Piercefield and Illouz present New Dickinson Artworks

Entry begun Sunday, February 15, 4:50 pm

Claire arrived in the Reading Room right at 5 pm on the evening of her lecture.  Adam from IT was there for the tech check, and everything went well.  It’s great how Powerpoints from Europe are now compatible with our systems here.  I remember a session at our International Melville Conference in Rome in 2011 (at which Claire also spoke) that was almost ruined because someone brought in a file for her talk at the very last minute whose incompatibility caused a delay that robbed all the speakers of some of their time.

The period from 5 to 7 Thursday evening was the one time Kimberly and Ingrid had invited me to sit in on part of their rehearsal if I wished.  So Claire and I slipped into the concert hall before getting something to eat.  I had been delighted to hear from Kimberly and Ingrid this morning that Kimberly was much better, though still not herself.  She now fully expected to be able to perform tomorrow night.  This good news helped to balance the bad news that Kurt Sander had reluctantly conveyed this morning.  He had finished his third Dickinson composition in tme to share it with the performers, but they had not had sufficient time to prepare it for the concert.  Because the three compositions were a set, Kurt felt he had to pull all three pieces from the program, and had revised the printed program accordingly.  Claire and I kept our discussion of all of this brief, so that Kimberly and Ingrid could continue with their rehearsal.  The two songs we heard from them made us very eager for the concert the following night.

Kimberly and Ingrid rehearsing on Thursday evening

Kimberly and Ingrid rehearsing on Thursday evening

I had been excited when Kathleen Piercefield had requested three easels for her presentation this evening.  I had seen her first portrait of Dickinson at the exhibition in Fort Thomas last summer, but the other two works that she brought tonight were entirely new.  The  portrait in brown tones of Emily with reddish hair, holding a letter or a poem, beneath which is a bird, is absolutely beautiful and evocative.   So is Kathleen’s rendering of Emily’s famous white dress, a mixed-media print that resonated intimately with Lindsay Alley’s white poem dress only a few feet away on the wall to the left.  Kathleen’s talk was expert, fluent, and engaging.  The reddish hair in the brown-tone portrait had been inspired by Dickinson’s word portrait of herself in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the same letter in which she had described herself as “small as a wren.”  Kathleen had already included the small wren-like bird in this portrait before encountering this letter.

Kathleen Piercefield, Emily Dickinson in brown tones, monotype and collagraph, 2015.

Kathleen Piercefield, Emily Dickinson in brown tones, monotype and collagraph, 2015

For all of these prints Kathleen had combined the printmaking techniques of monotype and collagraph.  She loves monotype because spreading ink on a smooth plate and then “wiping it away” invites bold gestures.  With collagraph, she is able build up the image with a variety of textures.  She left the white dress uninhabited to symbolize “all that we don’t know about Dickinson herself.”  I was glad to hear Kathleen say that “this white dress concept is still very much in process” and that there will be more works to come.

Kathleen Piercefield’s three Emily Dickinson prints, with Februray 12 audience. Still from video by Mat Ruiz.

Kathleen Piercefield’s three Emily Dickinson prints, with February 12 audience. Still from video by Matt Ruiz.

Kathleen concluded her talk by quoting the letter to Higginson in which Dickinson asked him whether her poems “breathe.”  This is Kathleen’s deepest wish as a printmaker, that once a work leaves her studio, it will live in the lives of its viewers.  I loved that Andrea Knarr, Kathleen’s printmaking teacher at NKU, was front and center for this talk, on the left in the image below as Kathleen returns to the audience after her talk.

Andrea Knarr, lower left, after Kathleen Piercefield has completed her talk

Andrea Knarr, lower left, after Kathleen Piercefield has completed her talk

Kathleen and Claire greatly admire each other’s work, and it was a deep pleasure to see and hear them present back-to-back.  Each is a Moby-Dick artist turning to Dickinson for the first time, and it was fascinating to compare the subjects they chose and the techniques they used, Kathleen creating prints by combining monotype and collagraph, Claire creating an artist book with engraving and embossing.  Each began with a single Dickinson poem that had spoken to her.  With Kathleen, it was “My Cocoon tightens—Colors tease,” the poem in which “A dim capacity for Wings / Demeans the Dress I wear” (J 1099).  Kathleen had already been deeply engaged with the depiction of moths and butterfies when she encountered this poem, and before long it was leading her into the new work we were now seeing.  The one poem that had immediately struck Claire was “Presentiment—is that long Shadow—on the Lawn” (J 764).   This was the first poem she had ever read by Dickinson, and “I just felt that the poem was written for me.”   Throughout the talk Claire made excellent use of the state-of-the-art video monitor that Tracy Insko had set up for her.

