Fierceness and Fragility: A Conversation with Lesley Dill
by Ann Albritton, SCULPTURE
Lesley Dill’s sculptures made an impression on me some years ago at Graphic Studio in Tampa, particularly a tea-stained, paper dress that popped outward to become three-dimensional. A large traveling exhibition of her work—recently shown at the Saint Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts and on view at the Columbia Museum of Art in South Carolina through January 3, 2011—features numerous sculptures made of metal, paper, photographs, and fabric with seamless transitions from one medium to another. Dill integrates words, myth, and ideas with a variety of materials to attract and involve the viewer.
Ann Albritton: Let’s discuss the title of your exhibition,“I Heard a Voice.”
Lesley Dill: “I Heard a Voice” comes from being an Artist-in-the-Community at SECCA in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2000. For Tongues on Fire, Visions and Ecstasy, I collected personal visionary experiences from the community. As I was working on that project, one day, I walked into the Emmanuel Baptist Church where the elderly choir was singing the hymn “I Heard a Voice.” I felt as if my entire body opened and lined up with the melody and beat. And at the same time, I felt that some indefinable, patterned meaning was transmitted through the throats of the singers. Since then, I’ve titled many works with these words.
AA: Why are they important?
LD: Listening, reading, and looking are about taking in life. Emily Dickinson said, “I heard as if I had no ear, until a vital word came all the way from life to me and then I knew I heard.” The title of this exhibition in itself is a call and a response—to listening, to looking, to reading. It also asks a question of the artist: Do I have a voice? What is my voice as an artist? I’m continually attuned to that inner ringing of questioning. Francis Bacon said, “You just wish that people would tell the one true story—and that’s enough—just tell the one true story.” That’s our challenge and our intent as artists, to try to tell the one, true story, over and over again.
AA: I looked again at Rush, your largest work.
LD: This sculpture was inspired by Neruda, who wrote about language as “Words…Riders on the Back of Silence.” I believe that we as human beings are riders on archetypal images from thousands of years of our forebears and their myths and cultures. In Rush, hundreds of figures are cut out of hand-scrubbed metal foil, working from deep black to variations of silver. They start small (two inches or so) and get larger and larger (up to 12 feet by the end of the 60 feet), and are all hand-wired together. The language on the piece is from Kafka: “The tremendous world I have inside my head.”
AA: The archetypal, mythological ideas are Jungian?
LD:Yes, very Jungian. Most of these images come from years of going to ARAS, the Carl Jung library in New York, an incredible library. It’s full of books of visual imagery from global cultures, a library of the unconscious mind.
AA: Is there a connection between Rush and Breathing Leaves?
LD: I would say that Breathing Leaves is an unknown precursor. In that piece, I was very interested in the nature of the back of our bodies. We’re so frontal as alert animals—the back body has a more animal, more irrational, awareness. In Breathing Leaves, the figure is sitting there and breathing out the back of the body—a big botanical breath. Each leaf is a simulacrum of one word.
AA: Is that like Voice, the upside-down figure spilling out words or leaves?
LD: This upside-down figure with wooden legs, pouring out paper leaves with language, reflects my belief that if we were cut open, more than our organs would fall out—so would all of the language that we hold inside us. The words that reach the air in our lifetime are few compared to the unlipped and untongued words held inside. We can never speak enough to speak all the thoughts of our thinking mind.
AA: The first work of yours that I saw was a dress made at Graphic Studio in the ’90s. How did you come to dresses?
LD: I lived in New Delhi from 1990 to 1992, right after I received a gift from my mom of Emily Dickinson poems. India is intense and amazing. I couldn’t understand a thing. I walked off the plane and was surrounded by completely unknown language and signage. I couldn’t understand the Hindi spoken around me all day long and felt uneasy and lost. At a certain point, I had to go with it. Once I gave in to indecipherability being part of my life, I felt so free. With that bit of isolated perspective, I was able to tune in to the melodic unintelligibility of human beings speaking language—speaking sound—that had hidden meaning. If you don’t understand what is being said, there is, nevertheless, a kind of understanding that emanates from human beings in language form. So, now in my work, I almost always put in a certain amount of indecipherability—it’s a kind of truth.
AA: When did the papermaking, coloring, and tea staining begin?
LD: They all began in India. The tea-stained tapestries in this exhibition are influenced by the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags that I saw in India and Nepal. They are words lifted by air off of cloth—released prayers going into the air—the invisible nature of language threading into the air, kind of like cell phones.
AA: Is White Threaded Poem Girl one of these works?
LD: Yes, and the one with holes, Ghost Hole Girl #2, and the more diaphanous one with language, Double Poem Ghost. In India, I drank a lot of tea; I still do. It is a beautiful, mahogany, translucent color. It might be the color that would exist if all of the world’s skin colors were put into a blender.
