Lesley Dill working in her studio during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Lesley Dill.
The Muses had the opportunity to meet with Brooklyn-based artist Lesley Dill and inquire about her work. Her upcoming exhibit, Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me encourages intellectual conversation about forgotten American historical figures.
Before our questions, Lesley Dill showed us images of her artwork from Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me. With each image, Dill explained how she and her team produced the work in her studio and how it was more difficult since the start of the pandemic. She introduced each historical figure and described what inspired her to make a sculpture of them. She also shared her love of literature and why she incorporates it into her work.
Muses: What pushed you to pursue art with language?
For me, the convergence of language with art is what made me make art. So how did this happen? It happened because my mother sent me a book of Emily Dickinson poetry. I opened the book and I didn’t really like poetry so I thought “Oh mom do I have to read this really big book?” Then I opened the book and the words were so powerful, not all of them but some of them. They jumped up inside me and images for artwork started coming to, like Horace Pippin would say, inside my mind. Then I would tell my heart to go ahead so it was through reading, that powerful act of reading.
I watched TV during this pandemic like everyone else and I had my cell phone and computer but I still think that words are so important like if I say your name, that’s you and something in you is like “Oh hey, that’s me”. You wake up to your name and often there are other words that you wake up to. So I started waking up to the names of historical figures because I didn’t know anything about them so I wanted to learn. My family came here in 1636 to Massachusetts and I thought “Who was alive then?” So I found out that Anne Hutchinson lived then. I have a funny story about her. She was brought to court because she had her own vision of God, and she decided that she would teach her own version of simply being inside her own faith. The Boston ministers who ran the government took her to court and they really scorned her and called her “this American Jezebel”. That she’d rather be a preacher than a hearer and she’d rather be a husband than a wife and there’s some other things about how she spoke with a fluentness of tongue. They also said that she had “intended to sow her seed in us”, which is a little biologically confusing. So there was an instance in which there was a woman who was just simply trying to have grace and teach her friends about it, and they kicked her, her 15 children, and her lovely husband out of Massachusetts.
Who influences your work?
You can see it especially in this body of work that I was introduced early on by an art history class to the sculptor Alberto Giacometti and I loved that his figures were so fragile and flat and vulnerable but they were made out of bronze. So they were flat and vulnerable but also really strong. So in this exhibition, the figures are very flat and slender, as if they didn’t exist. Like Dred Scott, it’s as if he didn’t exist but I made him a hero like really really tall and all of these figures are 8 feet tall. So they are my heroines and my heroes.
What inspired this body of work?
It was inspired by my own ignorance. Not knowing Emily Dickinson wrote during the Civil War. It made me think about the Civil War and why we fought the Civil War. What was it about? Who were the key characters in the Civil War that I could relate to? I didn’t choose or strategize the people chosen in this exhibition. It’s more that one person led to another. In many ways, because this exhibition opened in Iowa and I was aware that Iowa is in the Plains with so many native nations and tribes that lived through those times.
I wanted to do an image of Black Hawk. To do that respectfully and ethically, my friend, the painter Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith, is a Native American and lives in Albuquerque. She said, “Lesley, you can’t just make an image that you want of this incredible Native American war hero.” So I asked what I had to do. She said, “You need to get permission from the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma.” I thought “wow, I have to get permission?” and she said “You have to get permission. Walk into the light so you know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others.” So I printed out a packet of the images of the works I had been working on and I sent them to the Nation with my cell phone, landline, and email and just waited. I didn’t know what else to do.
One day, the phone rang and on the phone, it said Sac and Fox Nation. I immediately thought “Oh my god!” that they would say, “No, you white woman that has not a single drop of color. We are not going to let you do any portrait of our tribal nation hero, Black Hawk” But they didn’t do that. Instead, Juaquin Hamilton-Young Bird said, “Hi, I am the tribal historian and cultural ambassador of the Sac and Fox Nation, and tell me more about your idea for Black Hawk.” I said I wanted to do a simple portrait from the many historical portraits and I was inspired by him. Black Hawk wrote a book and everyone in the exhibition was a speaker or a writer.
He asked to think about it and to talk the following week. I was so thrilled it wasn’t a no and started researching historical paintings of Black Hawk including George Catlin’s painting. In his painting, Black Hawk is holding what looks like a dead crow horizontally. So I was talking to Juaquin and asked if it was a correct historical image. He said “No. it’s not. This bird is not meant to be held that way. This bird is dead but this bird is a dead hollowed out immature golden eagle with feathers attached which we line with soft leather or fabric and we use this as a sacred ceremonial object in our dances that we use to waft our human spirits up to the sky.” I was very excited that this would be a new more truthful portrait of Black Hawk. The stiff hair in the portrait includes real hair but also porcupine and Turkey beard hairs.
