Entry begun Thursday, March 5, at 8:00 pm
I had never studied Emily Dickinson in graduate school. When I entered the Master’s program at Columbia University in 1966, the guiding text in our American Literature proseminar was Eight American Authors, all of whom were male. It is hard to believe it now, but Thomas Johnson’s pioneer edition of the Complete Poems was only eleven years old. I have a vague memory of our being assigned a few Dickinson poems as a curiosity during that one-year M. A. program, but I have no memory of encountering Dickinson or her poetry during my doctoral studies in 19th-Century American Literature.
I began to really enjoy Dickinson when teaching as a young professor straight out of graduate school in the 1970s. Northern Kentucky University was a brand-new university and we had very few upper-division literature classes. Our four-course teaching load each semester consisted of three courses in Freshman Composition and either an Introduction to Literature or a survey course. I began to love selected poems by Dickinson while teaching them to my Intro to Lit or American Lit Survey courses.
When we got more chances to teach upper-division English course in the 1980s, I considered teaching a course on Henry James, who had been one of my graduate school interests. But I feared that his long, complex novels might be too much of a burden for our students, many of whom were commuters who worked 20-30 hours a week, over the course of a fifteen-week semester. I had always felt that James and Dickinson were very similar in their psychological insights even though he wrote mammoth novels and she wrote tiny poems, so it struck me that a one-semester course alternating between these two authors might strike up a good rhythm for my students. The fact that that each author never married, living a single life whose emotional affiliations and possible celibacy remained mysterious, seemed another reason to bring them together for at least one fifteen-week engagement.
It was after Fred North in my 1994 class in Melville and the Arts asked if he could create a painting rather than write a research paper as his final project that I decided to open that option to students in my other literature courses. Jill Schlarman in my American Literature Survey course in 1999 was my first student to use this option to create visual art inspired by Dickinson. She presented four charcoal drawings as her final project at the end of the semester, and I liked one of them so much I asked if I could buy it from her as an inspiration for future students. When I acquired that drawing in 1999 I never imagined that eighteen years later it would be on exhibition with 39 other works inspired by Dickinson in my literature classes. Only now, can I say in retrospect, in the words of J. 843. “I made slow Richest but my Gain / Was steady as the Sun.”
During the first decade of the new century, I would occasionally acquire works from my students that I thought might be of interest to future students. As soon as Camilla Asplen presented I took my Power in my Hand, and Ellen Bayer’s presented Emily, 2001, near the end of the 2001 Fall Semester, I knew that I wanted to show these to future classes. I felt the same way when Brian Morris presented I cannot see my soul but I know ‘tis there, and Alan Johnston presented his Alaskan landscape The Sun went Down—no Man looked on, at the end of the 2005 Fall Semester. Fortunately, all four students were willing to part with these works so future students could enjoy them. But I never dreamed that these works by Camilla and Brian would one day adorn the front and back covers of a full-cover catalog.
Paging through our Dickinson catalog makes it easy to identify the other works I had acquired by the end of the first decade of our current century. From my Dickinson and James class during the 2008 Fall semester I acquired Julie Viltrakis’ riff on Dickinson’s Over the Fence and my first two Dickinson videos, Emily Grant’s film trailer inspired by a Joyce Carol Oates short story, and Ashley Theissen’s film trilogy inspired by poems 1173, 1632, and 630. That was also the class that produced my first Dickinson quilt, Laura Beth Thrasher’s Henry and Emily. When Emma Rose and I began creating our Dickinson catalog, I realized why I had been saving those classroom presentation photos and artist statements all these years.
Students in my 2010 Fall Semester course in Dickinson and James created another diverse set of works that I was able to acquire for the benefit of future students. These included Kimberly Estey’s photographic panorama of Dickinson’s Amherst home, Emily Christman’s fictional antique newspaper Dickinson News, and Carol Scaringelli’s mixed-media drawing of a Dickinsonian woman reaching out to grasp beauty. I was happy to have all of these on hand when we began installing our current exhibition, with Kimberly’s photographic panorama fitting perfectly on the shelf above Emily’s antique newspaper, Julie Viltrakis’ Over the Fence, and Molly Blackburn’s Fame diptych from my most recent class.
I did not yet realize in 2010 that my sporadic collection of Dickinson artwork was already reaching the condition of those “Riches” in the second stanza of J. 843:
All days I did not earn the same
But my perceiveless Gain
Inferred the less by Growing than
The Sum that it had grow.
I did already sense that the whole was becoming more than the sum of its parts, but I had not yet envisioned what those parts might add up to.
The magnitude of my “Gain” remained “perceiveless” until I taught my first graduate class in Dickinson and James during the 2011 Fall Semester. Although many of these students responded well to James, the intensity of their response to Dickinson was evident as soon as we began reading and discussing her poetry. When this semester ended with Nicci Mechler presenting her life-size painting Susie’s Girl, and Heather Braley her Emily Dickinson Quilt, and Carola Bell her artist book Only Safe in Ashes, and Tom Clark his multi-media, multi-disciplinary evocation of Emily’s Civil War, and Lauren Magee her time-travel podcast of Emily at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, I knew a new “solstice” had been “passed” in my teaching of Dickinson. It was time to give Henry a rest and teach my first all-Emily course : Dickinson and the Arts.
