I’ve been poring over the exhibit catalog for Lesley Dill’s Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan for days. The pages are filled with images of richly colored, dramatic mixed-media creations. A figure in a huge white wedding dress with a train that rises to meet the ceiling, its face shrouded in layers and layers of tulle. Colorful paper skeletons riding skeletal horses across a wall. Ambiguous, metallic human forms, some looking to the sky, some seeming to stare right back at the viewer. And most importantly, words. There are words everywhere, on the wedding dress, on the walls, in the skeletons’ hands.
The mingling of image and language, specifically the language of poetry, is Lesley Dill’s hallmark. Her language-saturated work resides in such hallowed halls as those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. For a long time she drew only from the poems of Emily Dickinson for her artwork, but she now uses the words of other writers too. For this exhibit, it’s the New Orleans missionary and visionary Sister Gertrude Morgan who takes center stage.
Having spent so long looking at the exhibit on paper, I think I know what to expect when I arrive at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art to see the installation in progress. But seeing the work in person is an utterly different experience — the scale, especially, is way more overwhelming than I’d imagined. Black text and images stretch from the floor to the ceiling, 13-and-a-half feet, on nearly every wall. The letters are huge, some of them easily four or five feet tall. And the installation isn’t even halfway complete yet.
“You’re really seeing us when we’re just beginning,” the Halsey’s director Mark Sloan says as he leads me through the gallery. We stop at Shimmer, a long, waterfall-like creation made out of pieces of ultra-thin wire and metal foil. It’s one of the centerpieces of this exhibit. Shimmer is massive, 60 feet long, and up close the wire looks almost exactly like silver hair. The wires are bundled in sections, some of which are still wrapped in paper. “We haven’t fluffed this yet,” Sloan says. “That’s a big part of this piece, the fluffing.”
Above the waterfall in metallic letters is a poem by the Catalan poet Salvador Espriu:
You may laugh, but I feel
within me, suddenly, strange
voices of God and handles,
dog’s thirst and message of
slow memories that disappear across a fragile
This is the kind of mystical, otherworldly language that Dill is drawn to. She’s had many experiences that have profoundly influenced her work, from growing up in the stark geography of Maine to living for two years in India, but perhaps one of the most important was her first encounter with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. “I’ve never been a poetry person,” she says. But upon coming across a collection of Dickinson’s work, she started looking through it. “I just started flipping through the pages and then this magical, kind of alchemical, thing happened for me. Her words, some of them, just leapt out of the page and into my body. Some of them were bright blue — literally, this is what it looked like to me,” she says. “I actually had to close the book.”
Despite the intensity of that experience, she didn’t immediately think of incorporating the poetry into her work. And when she did, it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. “I had been making this sculpture that was clothing, and I just casually thought, ‘It feels a little empty — why don’t I put words on it?’ So I put this poem of Dickinson’s on it, and I thought, ‘Oh! OK, that looks good.’ But that was very casual. The epiphany was the fact of the language, what happened with the language.”
After that, she became something of an Emily Dickinson addict. “The language started secreting images for works,” she says. “I would open the book like it was this magic book, and a phrase would come into my body — like, ‘Electrical the embryo / But we demand the flame’ — and like three images for ideas for artwork would come up.” Reading Dickinson, and later other poets, became so invigorating that Dill couldn’t read at night, because she could never get to sleep. That’s still true today, and she now sets aside full days for reading poetry, or “language collecting,” as she calls it.
Usually, Dill uses just a phrase or a few lines from a poem, but Shimmer was an exception. “I’m not obedient to the poetry,” she says. “I only take what’s pertinent to the visual, except for Shimmer — that was one that I felt I could swallow whole.” The work is meant to highlight the powerful ways that words affect us, even when they seem quiet and subdued. “I wanted to communicate to the world what I felt — this surging, almost organic, natural power of words.”
The piece also calls upon her childhood in Maine, in a town perched on the edge of the Atlantic. “That silvery infinity that goes out into the ocean … it’s not literal in my mind, but now that I reflect on it [Shimmer] really was influenced by the nature of the endless ocean, what felt like the endless ocean.”
The second major installation in the Poetic Visions exhibit, Hell Hell Hell, Heaven Heaven Heaven: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan and Revelation, was inspired by Morgan’s life and artwork. Born in Alabama in 1900, the Christian missionary and preacher left her family to live in New Orleans because it was, as she called it, “the headquarters of sin.” Morgan painted, played music, and preached, claiming divine inspiration. She, like Dill, often combined text and image in her art. After receiving a revelation that she was to be the bride of Christ, Morgan switched from wearing all black to all white, and it is this that forms the focal point of Dill’s installation, which she originally created for the Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. The piece consists of 10 drawings that include both text and image, hundreds of small paper cutout figures, a long strip of words, and, perhaps most strikingly, two figures, one wearing a black dress, the other wearing a white wedding dress. The words she incorporates come from Morgan’s writings, as well as the poet Tom Sleigh, Espriu, and Dickinson, who, interestingly, is also thought to have dressed in white.
Locating the work in New Orleans, which was still recovering from Katrina, added an additional layer of significance. “Because it was New Orleans, I thought hell is fire, but it’s also water,” Dill says. “So in there are words from the Book of Revelation, which Sister Gertrude was a big fan of, but also there is Dickinson: ‘You cannot fold a Flood — / and put it in a Drawer —.’ That little quiet, electrical voice of hers is threaded throughout.”
Poetic Visions, which is a traveling exhibit, is a significant departure for the Halsey, which almost always originates its own shows. These works, on the other hand, have been shown in Dill’s gallery in New York as well as New Orleans, and were gathered together to form Poetic Visions by Barbara Matilsky of the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash. “We rarely show the work of an artist who’s this emerged,” Sloan says. “We tend to show people whom no one has ever heard of … who then go on to become very well-known, as has often happened.” Sloan made the decision to house this exhibit partly for personal reasons — he’s loved Dill’s work for many years — but also because, he says, it’s important to be able to show something of this caliber. “It helps establish a kind of bar, a level. One of the things we like to do is provide not only the community, but other artists with a kind of holy cow, this inspirational [experience].”
And that, at its heart, is what Poetic Visions is about. Whatever one calls it, whether vision, revelation, or inspiration, Dill’s art speaks to those moments of personal, deeply felt joy that have always been associated with mystics and poets, but that Dill calls insight — something we’ve all experienced. Somehow she communicates those untranslatable feelings, whether through a torrent of words on a massive page, or the skyward arc of a dress train. “I love devotion in whatever form it may take,” Dill says. “This stuff is a poetry to me. All of it is the truth.”