate image to receive her chosen text?
Dill’s title offers us some clues.
A Word Made Flesh refers to a passage of the Gospel of John considered a seminal statement about the Incarnation—God becoming human. That a purely spiritual being could take on flesh and blood is a confounding thought, but we have a ready-made analogy for that: language. Words are sounds and markings and in that sense, they’re quite physical things, but the sounds and markings point to concepts, something outside the realm of time and space that we summon to this realm whenever we speak or write.
If all that sounds a little philosophical, that’s because it is. When John wrote the passage about the Incarnation, he turned to the language of Plato and essentially called Jesus the Logos, or “Word,” an image of himself spoken by God.
The Word analogy is not a bad way to describe humans, Dill suggests. Dill says that we are all “animals of language”—which can mean that we find ways to express concepts verbally, but also that we are language-like. We have a physical self that works as a symbol of a deeper, more spiritual self, similar to the way a word is a physical projection of a concept.
This connection between the physical stuff of language and the meaning of language goes way back in Dill’s memory, she says. Dill vividly recalls the moment she made this association: “I was in the backseat of my parents’ car and saw these dark letters on the side of a building. In those days, you didn’t have video games. My attention was drifting out the window, and I saw black words against a brick façade. It was advertising for something, maybe the name of a company, who knows.”
The first word Dill ever read: “Silver.” That the first word that Dill recognized was a color was at least, in retrospect, poetic, if not prophetic. But that’s not what Dill finds so amazing about that moment, she says. It was how the strange markings came together with a meaning that has left an impression on the Brooklyn-based artist—in her words, “a conceptual gathering of forces.”
Dill’s description of this event got me curious to know more precisely how her first read word might have come to be. So I asked UAB early childhood reading specialist Dr. Jennifer Summerlin to help me unpack the moment in a child’s life when he or she first learns to read. It starts with parents interacting with children, through constant conversations, Summerlin says. You play games with language, naming things, pointing to McDonald’s signs, Coke bottles, and jars of jelly in the grocery store. “It takes on average about 90 encounters of a word in context for it to become a part of your working vocabulary,” Summerlin says, but eventually, children get the idea that things have names.
Then you have read to you picture books, tons of books. In New Zealand, which has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, kids might have had 5,000 picture books read to them before starting school, Summerlin says. Through encounters with the written word, children come to another realization: those black squiggly markings at the bottom of the picture book represent names. Those are the things you are to invest with personal experience with language. The rest of learning to read is just sort of mopping up.
Dill captures this strange and beautiful marriage of printed language and the experiences we project onto it in her sculpture “Wonderstruck.” There is text, the words “a perfect, paralyzing bliss,” a line lifted from Dickinson. There is a bust of a man, onto whose torso those words are etched in beautiful cursive. And there is a star, hovering over the figure’s head, like an experience or a realization finding its connection to language in the experience of the person.
“Wonderstruck” is, perhaps, unique among Dill’s works. In most cases, the image in its entirety functions like the star in “Wonderstruck”—that is, as a depiction of that wealth of personal association Dill invests in Dickinson’s language.
It’s all quite meta. Dill has managed to both express her reading of Dickinson and illuminate how reading works, a personal reading of poetry that’s about the deeply personal act of reading. Throughout April, visitors to Dill’s exhibit or one of her printmaking workshops are invited to add their own layer to that: their personal reading of Dill’s personal reading about the personal act of reading. Or, if that’s too busy an undertaking, they can simply gaze at some mysteriously gorgeous works of art. •