AA: So, the dresses also originated in India?
LD: Yes. We women sculptors in New York dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and work boots. This was our uniform. When I moved to India, women—in the ’90s—wore salwar kameez, long skirts, and saris. I looked like such a foreigner, so I started to wear long skirts. And I was interested to see that the Rajasthani women, building roads, wore skirts to do heavy manual labor—wearing dresses was not an impediment. My Indian women friends—all powerful, articulate, and smart lawyers, doctors, and educators—dressed in saris. They would tease me, asking, “Why do American women have to dress in pants to have power?” I’ve been wearing skirts ever since. The dresses are not inspired by the European world at all; they are inspired by the Asian world—the nature of a woman in fabric.
AA: I love the sense of play in your work. At times, what looks like paper is made of bronze; sometimes what appears to be bronze turns out to be paper, organza, or silver foil. The Dress of Inwardness looks like paper but is actually bronze, just like Word Queen of Laughter, with its flaps. Do the flaps represent opening and closing armor?
LD: I was thinking about her as air—air is the vehicle for utterance. If we can’t breathe, we can’t speak. I think of that dress as a dress of laughter—as if she’s laughing, or as if the opening and closings are shutters on a veranda, or the glottal stops in the throats of singers. The nature of language is internal and external. Language is inside us and then we midwife it out into the world through our lips, our tongues, our teeth, and then it’s outside us.
AA: You also talk about this dress and its connection with New Orleans.
LD: Yes, I did an exhibition in New Orleans with the Arthur Roger Gallery in 2006. I wanted to do a show that celebrated the city—a show of Word Queens. And at the time, post-Katrina, I wanted to make them out of waterproof materials, so they are all made of metal in one way or another—either wire or scrubbed metal.
AA: Although they’re made of metal, there’s the idea of fragility.
LD: And also of lightness. In working with the idea of weightlessness and weightfulness, I like the idea to be more freighted than the material. My work is not like Richard Serra’s. It’s not about an assertive weightedness. I want the work to have impact through a relationship of the substrate material—be it paper, bronze, fabric, or metal—and the meaning. The meaning, I hope, is like the radiance around the artwork.
AA: Residence is really interesting to me: a tall, painted bronze, male figure seems unusual in an exhibition of dresses.
LD: I like to work with the male image. However, I’ve had male artists say, “Well, Lesley, you should stick with what you know. You should stick with the female figure.” But I work with the image in the same way that men have historically acted on the female figure.
AA: Residence is a beautiful figure. What poet are you referring to?
LD: The poet is also Dickinson, “Air has no residence.” Air is not owned by anyone. It’s totally free and in the world. We breathe it, and we exhale it. It is the conveyor of the language that we’re speaking. Like most of the bronzes that have holes in them, I think of him as something between a flute and a birdhouse in human form. There’s an openness that contrasts with the weightiness of the bronze.
AA: You mentioned Serra, but let’s talk about Giacometti and Nancy Spero, because you reference them at times.
LD: Giacometti is still my hero—the fact that he made fragile, strong, existential figures. Frankly he’s the door through which my work walked—a permission to take a certain road. But, Giacometti already did Giacometti, so I had to do something else. I started to make clothing for fragile personas. I should also add Frida Kahlo. With its defiant fecundity, fertility, and irrationality, her work was hugely liberating for me in terms of imagery. Even saying her name makes me feel stronger. Early on, I read Hayden Herrera’s biography of Kahlo like a Bible.
AA: And Nancy Spero?
LD: I’m honored to call Nancy Spero my hero and my friend. Her work was influential, and she herself was influential. She always made the hero/heroine of her work a woman. And she did this in a day and age when we women were supposed to project ourselves onto the male hero as the one riding off into the sunset. She introduced the woman as the center of the artistic mythological world. Nancy was a fierce, proud fighter. The way she lived her life inspired me and many other women artists.
AA: What about Louise Bourgeois?
LD: Yes, you’re right. All these weird women: Bourgeois, Kahlo, Spero, Louise Nevelson, Nancy Grossman, and of course, Diane Arbus. Young artists today have so many artists to look to. In my generation, there weren’t so many.
AA: Fragile Bridge is a different kind of work, a cascade of horsehair. My first impression was of a waterfall.
LD: I think of it as a misty, tactile waterfall of itchy water. Just so you know, no horses died for this piece. I bought blond horsehair tails from a shop that gets them from living horses in China.
AA: This is a very labor-intensive work.
