- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

For artists, miracles rarely happen. Not so with New Yorker Lesley Dill. Her mother’s gift of Emily Dickinson’s poems on her 40th birthday turned her art and life around, a transformation reflected throughout “Leslie Dill: A Ten Year Survey,” the spare but significant exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The artist’s body-centered works of wood, bronze and Cellu-Clay were ready for a metamorphosis, and Dickinson’s poetry proved an immediate catalyst. Dickinson’s abstract, though intensely visual, words helped Miss Dill, 53, explore the elusive boundaries between mind, body and spirit. A lifetime of spiritual pursuit through meditation and a father who heard voices prepared her. Some call her a visionary.

A one-year trip to India in 1990 had given Miss Dill the opportunity for deep contemplation, intense spiritual concentration and Buddhist involvement. Her childhood prepared her for dealing with her father’s idiosyncratic, metaphoric language. “He would say one thing and mean another,” she says, adding, with characteristic humor, “I grew up in a bilingual household.”

The artist was thinking of clothing her wooden figures at the time she first read Dickinson and already was acutely aware of language nuances through her father. Incorporating words, especially poetry, into the figures enabled her to add multiple layers of meaning. She used texts, usually just a line or two, not only by Dickinson, but also by Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, Pablo Neruda, Salvador Espriu and others as well.

The result was works — her best-known — that marry words and visual images and feature dresses in the shape Dickinson would have worn. She equates clothing with skin as a way of exploring themes of vulnerability and resilience.

In an early 1991 effort, “White Hinged Poem Dress,” Miss Dill cut parts of a Dickinson poem printed in block letters into a sheath dress of cloth. She enlarged her approach in “Poem Dress of Circulation #3” (1994) by using thread, acrylic and lithograph assemblage on chiri kozo paper and printing lines from Dickinson’s poem #928 on it: “The Heart has narrow Banks/It measures like the Sea/In mighty — unremitting Bass/And Blue monotony.”

The words pour from the heart at the upper left of the dress. They simulate both a river running from its source and blood moving from the heart through the body. The dress, of course, is metaphoric skin.

In “Poem Hair Dress” (1991) she bends horsehair to form words on tea-stained rice paper. A year later, she uses only wire and thread to create “Dress of Nerves II (Exhilaration is within…),” a “dress” on a coat hanger that incorporates Dickinson’s poem #383: “Exhilaration—is within —/There can be no Outer Wine/So royally intoxicate/As that diviner Brand.”

The artist uses labor-intensive techniques, such as the stitching used by women, in a huge work such as “Wire Wall of Words” (1995). She “embroidered” large and small words in wire from Dickinson’s poem #512: “The Soul has Bandaged moments — When too appalled to stir — She feels some ghastly Fright come up/And stop to look at her — ”

Like words and clothing, eyes and hands are powerful means of communication, and Miss Dill uses both. For Miss Dill, eyes are not only organs of sight, but also windows to the soul. She illustrates the idea that they can be paths of spiritual communication in the large-scale fabric hanging “Poem Eyes” (1995). It holds a painted photographic image of a woman’s face with two long strands of tea-stained muslin that flow from her closed eyes to the ground.

A spookier version of the same idea is “Vision Catcher” (1995). A black-clothed and hatted man stands precariously in a tea-stained hanging, his eyes becoming a tunnel.

Likewise, the hands that close the eyes of “The Dreamer” (horsehair and charcoal on photograph) indicate a comforting inner seeing, or spirituality, as the artist conceives it.

Miss Dill sees her themes of vulnerability and inviolability as universal, ones that apply to both men and women. She made “Word Through” (1999), of aluminum and painted an uneven white, headless so viewers can metaphorically step into the piece. The clenched fists express either frustration or determination. The artist stamped two puzzling lines from Kafka on a scroll that weaves through the figures and pools onto the floor: “I am hesitation before birth/My life is a hesitation before birth.”

She almost always uses natural materials for her mixed-media works, including paper, tea, charcoal and horsehair, and considers them virtual “collaborators” in the creative process. This may have turned her to yearlong community projects in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Boulder, Colo., where she worked with human “partners.”

The results were new kinds of “visions” that led to different avenues of spiritual connection with the project “Tongues on Fire: Visions and Ecstasy.” Miss Dill’s search in Winston-Salem led her to its churches, libraries and schools. She asked hundreds of people about their “visions.”

During her quest, the artist found the Emmanuel Baptist church and met the Rev. John Mendez. She says she found in him a “soul mate” who understood her artistic goals. He, in turn, says she instinctively tied into the profound strain of mysticism in African American religious practice. Miss Dill created about 20 works inspired by her stay.

Smaller images from 2000, like “I Am Alone Like a Tunnel” of ink, wax and thread on silver gelatin print, come from the Winston-Salem experience. The shimmering “Dazzled (gold image)” and “Dazzled (black image),” both done last year in Boulder, are expressions of her wanting to make language more public.

Combining words with images is, of course, nothing new. The ancient Chinese, for example, believed in what they called “The Three Perfections,” in which they joined calligraphy, painting and poetry. Minimalist artists like Bruce Nauman, Sol Lewitt and Joseph Kosuth also have incorporated words into their work. But in devising a brilliant new way of expressing both feeling and sensory perception through words, Leslie Dill has surpassed these better-known precursors. This fascinating exhibit makes visitors impatient to see what she’ll do next.

WHAT: “Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 14

TICKETS: Admission to the museum during the Lesley Dill show is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors over 60, free for museum members and children younger than 18.

PHONE: 202/783-7370

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