with Ann McCoy
Nohra Haime | February 14 – March 17, 2018
Lesley Dill came to the Industry City office of the Brooklyn Rail for a conversation with Ann McCoy on the eve of her exhibition LESLEY DILL: Wilderness: Words are where what I catch is me, at the Nohra Haime Gallery (February 14 through March 17, 2018). Her Opera, Divide Light, has its New York premier at Dixon Place on the Lower East side, April 26–29, 2018.
Ann McCoy (Rail): After staying up into the wee hours to watch the film of your 2008 opera Divide Light three times, I am going to have to restrain myself from jumping forward, and start at the beginning. Your childhood vision was included in my June 2014 Brooklyn Rail Critic’s Page on the unconscious. As I remember, the vision began with an apocalyptic scene of war, pestilence, and destruction, and ended with a light-filled peak experience and a voice saying, “Everything will be alright.” You’re the only artist I know whose work is rooted in the visionary experience as a living reality in your own life, in the lives of poets like Emily Dickinson, and in lives of the pilgrims like Mary Rowlandson and Jonathan Edwards who are featured in your current exhibition. You’re a New England Yankee whose family dates back to the pilgrims. That document you’re holding is a copy of your family tree dating back to?
Lesley Dill: May 14, 1634.
Rail: 1634. I love how you mine your roots in the New England Protestant tradition, focusing on their relationship to nature, and their rebellion against organized religion in favor of a personal, internalized devotion, and the social justice movements that sprang from that tradition. You move between their written texts and their histories in a scholarly but highly intuitive way—their words resonate deeply within you. Your first project that I knew about, which for me seemed to shape a lot of your work, was Tongues on Fire: Vision and Ecstasy—that you did at the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art in, what was it, 2001?
Dill: Yes, 2000, 2001; it was a year-and-a-half long community project.
Rail: Just to recap it quickly for the readers, you made a kind of archive of people’s inner experiences or experiences they couldn’t explain.
Dill: David Brown of SECCA invited me to do a project, and so many fantastic artists had gone before me—Fred Wilson, Maya Lin—I thought hard what to do. Under creative pressure, I thought, I guess the most important and possibly simple project to do is one that is truthful to me. And I realized that there was a truth in my life that was actually a truth and a secret at the same time. I’ve never really told anyone, including my husbands, about the vision that I had when I was an adolescent girl. I thought, before I talk about it, before I even acknowledge it, let me find out if there are other people who have had spontaneous, revelatory experiences. And maybe I will find these people in the South. Being such a northerner, the South seemed a magical, Faulkner-esque land where the impossible could happen. I thought these people might have had these experiences, and I could learn from them.
Rail: I loved the way that you collected experiences, catalogued them, and then took them to the Emmanuel Baptist Church to be sung by their choir. As I remember, when you walked in, they were singing the song “I Heard a Voice.” Talk about synchronicity!
Dill: And I suppose we should identify what these experiences are. What is the range of having an experience that wakes you up? One of my favorite stories is of this boy who said that he was crossing the street, and he caught the beautiful brown eyes of this girl. And in the instant of seeing those eyes he fell; he fell in love. Something opened up for him. Even the most quotidian events in our lives can be doors and windows that open us up to a wider experience, even a startled experience.
Rail: Sadly, today the importance of inner revelatory experiences is not valued; the external and material take precedence over the inner life. Coming from a Catholic background and reading the lives of saints, I understood the importance of the inner revelation early on. Now it’s getting a bit better in the art world because artists like Hilma af Klint are coming back around in museum exhibitions. But academia is still in a sort of Positivist lockdown dominated by critical theory. Today’s social justice warriors forget activists like the abolitionists John Brown and Sojourner Truth were motivated by divine guidance and holy fervor.
Dill: For Tongues on Fire and the community in Winston-Salem, my directive, my intent with myself, the museum staff, and especially the education curator, Terri Dowell-Dennis was to reach “everyone.” I didn’t know whom I might expect to have experiences of dreamlike opening and suddenness; experiences that grounded and inspired, had a feeling of flame-like expansion. So I went to schools, to churches, to the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], and the most unexpected people—I mean, I say unexpected because it turned out rapidly that I had no expectation at all of who would have had these experiences. And even today when I give talks about my work, and I describe the vision I had and this project, almost always someone will come up to me and say, “You know, I had this experience. This is something that happened to me. I’ve never told anyone. I’m going to tell you now. What do you think?”