Claire showing one of her earlier artist books

Claire showing one of her earlier artist books

Before moving sequentially through the three parts of her artist book Summer Boughs, Claire quickly addressed how this new project relates to her previous printmaking and bookmaking process.  Like many of the other artist books, including The Whiteness, this one relates to a literary subject.  Each, however, does so in a very different way.  Recently Claire had come across a quote from the current head of the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress that expressed very well her own intention in creating any artist book: “to lead the text and reader into an unexplored land, to an uninhabited space, to a perception of both text and image different” than was seen before.  Claire had read quite a bit about Dickinson at the beginning of this project, but once she had chosen her three poems, she tried to “forget what I knew about her.  The meaning of her poems is strong enough to stand alone.”  Claire would read and reread each poem, absorbing each text until she feels it has become “cramped for room. Then and only then, I know it’s in need” of the kind of “translation” she can provide as a printmaker.  For her, Dickinson is all about “sensation.”  In her poetry, “the whole world, the whole universe, is loaded with meaning.”  Claire “would not dare to say” her book is in “conversation with Emily Dickinson.”  She feels more as if she was “walking with her for a short while through three landscapes unknown to us both.”

Claire illustrating her love of books as she speaks about coming to terms with Dickinson

Claire illustrating her love of books as she speaks about coming to terms with Dickinson

Although some of Claire’s artist books (including The Whiteness and the landscape in red posted above) can be opened and unfolded in accordion style, Summer Boughs is printed on simple, discreet, single sheets of paper, folded so that each sheet can hold four images, one on the front and back of each fold.  Each folded sheet is in this sense comparable to one of Dickinson’s compact, four-line stanzas.  Each folded sheet is physically free from the others, a style the French call cahier libre (free pages), but they can be placed in a way in which the outer folds speak to each other.  I did not fully understand the magic of this—comparable to the process of reading a beautifully distilled Dickinson poem one line, and then one stanza, and then another stanza, at a time—until I got to hold the book in my own hands in the copy we acquired for the Steely Library Archive.  You read each page in this layered book by turning each folded sheet one half-sheet at a time.

A dramatic moment in the "Presentiment" section of Summer Boughs

An open fold in the “Presentiment” section of Summer Boughs

Claire had asked me, when introducing her, to comment briefly on the three poems she had chosen for this book.  After noting the sequence in which Dickinson is thought to have written them, I suggested it would be important to look at the sequence in which Claire presents them in the book.  That certainly turned out to be the case.

The first poem in the sequence is “Presentiment” (J 764), increasingly black as the rising of the night overtakes the soft blue sky and suddenly swallows the light above the “startled Grass.”  The language of the poem itself leaves open the possibility that the passing of the night might itself “pass,” but in this rendering by Illouz the stark and the dark predominate.  In the facing pages immediately below, the horizontality of the landscape and of the poetic line are stretched to their limit as the shadows of the rising night infiltrate the grass, setting up intricate, nervous rhythms within and between the verbal and visual spaces.  Illouz feels that Dickinson writes with such “devilish precision” that the “meaning of the text will hold” even when stretched almost to the breaking point..

Open fold of "Presentiment" sheet

Rhythmic spacing of early  “Presentiment” opening

“Of all the Sounds dispatched abroad” (J 321), the central section of the artist book, is a virtuoso deployment of ink on paper.  Its engravings are inked in black, blue, green,and red, these contrasting with colorless embossing in surprising shapes and shadings as the gusty, breezy wind that surges through Dickinson’s poem.  Itself invisible to the eye, Dickinson’s wind is made visible through its visceral, variable effect on all who see and feel its force.  Illouz in her medium conveys both the visible and audible force of wind.  We cannot hear the sound of the wind rushing through her sheets, but instead see its effect on the printed shapes, including the “Summer Boughs” from which the book takes its title.  I love the way a visible trace of the sound of the wind orchestrates the shapes of the swirling birds in the sky before running into, and through, the boughs of a rustling tree, changing colors, as in musical modulations, in each stage of its unstoppable path.  Claire explained that her work on this section of the poem was greatly enhanced by information provided by her son Leo, an acoustical engineer.

Claire showing sound waves sent by her son, the acoustical engineer

Claire showing sound waves sent by her son, the acoustical engineer

Claire’s son Leo sent her images of actual sound waves so beautiful and colorful she would have loved to use them as they were.  But she had to make them her own in the context of the book she was making.  She had decided to “make the wind blow through every stanza” of this long, complex poem.  Here is the open fold for those “Who never heard the fleshless Chant.”

sb--who never heard that fleshless chant spread

Here the “merry Dust” of the deceased is magically embossed into the receptive paper by granules of salt.