LD: It is. To make one eight-foot strand, you take five 22-inch strands in the left hand, and three in the right, and tie them together. Left over right, right over left, and tie again, over and over. I do the lengths by the number of knots in each grouping—there are five knots, then four knots, then three knots. I wanted it to fluff like dandelions in the wind. I dyed it blue so it would be beautiful and then tied it to the top. I made two others in different colors. The wire words are from the poet Salvador Espriu: “You may laugh but…” The horsehair gently emanates these words. I got addicted to the touch of horsehair. I love the particular nature of the filament on my fingertips. I’m really a fingertip artist, more than an arm or wrist or full-body artist. I want to touch thread, or paper, or cloth, or bronze and make it vulnerable, obdurate, and fierce. You know beavers’ teeth will just grow if they don’t chew. We fingertip artists have to keep chewing with our fingers. My two assistants, Emma and Regina, are sitting here now as we speak. I want to say how wonderful it is to have worked with them and the other young women who have helped me with this labor-intensive work over the past 20 years.
AA: You also use horsehair in Ecstasy. What is this bronze figure about?
LD: I wanted to make a fierce, kneeling woman—hands clenched, with her legs emitting language. In most of the work, I like there to be one area of clenching and one of release. From the back of her body, she’s releasing ecstasy. The words on the back of her jacket are from Emily Dickinson: “Take all away from me but leave me ecstasy.”
AA: Did you reference Bernini’s St. Teresa?
LD: Not really, the inspiration is more personal. I regularly experience states of ecstasy and bliss. But I feel vulnerable saying so.
AA: Which makes your Winston-Salem experience more meaningful.
LD: I was raised Episcopalian, I’ve had two Jewish husbands, I’ve practiced Buddhist meditation for decades, I’ve lived in Hindu India, and I was baptized in an African American church. I’m a faith slut.
AA: What is the figure in Rise made of? It is neither paper, as I thought at first, nor bronze.
LD: It’s laminated fabric. There’s a tradition in Asian and Buddhist art of lacquered fabric sculpture. The red was tricky to come by. I had to hand-dye everything. I didn’t want it cherry red or maroon red; I wanted that sense of Asian joy. The figure is sitting quietly, innocent in a certain way, and out of its back rises a huge amount of energy. In one sense, it’s everyone; and it’s probably my own experience. This piece also speaks to me of India—learning that red can be a joyous color. My dad was schizophrenic; he thought red was a dark message to him. When I moved to India, I found that red was the color of weddings and celebrations, For me, this red and this sculpture celebrate not only the color, but also the freedom of visionary experience. The language is from the Winston-Salem project, taken from “Tongues on Fire: And I heard a voice calling my name.”
AA: Are the long streamers embroidered?
LD: They’re all hand-appliquéd. The core of my work is fierceness and fragility, that ongoing relationship between the two—strength and vulnerability.
AA: The use of language and the rhythm fit together.
LD: I need an obsessive, repetitive project—having my fingers tie a knot, do a stitch, twist a wire, or cut out a letter. Tara Donovan and Sandy Skoglund come from the same kind of background.
AA: Three pieces in the show are named Divide Light—the intimate sculpted hands, the large kite with the figure that seems to float, and the opera. You use the same language for very different works.
LD: I frequently use the same language over and over again. Words change context when they’re linked with a different image and paired in different ways. Kites live between light and air and have many layers of decipherability. Some things you see through the sky, especially the outline—and then you’ll see the heart, and the writing.
AA: And the opera? I’m interested in how you used paper and string for the hand sculptures, paper for the kite, and then music for the opera.
LD: The opera is really a life work. It includes my photography, my costumes, working with language in the video projections, working with the composer, and especially my homage to the language of Emily Dickinson. I directed and co-produced a performance (with composer Richard Marriott), sponsored by the Montalvo Art Center in California in 2008.
AA: The costumes in Divide Light become sculptures.
LD: Yes. My costume mistress said, “You don’t need these long threads and all the hand embroidery—no one’s going to see them from the 20th row.” I said, “They will see them.
AA: Has Divide Light been performed again?
LD: We only had money for one performance. We had 55 singers, a string quartet, soloists, and a wall of continually moving video projections. It’s a big production. Even though we only had one live performance, there is a wonderful film of that performance by my husband, Ed Robbins, a documentary filmmaker, available at www.dividelight.com.
AA: The music is beautiful, too.
LD: Music in general runs throughout my work. Sung language rides into our bodies in a different way than spoken language. Working with three different choirs over 20 years has affected my work. In India, I didn’t understand at first, but then I realized that my inability to understand Hindi was a melodic unintelligibility.
AA: Is your exhibition opening at the George Adams Gallery this year new works?
LD: Yes, new works of paper and bronze.
Ann Albritton is a writer living in Sarasota, Florida.