Rail: I remember you telling me that you’d been baptized in that church by the Reverend John Mendez.
Dill: I was.
Rail: It is touching, that you with this congregation, experienced baptism in this African American church—a rebirth “by water and spirit.”
Dill: Well, they took me in. They were so warm and welcoming. And they took the visions of the community, the 700 visions, and put those words of the community to their traditional hymns. And at the culmination, at the exhibit, they came and sang these songs with the language of the people of the community back to the community.
Rail: I love that kind of circularity that loops back to the African American community. You’ve worked with Sister Gertrude Morgan and Sojourner Truth—women who had religious experiences that changed their lives. I wonder if this experience with the church led you to Sojourner Truth and Sister Gertrude Morgan, both featured in your current exhibition.
Dill: I don’t know. I can’t draw a linear line. But I felt a sense of ease and inclusion. The Tongues on Fire project immediately led into the next project, which was in Boulder, Colorado. Because I had experienced music and meaning with a choir at the Emmanuel Baptist Church, I was able to work with the Ars Nova Singers and the a capella singing group in Boulder on Interviews with the Contemplative Mind.
Rail: These were the forty-five singers who are part of your opera?
Dill: They were not. It began long before; I worked with Tom Morgan, the director and founder of Ars Nova singers, for about eight years, and the opera was born from him and myself in collaboration. To my sorrow, he got sick and was not able to continue. And then the wonderful, talented composer Richard Marriott stepped in, and we have worked together for ten years now. It didn’t seem like her words could be sung in any other way than an opera. Opera has the breadth and the depth and the width that her poetry has.
Rail: In your writing you’re talking about how—maybe because of this first experience with the Baptist choir—when words are sung it’s very different from reading them.
Dill: You’re right, and you reminded me that the starting point of this was when Terri and I were told that we should go to Emmanuel Baptist Church because Reverend Mendez was a really great man and he’d be open to what we had to say. So we walked in as the Gullah-based spiritual choir was singing “I heard a voice,”—not the general praise choir but the antiphonal choir of the elders. The sound went right through me. I felt all the pores in my body open up instantly.
Rail: Wow. When I was preparing for this interview I watched a YouTube video of Sister Gertrude Morgan playing her tambourine and singing “Let Us Make a Record.” She performed gospel songs to finance her orphanage housing twenty orphans—talk about social activism.
Dill: It is, and you’re right. Words ride differently out of the body when they are sung. Words can be spoken as prayer, as incantation, as conversation, as lecture, as private murmur. But words that are sung tangibly resonate out from the person singing, and they sink in to our ears and our skin as vibratory sensation. We are affected in a larger physical way…more intuitive.
Rail: I was watching Divide Light, which uses the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and looking back through all of your work, I thought, I don’t know of a single artist who works with words and with written texts as much as you do. You are a visual artist creating images covered in words. Many iconoclast traditions are rooted in words and forbid images. Like in Islam or Judaism, where representational images are prohibited in their sacred art. That’s also very much a Protestant phenomenon where reformers like John Wycliffe and the Lollards smashed religious statuary and crucifixes, calling them “dead stone and rotten sticks.” When I visited your studio, you were talking about Mary Rowlandson’s dress and how you could not embroider a cross on it.
Dill: Right. I was wondering as I was making these garments for Jonathan Edwards, Edward Taylor, Ann Hutchinson, Mary Rowlandson, thinking about these early Protestant people, and whether they would use the sign of the cross as a devotional symbol. Should I use the sign of the cross embroidered on these garments that I’m making? I was referred to a historian, Sally Promey, at Yale Divinity School. She did research with two Jonathan Edwards scholars, and she told me no, that no Puritan would ever say yes to using the cross because it was idolatrous. Anything that was not the book—the Bible—was idolatrous. Even a book of prayer was idolatrous. There was no celebration of Christmas, Jesus’s birthday; it was just a day like any other day. All this was thought of as being too Anglican and Catholic.
Rail: I had never seen Sister Gertrude Morgan’s work. When I researched her and saw her art, her paintings reminded me a little bit of yours with all of the hand-written text.