One year later, my first course in Dickinson and the Arts was everything I hoped it would be. It was wonderful to teach songs by Aaron Copland, Jake Heggie, and others along with visual art by Lesley Dill, Joseph Cornell, and others, while also making the artwork created by my previous NKU students more integral to the course than ever before. I was delighted when this entire class took the creative option at the end of the semester in a variety of projects that included an original song inspired by “I could not stop for death” and a live performance adapted from the Belle of Amherst in addition to the vast variety of visual art by Molly Blackburn, Stacey Barnes, Hilda Weaver, Minadora Macheret, Keianna Troxell, Caitlin Neely, Rachel Harpe, and Jordan D’Addario that has found a place in the current exhibition. I was also delighted when Shawn Rehkamp, like Melissa Gers before him, devoted the next semester to an Independent Study project in which he made a website featuring the creative work of all of his classmates. His Blossoms of the Brain website is posted alongside Melissa’s website on the computer in our current exhibition. You can see it right here with this link: http://www.nku.edu/~blossoms/index.html
By the time Shawn and several of his Fall 2012 classmates presented their Emily Dickinson projects at the Celebration of Student Research and Creativity in April 2013, Emma Rose Thompson was building the scale model for a hypothetical exhibition that she would presenting two weeks later as her final project in my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts. Emma Rose and I had already decided that we would like to collaborate in finding a venue for a full-scale exhibition that we could co-curate in Moby-Dick art created by NKU students. I realized by then that I had already accumulated enough excellent student work inspired by Dickinson to make a very interesting, if considerably smaller, companion exhibition. Our ideal venue would be the Fine Arts galleries at NKU. Because Emma Rose would be proposing that the work she would do on the Moby-Dick exhibition would serve as her Senior Show as a BFA Art History major, we thought our Moby proposal had a good chance of being accepted for the Main Gallery. We also proposed a concurrent exhibition of Emily Dickinson art in the much smaller Third Floor Gallery just across the hall.
We very disappointed when these proposals were both rejected, but we had enjoyed the process of envisioning these exhibitions, so we decided to search for other venues. This actually worked out well in terms of the Dickinson exhibition, because it made available the exceptional range of quality visual art that students presented as final projects in my 2014 Spring Semester course in Dickinson and the Arts. Of these, the ones that are displayed on the walls and display cases of our current exhibition include the artist books by Jack Campbell, Megan Beckerich, and Austin Alley; the poem dress by Lindsay Alley; the portrait pieces by Rachel Harpe and Sarah Dewald; the landscape and nature pieces by Zack Ghaderi, Shannon Adcock, and Jovana Vidojevic; the human figure pieces by Kelsea Miskell, Matt Ruiz, and John Campbell; and Emily to the People, Sarah Kellam’s YouTube version of the public artwork she painted under the Twelfth Street Bridge in Covington. Within nine months of the end-of-the-semester photograph of his class out on the lawn of the Honors House in early May 2014, our exhibition was opening in the Farris Reading Room and Third Floor Entrance of the Steely library in early February 2015.
None of these Dickinson events would have happened—not the exhibition, not the catalog, not Marathon Reading, not the new art works by Piercefield and Illouz, not the song recital by Gelbwasser and Keller, not the Exhibition Walk or the Panel Discussion or the Tea Party—had not Emma Rose Thompson, during the 2013 Spring Semester, agreed to take on the idea of an Emily Dickinson student art exhibition as well as a Moby-Dick one. The work we have done together since then would not have been possible without the support of a great number of individuals and offices who have been mentioned appreciatively in the course of this blog. The one person who most made it all possible is Michael Providenti, who liked the idea of the Dickinson exhibition as soon as we proposed it, and then secured the approval of the exhibitions committee of the Steely Library. I am glad I got a photo of him and Emma Rose together during a quiet moment in the Arts Fest, as a visible reminder of how he has been there to help us address any challenges or suprises along the way.
Michael, in addition to being quite photogenic himself, is a fine photographer. He was here for much of the Arts Fest to document the event for the library, and occasionally I would be taking a photo of a scene in which he was present with his camera taking a photo in the direction of me, as in the image immediately below from the second day of the Marathon:
Among the many “Riches” I received immediately after the Arts Fest was the link Michael sent to the one hundred plus photos of our events he had uploaded to a Flicker account. Most of the photos he took are much better than those I took of the same subject, so I invite you to cruise through them with this link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/steelylibrary/sets/72157650955336776/with/16430885307/
Another form of Riches care from The Northerner, our student newspaper. In the online issue published a few days after the Arts Fest, Kiana Berry published an excellent overview of the whole range of activities, interviewing an impressive number of student artists and alums: http://www.thenortherner.com/arts-and-life/campus-arts/2015/02/18/three-day-arts-fest-sparked-by-a-collaboration-of-passion/
Yet another form came from Lindsey Rudd, the videographer from The Northerer who with Kiana had interviewed Emma Rose and Matt Ruiz right after the Piercefield / Illouz presentation while the rest of us were going downstairs to the Archive.
I had seen the interview in process as I was leaving the Reading Room, but I did not know the content until Lindsey sent me this YouTube link:
I love especially the way the short video interview ends, with Emma Rose saying she was “really happy things turned out the way they did,” because “if someone had told me how to do it, I wouldn’t have made those mistakes that helped me learn things,” a dynamic she then compared to the process of many of the students whose work was in our show. .
I was amazed that Emma Rose had learned so much about Dickinson, and intuited so much about Dickinson’s poetry, without having studied Dickinson herself, but only from what she had picked up second-hand, so to speak, from the works of visual art students in my successive classes had created in response to that poetry. On the day that John Campbell’s screen came over from Greaves Concert Hall, we found a spot for the picture of us together we’d always wanted to have taken while working on this project.
I think we chose this part of the screen because we liked it visually as a background. I also like the fact that these three panels represent (a) the writing implements Dickinson used, (b) the fascisles into which she stitched the poems she write, and (c) the “gorgeous nothings” that had tumbled out of some folders in a library archive early in our own century, miscellaneous scraps, receipts, and shaped envelopes on which Dickinson, in her daily life, had scribbled down poetic fragments on the run, as it were. Those are only the most recent of the “slow Riches” she left for us to savor and treasure.