Lesley Dill: Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me
January 28 through March 26, 2022
By DEBORAH FRIZZELL, May 2022
Lesley Dill, a renowned New York-based artist, brings to life historical and literary figures from America’s past with hand-painted and sewn textile sculptures and banners in a traveling solo exhibition, Lesley Dill, Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me. Dill weaves imagery, text and historical visionary figures into a cascade of elongated figures, striking historical fonts, fractured stories and symbols. Each of her sculptural persona emerged from the “wilderness” of their day; each figure raising a voice in response to troubled and chaotic times in which they lived. Art and language evoke the fervor and spirituality embodied in Dill’s figures, provoking new ways to encounter, interpret and imagine times past echoing into the present. In the exhibition catalogue, Nancy Princenthal writes, “All of Dill’s Wilderness subjects are shown to have had direct contact with some form of transcendent energy. But the urgencies of our time, as social, environmental, and medical crises overlap and compound each other, make the study of history especially urgent.”
Lesley Dill has roots in Maine, where I visited her at Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, one of the venues for her installation. Dill was born in 1950 in Bronxville, New York, raised in Falmouth, Maine, and the Adirondacks. She received her Master of Arts from Smith College in 1974, and her Master of Fine Arts from Maryland Institute College of Art in 1980. Dill has had over 100 solo exhibitions and her work is in museum collections worldwide. She is the recipient of numerous grants and awards, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Anonymous Was A Woman and the Tell It Slant Award from the Emily Dickinson Foundation.
Dill’s exhibition may be seen at Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York October 22, 2022 – January 29, 2023.
Deborah Frizzell: Lesley, your work for decades has been inspired by and continually embraced poetry. Tell me how you shifted from making art about poetry, a kind of reverse ekphrasis, to making art about history.
Lesley Dill: I frequently ask this myself. What happened to me? Awareness, happened to me. After working for decades with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, a thought, really a question, rose up in me. It was: What time period during the 19th century did Emily Dickinson write in? I felt like such an ignoramus because I didn’t know that Emily Dickinson wrote most of her poems during the American Civil War. So, I began to research history and the writing of history, historiography.
DF: With this new awareness of wanting to learn more about American history, where did you begin and how did Wildernesses 15 personae and their stories arise?
LD: I found out from my cousin Annie that our family had come over from England to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636. So, my research began with my own family’s history.
DF: Who and what did find out about?
LD: Anne Hutchinson! She was a Puritan wife and mother of 15 children. She was charismatic and outspoken about her personal religious experience. Early in life, Anne had a vision and experienced what she called, Grace. From her experience of Grace, she began teaching in her home and attracted an audience for her time. But for the Puritan community her discussion of her personal experience of Grace and faith was an effrontery, heresy. She was taken to court and ejected from the Commonwealth. Her words and charisma were threatening to the status quo.
DF: How did your sculpture and text-based work on fabric develop from Anne Hutchinson? All at once, as a group of historical people? Do the historical figures relate specifically to each other?
LD: No, not all at once, and yet, there is a relationality. The figures developed one-by-one intuitively and slowly. I really had no idea that I would become so immersed in American history. I would read one or two books on historical periods and that would lead to reading more and more historical texts, biographies and narratives by leading and lesser-known figures. I’m deeply interested in spirituality and the world’s faith traditions, exploring the power of words that can both veil and reveal the psyche. The men, and especially, the many women who have been left out of canonical histories. So, my work develops from reading and research and then, making fragmented individual figures, effigies or icons, with sculptural clothing and fragmented texts printed in various historical fonts on textiles. Wilderness is about reading and deciphering visual and textual forms. As I became obsessed with learning and creating images and fracturing words, I make connections among the personas from various time periods.
DF: It seems as if many of the people in your exhibition had Visionary experiences. Can you tell me what drew you after making Anne Hutchinson to Jonathan Edwards, Mother Ann Lee, Sojourner Truth, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Black Hawk, Horace Pippin, Emily Dickinson, all people you name as having had ecstatic experience?
LD: Perhaps this exhibition, for me, is a kind of searching for validation as well as honoring these religious and political people. I myself was given to have a Visionary experience. One day, when I was 14 years old and living in Maine, I got up one morning and looked out the winter window and the oak leaves that were still remaining on a tree. Suddenly my visual field went black and I was given to see good and radiance alongside evil and chaos. I felt what I now know to be a swoon of rapture, bliss with a sense of Understanding. I understood the world for … maybe 30 seconds. I never spoke of it at the time, but it is in me.