Dill: When I went to the American Folk Art Museum in 2004, I thought, wow, who is this woman? I felt like I found family. And the artist was Sister Gertrude Morgan. She paints colorful images with accompanying impassioned, swervy writing, like Howard Finster, another fantastic American artist combining imagery with text. For myself, I would never do an artwork that was only text, like you just said with the Qur’an; just like I would never do an artwork that was just image. For me there has to be both. There has to be an image, and there has to be language.
Rail: I was just thinking of Howard Finster. Didn’t he start making art because he looked at his palm and heard the voice of God say, “Howard, you’re gonna be a man of visions.”
Dill: I think so. That’s more than I remember; that’s great.
Rail: You’re also a scholar. From childhood, words were incredibly important to you; you were a big reader. When you were given a book of Dickinson when you were forty, you said it was like eating—the words went into your brain and into your body and were causing a reaction. It was an event that activated and still activates this response in you. So many artists work with words, from Ed Ruscha to Joseph Kosuth, but I don’t know anyone who works with words in the totally immersive way you do in works like in Divide Light. You read vast amounts of their work and cull from them—it’s a very unique relationship to words.
Dill: Meaning is in us already, waiting to wake up. I feel grateful for waking up through words. I was so taken by Tom Sleigh’s words in his Jonathan Edwards poem “Portrait of Myself as Jonathan Edwards:” “words are where what I catch is me.” I thought, “Oh my goodness, he wrote for me!” But of course he didn’t. He’s a poet with a wide audience; he wrote those words for him and for all of his people. Words are where what I catch is me. So, words for me are a strong visual story. In college I was an English major.
Rail: You told me you were reading William James in college.
Dill: One day I was in a class called “Ecstasy,” in the religion department at Trinity College, and at that class the teacher said—we were reading Marguerita Laski, Ecstasy: a Study of some Secular and Religious Experiences—and the teacher said, “Has anybody here had a vision, had a moment in time that stood still, had a dream that comes back day after day?” And in that instant, with this blank piece of paper in front of me, I remembered that I had this vision. I felt it, I felt it secondhand, the memory of it. I didn’t re-experience it, but I realized that I had it in me all this time.
The other moment of awakening was when my mother gave me a book of Emily Dickinson poetry. And that was when I was forty—no young duckling. She gave me that book, and I read lines from the Dickinson book—To be alive is power…and I felt my life with both my hands to see if it was there…I like a look of agony because I know it’s true. There is something about the way those words are linked together, that they jumped up. They jumped off the page, then into my eyes like little birds flying, and into my body—and yes, like you just said—something happened. My unconscious opened up, and streams of images started to happen. And I thought, “Ohh, I have a magic book.” This book gave me absolute confidence. I’m an introvert, so to get confidence was a special treat.
Rail: In Divide Light several different things are going on: words are written on Chinese-inspired scrolls pulled out from the performers; you have words on the costumes of the musicians and singers; and then you have this amazing scrim with one front projection of a virtual waterfall of Emily Dickinson’s words. Emily Dickinson was so private, yet you have this introverted poet taken into another dimension. You discuss this theatricality and interiority in your writing, yet the theatrical world with your projections and costumes give these words a tremendous dimensionality. The singers occupy a space inside this three-dimensional world of words that are projected on top of the singers, the musicians. It’s almost a total immersion. Divide Light was for me a huge breakthrough in your work—your magnum opus.
Dill: I think you’re so correct. After the 2008 opera my art work changed visually. In theatre, people look at the texts on costume and animations from the distance up to the twenty-fourth or more row. There had to be some graphic relationship between the scale of the words and the images and the audience. After working on the opera for three years, I was able to be in front of language in a way that I hadn’t been before. I now look for a more trumpeted clarity of linguistic outreach. And I was able to make Hell Hell Hell/Heaven Heaven Heaven: Encountering Sister Gertrude Morgan & Revelation; Faith & the Devil; and this one, Wilderness.
Rail: You also say in some of your writing that you’re an extreme introvert, and that when you’re in the theater—because you’re in the audience and not on stage, it’s an altered relationship to theater. I think that’s perhaps the best relationship for an introvert. Yet, you were able to have this incredibly private psychic interiority projected twenty feet high on the scrim.
Dill: I love what you’re saying because I see myself—in general, in theater, in religion, in poetry, and in history—as not in the river; I’m not a poet, I’m not a minister, I’m not a singer, I’m not a music director, I’m not a composer, I’m not an actor. I am on the riverbank. I am watching the river go by, and using the energy of the river, but I’m not in it.