Have you always worked with a team, changed your approach? Etc?
No, I got brave by asking permission from the Sac and Fox Nation. I have a friend in NYC who took the name Dread Scott when he was a younger artist and is a fantastic political African American artist. And I think secretly (not so secretly) I just think knowing him gave me some level of comfort with investigating the history of the Dred Scott case – its really convoluted, I had to read so many books to come up with something simple, you know like lost, won, lost, lost, lost, lost.
Also knowing Jaune Quick-To-See-Smith and having her as a friend gave me a sense of comfort with finding out and investigating.
The thing that changed the most was the pandemic, I really just work with Sarah now. I’m potentially going to have some interns come in but we just have to be so careful now.
How long does it take to complete a piece?
Yeah, it takes forever! It took seven years to finish this project with many different teams of interns and assistants. And I have to tell you… it’s really boring. I had a mission to do but I wasn’t running around ecstatic every minute. It’s sort of like okay, I have an idea and I’m going to do it because I hope that it will be interesting to people and they will want to see it but even if they don’t… I’m going to make it for myself.
In the end, we artists, we have to make our artwork for ourselves, for our friends, and that’s what history is also. History is not just the story of the people who win a war. History is about small stories (like) about people who make up the Northern Migration. Each figure led to another figure so I did Horace Pippin. And then the other artist who I absolutely love, and who influences my work for decades is Sister Gertrude Morgan, an Alabama-born woman. I mean her work was so loose and free – I wish I could be like that.
What is the significance of these different figures being in the same place together?
I know, it does seem a little odd, like a strange dinner party. A group of people who probably had nothing to do with each other at all in the history of our country but in a way they do. There’s this interweaving. All these figures are figures of heroism and visionary experiences that lead them to justice, to fight for justice.
John Brown with the beard, fighter, abolitionist. Turns out Horace Pippin did a painting of John Brown going to his hanging so there is a connection between them.
Sister Gertrude Morgan and Mother Ann Lee, these women and their devotion to faith is their connection.
I always like to say. I like to ask this, of this body of work, which two figures spent their whole life dressed in white? One was Sister Gertrude Morgan who had a vision from God. She had a vision that she was to be the bride of Jesus and to be the bride of Jesus, she had to wear all white. The other woman was Emily Dickinson and why? No one knows. Two such different women who chose to wear the same color for the rest of their lives.
When you are working through problems in your work, who do you talk to?
We talked about this a little already with the Tribe and the Dred Scott work.
I talk to my team and also I’m really lucky because my husband will give me his opinion that I don’t always agree with but he has such a large sense of wisdom so I can talk to him.
Through the process of reading, I’m really good friends now with Juaquin and Ray A. Youngbear, who wrote a poem that is coming to the MMFA. For example, I ask Juaquin questions all the time like what’s the difference between a Nation and a Tribe? Do we call them Native Americans or Indians? Most prefer Nation over Tribe. That’s because we’re not talking about boy and girl scout tribes. We’re talking about Nations that are separate from the United States government that hold treaties. They are different and they are special and we are so lucky to have them still part of our culture.
Which artists are in your network?
I love to see what we’re doing.
Jaune Quick To See Smith, already mentioned.
Nancy Spero died about 10 years ago. She married Leon Goulb and was a first-generation Feminist. Her work was all about women and women heroines, the idea of making them the center of the story. When you read history books or older mysteries, they still use the word he to stand for all of us. She was a huge inspiration to me. Even when she was unhealthy and fragile, she kept working.
An older couple lived near us when we lived in Manhattan. Actually, this is an appropriate story to tell on this day. When we lived facing the World Trade Centers so when they came down, we saw them come down. So my husband, Ed, immediately went up to Nancy and Leon’s apartment, to make sure they had money, to go to the bank with them because it was all cordoned off and you weren’t supposed to go in Lower Manhattan at all. It was a big mess. Of course, it was an unimaginable tragedy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I would say to treasure the moments you have joy. Because joy is something really strong and notice when you have the feeling even if it’s 30 seconds outside or watching TV. I don’t think we talk enough about the experience of joy and the strength it gives us. Also, love.