Divinity and deviltry swing a door wide open to excess and ecstasy, activism and terrorism, stillness and chaos, repression and freedom, madness and sanity. The extremes of both ends shaped history, and gave pulse and heat to writers and religious leaders from Nathaniel Hawthorne to John Brown, Sojourner Truth to Mother Ann Lee and Sister Gertrude Morgan.
DF: How do you think this experience, which sounds like a form of Zen awareness, affected you in your making of this exhibition?
LD: The experience gave me softness, a sense of alone-ness, and a fierce drive to make something of my work. All the fifteen people I made as textile sculptures with accompanying banners were historically both poignant and ferocious. Indeed, “Light Sizzles” (from Tom Sleigh, poet) around each of these people.
DF: What drew you to Black Hawk and Dred Scott?
LD: This exhibition originated at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa. Everywhere around Davenport was signage that referred to Black Hawk. I felt I Must include this Sauk warrior in my exhibition. How could I not? How could I not include the Native American experience in some way? I asked my friend, artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, what she thought. And she wrote “Lesley, you Have to do this. And you have to get permission from the tribe in person. If you do this, you will walk into the light by walking in the shoes of others.” And Black Hawk wrote an autobiography in which he said, “How smooth must be the language of the whites when they can make Right look like Wrong, & wrong right. They coiled themselves among us like snakes.”
With Dred Scott, I knew his name, but was also completely ignorant of his role in history. I was bolstered by knowing Brooklyn artist Dread Scott, who so named himself, but with a different spelling. I read an incredible book, “Mrs. Dred Scott” by Lea VanderVelde, about Harriet Robinson Scott, Dred Scott’s wife. It was really because of the Freedom Suits that both husband and wife filed in Missouri in the 1840s that lit the flames of the Civil War. Their Freedom Suit was rejected by court after court until it finally reached the United States Supreme Court in 1857. This court rejected the Scott’s Freedom Suit because it declared that all black people throughout the States and Territories were inferior beings and therefore had no rights.
I could tell you so much more about each of the people I worked on: Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative; the story behind Sojourner Truth’s words, “Aren’t I a Woman?” and Horace Pippin’s influence on my artwork as well as Sister Gertrude Morgan’s.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks and gratitude to Lesley Dill and many thanks to Dan Mills, Director, Bates College Museum of Art, Lewiston, Maine. https://www.bates.edu/museum/lesley-dill-wilderness/ Virtual Tour at Bates College Museum of Art: https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=WuapMgxRQLP . WM
Deborah Frizzell Ph.D. was Adjunct Professor of Art History at William Paterson University (2004-2021) in New Jersey, where she taught modern and contemporary art history and theory. She is Editor of the Arts Section of Cultural Politics (Duke University Press) and writes regularly about art for journals such a Woman’s Art Journal and Depart. A former Curator at the New Britain Museum of American Art, CT, her recent exhibitions include Outcasts: Women in the Wilderness, Glyndor Gallery, Wave Hill, Bronx, NY (2017); The Body Is Present: Women at Work (NJ: Berrie Center for the Arts, Ramapo College, 2013); Whose World Is This? Jane Dickson and Charlie Ahearn (NJ: Ben Shahn Gallery, William Paterson University, 2012); Fluidity, Layering, Veiling: Perspectives From South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Artists (CT: Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sacred Heart University, 2011).
Her books include Humphrey Spender’s Humanist Landscapes: Photo-Documents, 1932-1942 (Paul Melon Centre for Studies in British Art & Yale University Press, 1997); Ann Chernow: Fictitious Icons (Gallery of Contemporary Art at Sacred Heart University & Queens Museum of Art, NY, 1998).
Her articles on feminist artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009) include “Search and Destroy; Nancy Spero’s War Series, 1966-1970,“ Cultural Politics (March 2020) 16:1; Nancy Spero’s War Maypole: Take No Prisoners,” Cultural Politics (Fall 2008); “Nancy Spero’s Museum Incursions: Isis on the Threshold,” Woman’s Art Journal v. 27, no.2 (Fall/Winter 2006) and “Alchemical Secrets: Spero’s Fragmentation and Recreation,” Nancy Spero: A Continuous Present (Kiel: University of Kiel & Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2002).
Other Articles include “Positions in Solidarity: Voices and Images from the U.S, Women’s Marches,” Cultural Politics, Duke University Press, Volume 13, Issue3, November, 2017. Article/Interview: “Ghosts of Migration: An Interview with Samira Abbassy,” Cultural Politics (November 2021) 17:3.view all articles from this author