Treasures from the Vault: Lesley Dill

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

I stumbled across Lesley Dill, an American contemporary artist, in my normal fashion, when Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives Lauren Wolfer texted me in all caps: LOOK AT THIS COOL PRINT. So I looked, I agreed it was cool, and here we are with our next treasure from the vault.

Lesley Dill, American, b. 1950. Exhilaration is Within. Lithograph, collage, and thread, 1994. Museum purchase.

Born in 1950, Dill holds a BA in English and MA in Teaching, and began her career as an educator in both public and private schools. It wasn’t until her late 20s that she considered moving to full-time artist, despite her early exposure to craft-making like ceramics, rug making, and weaving through her family. She eventually got an MFA, and her initial works reflect her craft background as they center on sculptures in wood or bronze of vulnerable, sensual figures.

Her preference for natural materials and figural subjects continued into her later works, including the lithograph in the FWMoA collection. She added a more nuanced layer, however, with her incorporation of words, specifically poetry. She credits three experiences for her work at the intersection of art and language. The first was her father, who initially introduced her to the nuances of spoken word as he used a private, metaphorical language. She and her husband moved to India for a few years, and her encounter with women creating henna designs sparked her experimentation with painting text on human models and photographing them, creating “living sculptures” to juxtapose against her initial wood or bronze figures. She later incorporated this motif into other media, including the current spotlighted print. Finally, in 1990, her mother gifted her a book of Emily Dickinson’s poems. These three experiences caused her to reflect upon her own use of language and inspired her to explore the power of language through visual media. Both are forms of communication, and work together help to convey the complexity of transmitting information.

Close up of words and thread. Lesley Dill, American, b. 1950. Exhilaration is Within. Lithograph, collage, and thread, 1994. Museum purchase.

Created four years after receiving her book of Emily Dickinson, in Exhilaration is Within Dill has imposed one of Dickinson’s poems onto the collaged figure of a woman. A lithograph, the woman is assembled from cut pieces of gray paper. With no facial expressions to read, we rely on her body language and the language on her body to communicate with us. The poem speaks of an inner ecstasy or happiness (Wine), that the subject can either hold within themselves, share with another (Visitor), or with God (Sacrament). As an agoraphobic, it is telling that Dickinson expounds upon an inner ecstasy and that what we have inside is most important. Also telling is the way Dill lays out her text: it is inside the figure, not surrounding it. What do we choose to communicate of ourselves to others? What remains hidden away that we do not share with visitor or deity? Are the words and “Outer Wine” meant to reveal or conceal, as they form an outfit for the woman to wear?

Close up of words and thread. Lesley Dill, American, b. 1950. Exhilaration is Within. Lithograph, collage, and thread, 1994. Museum purchase.

In addition to the text, the threads hanging down from the shoulders could represent a tether to the world. Both artist and poet speak of transcendental experiences that often defy language, despite its use of symbols to convey meaning. Though her work is in communication with Dickinson’s, it is not a pure illustration of the text. Instead, it decorates the woman and forces us to stop, squint, and strain to find readable sentences to determine which poem she has chosen. Though not alone in her choice to marry the visual and textual, others like Japanese haiga, Pop artists like our spotlighted Corita Kent, and graffiti artists all incorporate textual markings with visual markings; her work goes beyond the direct message from artist to viewer and instead deals with how we communicate via language.   

Interested in viewing prints from our collection? Come check out the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm, or by appointment.  

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