Rail: But you’re also an amazing facilitator and artist, so don’t sell yourself short, because you’re able to bring all of these experiences together in an amazing way.
Dill: And also the joys of collaboration; the video projections and the animations were done in collaboration with the incredible Laura Oxendine and Benjamin Schellpfeffer under direction of Ed Robbins, who also made the film of the 2008 opera. Working with composer Richard Marriott on the music. And now, for the 2018 re-staged performance, working with the eight singers of the New Camerata Opera.
It was tricky pitching this as an opera. I’m asked what it’s about, and I say, this is not about the prince on a horse going into the woods and looking up at the golden bird, and he shoots the golden bird and it turns into a princess. I tell this story to my opera people and they go, “Oh! That’s a great story!” And I say no, we’re doing Dickinson. We’re not doing an opera of Emily Dickinson in her room writing on little pieces of paper. Her poetry, her words, stand tall as identity and narrative. Our story arc is starting with poignancy and dusk, moving to loneliness and dark, and ending with dawn and joyous exhilaration. This is a being-ness we repeat day after day as humans, and as Dickinson writes in the breadth of her poetry—such power—the ruthlessness, the width, “The brain is wider than the sky,” “The Infinite a sudden Guest,” “The Soul has bandaged moments,” “Kill the Calm, Stab the Bird,” “Some too Fragile for Winter Winds”—this language goes from dark to light and from narrow to wide. It’s her words that are the story, not the persona.
Rail: I want to go back to Dickinson, because what you just said—your original vision was this dark apocalyptic war zone, like the one in the Bhagavad-Gita. You said some of the Puritans like Jonathan Edwards often had an experience of extreme darkness. In Dickinson the darkness is dark, but also light. “I see thee better in the dark.” The lightness is light, but also dangerous. “A toad can die in the light.” What I find interesting about your work is that we’re also living in a very dark period of Orwellian perpetual war. You’re one of the few artists I know who moves from a place of darkness into a place of the light, with the poets you choose and also with your own vision. Do you want to expound on this a little?
Dill: No. I’m not a cognitive intellectual person like you are. [Laughter] I’m a dog of intuition on a leash to intellectualism. So, you know, one is what one is because there are things that one can’t do and can’t say and can’t speak.
Rail: But all of your characters come to a place of light, of revelation. I think of modern theorists like Julia Kristeva as being too stuck in the darkness. Your characters aren’t stuck in the darkness; it goes into another place, like activism, or ecstasy, or poetic beauty. This is what interests me.
Dill: Me too, and this is why all of the writers—the ones who are going to be in the exhibition coming up—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Rowlandson, Anne Hutchinson—
Rail: —Walt Whitman, John Brown, Jonathan Edwards, Sojourner Truth—
Dill: —they engage with the ‘night times’ of life, and then by meeting things head-on, by speaking out, there’s a transformative quality in moving from the darkness to the light. Whereas, in moving from light to darkness, it feels like sad death. The transformation of darkness to light feels like botanical growth. It feels like a rise of the soul; there’s something triumphant about it.
Rail: That’s what I love about your work. I think it’s very profound. Even in the opera I got a sense of this.
You wear the mantle of the personages in your exhibition; you’ve made clothing to represent them. Traditionally in your work clothing has often covered in words, with script. You did Sister Gertrude Morgan’s wedding dress, where her writing filled long veils of the dress. The latest version of this is in Divide Light, where words and the costume come together.
Dill: You’re right. Clothing houses the house that houses the soul. So I first started making clothing as an artist because of my inwardness, and I felt I could make an armor for myself; I could make gentleness for myself. I could make forthrightness, and these surrogate sculptures could go out in the world. These eight-foot sculptures are personae, not just clothing. They are intricately stitched into, and therefore speak the slow nature of how the body lives with and absorbs language as an internal tattoo, bit by bit, day by day. We release to the world readable/hearable language…not that often.
Rail: I found them interesting because the Bible is full of many references to garments—to putting on a garment. All of these people are very much involved with the Bible; in many cases it was probably their only book.
Dill: It was their only book, for those early ones.
Rail: In your exhibition at Nohra Haime, the viewer also inhabits both the words and the garments.
