Lesley Dill on the Wilderness of the American Soul

Brooklyn artist Lesley Dill was intrigued by the experiences of early settlers who attempted to traverse and put down roots in the American wilderness. As she began researching, she uncovered dramatic stories of European immigrants who, she explains, “were afraid of the wilderness out there surrounding them and the wilderness inside them.”  

After seven years of voracious reading, Lesley distilled miles of text, extracting numerous excerpts. The resulting fragments of the written word, which she derived from diaries, sermons, poems, prose, legal transcripts (and more) are attributed to several historical figures. Then, she combined the text with imagery to form complex symbolic portraits. 

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), the Puritan woman who was famously referred to by a Massachusetts Governor as an “American Jezebel,” is one of 15 historical subjects portrayed in the elaborate, tactile, and emotionally-charged exhibition called Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me. Anne Hutchinson’s words – uttered at her trial for challenging the teachings of established, male ministers – are chaotically transcribed by Lesley on the banner and effigy representing her:  

Have I true Grace? grace… So, as to me an immediate… Revelation By the Voice of His own Spirit to my Soul the Lord. 

Historical figures like Anne Hutchinson, Mary Rowldandson (a colonial woman who settled in Salem, was taken captive by Native Americans, and later ransomed), abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth, the poet Emily Dickinson, Mother Ann Lee (founder of the Shakers), the abolitionist John Brown, the artist Horace Pippin – among many others – make up the at first haphazard-seeming cast of characters featured in this exhibition.  

Colorful period costumes that Lesley constructed and painted by hand are suspended from the gallery ceiling. These attenuated, mostly headless, and larger-than-life forms seem to balance on impossibly tiny wooden shoe forms (called “lasts”) that conjure the bygone and the bespoke. As visitors progress through a kind of grove of incomplete, shapeless figures that seem to be awaiting some mystical act of animation, large banners mounted on walls adjacent to the effigies feature both images and text relevant to each persona. 

Biographical clues that might round out the portraits seem reluctantly revealed. In sum, the banners and effigies unite to fill in some gaps (if only enigmatically). Perhaps Lesley’s goal was to tantalize, to urge us to contemplate what is knowable about a person – even one made somewhat fathomable thanks to historical accounts, records, biographies, and so forth.  

Click on image to enlarge

Using paint, thread, ribbons, and even horsehair (among other materials), Lesley cleverly stitches and stencils utterances of many of her subjects into their garments. They are their words, yet who or what is enlivening them? The artist? The viewer? The reader? The historian? The politician? The preacher? 

Lesley’s words in the welcoming text acquire an unsettling resonance as the stories of the figures in the gallery unfold fragmentally. From the beginning of the project, Lesley set out to explore and expose what she regarded as “the deviltry within those settlers’ minds who took, as though entitled, the forest lands from the Native Americans.” Hence, settler colonialism, racism, religious hegemony, patriarchy, genocide, and slavery unite these otherwise oddly diverse works and the personas they represent.  

One stark reminder in Wilderness of the colonialist seizure of indigenous lands are the artworks representing Mà-ka-tai- me-she-kià-kiàk (called “Black Hawk” by the white, English-speaking Europeans). Black Hawk was a Sauk war leader born in the Native American territory that is now Illinois. A hero of his people, he famously spoke out against the colonization and genocide perpetrated on Native Americans. Like many indigenous people, he was relocated by force (in his case, to a reservation in present-day Iowa).

Lesley has represented Black Hawk with a horizontal banner of mostly text and two small images and a vertical painted portrait also on Tyvek. There is no effigy of Black Hawk, who wrote in his book:  

How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right. 

Given the contemporary American political and social landscape – particularly the troubling, ongoing revisionism and attempts at erasure of the history and culture of non-white Americans – examining our history through the unique assortment of lenses of Wilderness feels imperative. This is, indeed, the key to comprehending Lesley’s works vis-à-vis the 15 historical figures plus the fictional adulteress Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Both their inner and outer worlds were, says Lesley, “shadowy places of deviltry but also a searching divinity.” This is also the story of America, yet the “deviltry” has been obscured and excused via bans, threats, laws, alternate histories, and worse. 

Many of the personae of Wilderness were notoriously, outspokenly embroiled in the major moral conundra of their respective eras; perhaps the most salient, unifying quality – and the overarching spirit of the exhibition – is each individual’s access to the mystical experience. For most if not all of them, the mystical experience provided evidence for the existence of a transcendent reality, if not a higher power, then a higher, collective conscience. 

Are activists, artists, poets, preachers, and warriors mystics? Are they visionaries? 

Are activists, artists, poets, preachers, and warriors mystics? Are they visionaries? Ultimately, Lesley asks viewers of the exhibition to consider reframing the concept of mysticism, situating it beyond the boundaries of religious and political orthodoxy, and beyond transgression to enlightenment and transcendence.  

Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me was organized by the Figge Art Museum in Davenport (IA). Originally, the installation was accompanied by a film of Lesley’s 2018 opera titled, “Divide Light: An Experimental Opera Based on the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” The opera’s libretto is based on the work of poet Emily Dickinson, whom Lesley has long admired.

After leaving the Figge, the exhibition traveled to five other venues before arriving at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University in Kansas its seventh and final stop. The exhibition will be in Wichita from August 5 to December 2, 2023.  

While the artworks in Wilderness constitute fascinating, fragmentary portraits of the 16 figures, I advise you to download the audio tour, Lesley Dill: Wilderness, an interactive exhibition guide produced by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, for a richer experience. Additionally, Lesley provides a virtual exhibition on her own website (as well as a PDF of the language transcripts), which collates the text from the various works into cogent sections for those viewers who wish to fill in some gaps in the experience. 

© Debra Thimmesch (9/5/23) – Special for FF2 Media 

LEARN MORE/DO MORE 

Learn more about Lesley Dill’s Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me from Ulrich Museum of Art, including the MMFA interactive exhibition guide. 

Visit the virtual exhibit here, with language transcripts provided here. 

Listen to excerpts from “Divide Light: An Experimental Opera Based on the Poetry of Emily Dickinson” 

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Photos by Debra Thimmesch for FF2 Media. Approved for legitimate by others use as long as link to this page is provided in user’s credits.

Featured Photo and Middle Photo represent Black abolitionist/activist Sojourner Truth, who famously demanded an answer to the question “Aren’t I a woman?” Compare Lesley’s depiction with Faith Ringgold’s depiction (which include all the words in Sojourner Truth’s urgent statement).

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in Art History and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink and reframe the study and pedagogy of Art History. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal. Her BA in art history is from Wichita State University; master’s and doctoral work in art history: the University of Kansas.

Tags: Anne Hutchinson, Debra Thimmesch, Emily Dickinson, Faith Ringgold, Fiber art, Hester Prynne, Lesley Dill, Mary Rowldandson, Mother Ann Lee, Sojourner Truth, The Scarlet Letter

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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