"I cannot vouch the merry Dust /  do not arise and play"

“I cannot vouch the merry Dust / do not arise and play”

One reason Illouz chose this poem is that the wind “had always upset, bothered, and even frightened me.”  Facing the wind head on in her studio, as well as under every windblown tree she could find in the course of this project, Illouz had finally come to terms with “the mystery of this irresistible force,” which “has no substance,” yet is “eternally part of us.”  Through all of the ways in which she makes the invisible motion of the sound of the wind visible, Illouz gives  unforgettable expression to such phrases in the poem as “phraseless Melody,” “tufts of Tune,” “merry Dust,” “fleshless Chant,” and the last image in the poem, the “Caravan of Sound” that “knit—and swept— / In Seamless Company.”  Separately and together, Illouz and Dickinson have enabled us to see, and to feel, more of “all the Sounds dispatched abroad” than any of us would be able to see or feel with such intensity on our own.  There is something almost Holy in the Spirit of the wind as depicted by these two artists, in Dickinson’s words more “inner than the Bone.”

The closing opening of the “Summer Boughs” section of the book

The closing opening of the “Summer Boughs” section of the book

After the exuberance, the ecstasy, of “All the Sounds dispatched abroad,” Illouz takes the reader of her book, as she took her Thursday night audience, through the process by which “We become accustomed to the Dark” (J 419).  We do so by facing it head on.  Claire’s black ground for this section of Summer Boughs corresponds to the pitch black of “Those Evenings of the Brain— / When not a Moon disclose a sign— / Or Star—come out—within.”  The words of this stanza, like all of the words until the concluding line of the poem, are printed in silver so subtle on jet black paper that your eyes must literally become “accustomed to the Dark” to read them.

sb III either ther darkenss alters page

Dickinson’s words on Illouz’s “Dark”

Once you do read those words, though, and persist, you do reach that condition in which “something in the sight / Adjusts itself to Midnight– / And Life steps almost straight.”  Claire’s final image delivers this poem’s courageous, self-generated response to that sudden Darkness in the coming of the night in the “Presentiment” section of Summer Boughs.  Dickinson has shown us how to find light, not through some trick by which it magically supplants darkness, but, rather, through “our own habituation to its absence.”  Illouz concluded her lecture by asking whether “there could be any better lesson than that.  I think we should thank Emily Dickinson for this optimist touch.  What a wonderful truth for finishing the book.”

The light of Life in the Blackness of Darkness

The light of Life in the Blackness of Darkness

The shape of the light in the dark of Illouz’s concluding open fold enacts the closing gesture in which “Life steps almost straight.”  The combination of image and words also reminds me of Dickinson’s “Experience is the Angled Road” (J 910).  And of “that precarious Gait / Some call Experience” in “I stepped from Plank to Plank” (J 875).

What a journey of creative exploration Claire took us on in her 35-minute lecture.  And what a visible, tactile, visceral experience for all future visitors to the Steely Library Archive who will be examining the copy of Summer Boughs we acquired on the occasion of Claire’s visit, no. 8 in the worldwide edition of 30.

SB in box

After Kathleen and Claire’s presentations, we moved directly down to the Archive, where each artist could show her newest work in a more intimate setting.  Lois Hamill had generously kept the Archive open long past her normally scheduled hours, and the result was much to the satisfaction of all.  Kathleen had brought various materials that allowed her to demonstrate the evolution of the images in her prints and the process of combining monotype and collagraph in a single, layered print.  Claire took questions, and showed examples from her new Summer Boughs, and Lois had also laid out our copy of the Whiteness book for visitors to examine.

Claire describing the wind moving through the boughs to audience in Archive

Claire describing the wind moving through the boughs to audience in Archive

As with Claire’s previous lecture here, we had a wonderful mix of printmakers from Cincinnati (introduced to Claire and her work by John Campbell), printmakers from northern Kentucky (mentored for decades by Andrea Knarr), and students from my Moby-Dick and Dickinson classes (several of whom had artworks in the exhibition upstairs).  Many of the printmakers in the room would be returning to our campus for a two-day printmaking workshop on Saturday and Sunday that Claire was to be conducting in Andrea’s print room.  This remarkable evening opened the Arts Fest in more splendid and stimulating fashion, really, than I had even imagined.  Among the many photos we took in the Archive before leaving, I will post one in which Kathleen, Claire, and I are joined by John Campbell, impresario of the evening, and Matt Ruiz, the trouble-shooter from my recent Moby-Dick and Dickinson classes who was this evening’s videographer.

From left: John Campbell, Matt Ruiz, Kathleen Piercefield, Claire Illouz, and the author

From left: John Campbell, Matt Ruiz, Kathleen Piercefield, Claire Illouz, and the author

Matt Ruiz, our student-artist trouble-shooter for the Arts Fest, videotaped the lecture / presentation by Kathleen and Claire, which you can now see on this YouTube posting which Michael Providenti has uploaded to the Steely Library website:




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