Dill: The act of reading by the viewer, or the trying to read by the viewer, indicates/identifies the head [of the garment]. The cognition that is involved in recognizing that some of these marks, these stitches, these jumbled letters, are possibly something that could be read, puts the viewer’s mind in the work and is a stand-in for the cognitive function of the head. In my mind, in my hope.
Rail: There’s something very touching about these garments. They sort of remind me of displays in Shaker museums where they’ll have vitrines of Shaker clothing, and you get a real sense of the people through their clothing.
Dill: Well some of these figures, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mary Rowlandson, and Walt Whitman, are embroidered with horsehair. Given the theme of “wilderness,” I see some of these personas as almost feral because they are imbued with the forest and violence and intensity of early wild New England. They themselves became bristling animals, sometimes uncomfortable in their own…
Rail: You have two characters who share the experience of being captured by indigenous peoples; one is Mary Rowlandson. She was treated fairly well—one of her children died—but she came back and wrote a best-selling book about her experience. And then you have…
Dill: Let me interject for a moment. She was captured by the Narragansett for eleven weeks. She had an infant with her, and it died, and she experienced great sorrow. And…Ann, I do doubt that her captivity narrative would have been considered a “best-seller,” but perhaps it is true.
Rail: Mary Rowlandson writes about her relationship with these indigenous people, which probably was pretty horrific for her—
Dill: For her it was strange and wild, but for the tribe it was natural life.
Rail: And then you have Anne Hutchinson, whose daughter is also taken into captivity. Hutchinson has what, fifteen children, fourteen children, and is highly intelligent—the daughter of a clergyman. She starts private meetings at her house and then she becomes a theologian of sorts. So you have these two women who are visionaries, intellectuals, and they’re very independent. Both have this relationship to the world of nature, which at the fringes is very frightening—full of what they thought were savages.
Dill: The Native Americans thought that they, the white Europeans, were savages and were bringing a horrible wilderness to them. So it’s a mutual experience.
Rail: A mutual experience of what ended up being a mass genocide of a whole continent of indigenous people.
Dill: Yes, these people who’ve I devoted my work to…they were wrong. They conquered a land in a way that they shouldn’t have
Rail: It’s complicated, the whole idea of Manifest Destiny, of European expansion. I grew up in the West and had friends from the Apache tribe and several Pueblos, so I certainly understand the other side of that coin. You inhabit and celebrate some very interesting and strong women in this exhibition. One is Mary Rowlandson, another is Ann Hutchinson, and the other is Sojourner Truth. Soujourner has an incredibly difficult time escaping slavery. She wins the first lawsuit of a black woman in a white society to recover one of her children. She’s a freed slave who practically starts a movement. These women start with some sort of internal revelatory experience. Could you talk to me about why you chose these women?
Dill: Our early history is about men, and by the men who wrote about it. I wondered…When did we hear the first woman’s voice? When did we read the first woman’s voice? There are probably others that I don’t know of because I’m not a historian, but I was particularly taken with Mary Rowlandson, because she was in the category of say, a victim, but she prevailed and thus changed her category. She lived her life, she didn’t become an Indian princess, she actually became the slave of her Indian Master Quinnipin, she sewed his shirts and got his dinner for him. She survived, and then her miracle happened to her. There was a Bible stolen in plunder, and they gave it to her, and that gave her the strength to carry on. It was that moment of what we might call good luck, but she saw it as a directive from God that she was going to be alright, and to carry on. And indeed she was released from captivity. Her words describing what happened—like an Operetta—like she’s describing a theater set—“the vast howling wilderness”—and the way in which she writes is clothed in the linguistic vestments of the age. This is the sound of her words: [reading] “A true history of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, a minister’s wife in New England, amongst the Algonquin for eleven weeks, and her deliverance, written by her own hand.” That’s what took me, written by her own hand, and it was important enough that she herself noted that. And the men who published it included that as well. There’s something else she says that really struck me, and that reminded me of Emily Dickinson. She wrote, “Affliction I wanted, and affliction I had. I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles.” So then, reading about Jonathan Edwards, they felt you had to suffer so that you could then experience true grace and salvation. I find—as an outsider—some of the religious philosophy fascinating. It resonates for me in the same way that Emily Dickinson does. As she writes, “Renunciation is a Piercing Virtue—a putting out of Eyes.”
Rail: That’s an interesting thought because it’s one that’s sort of lost today. It goes back to the Greeks, who had something called the “action-suffering-learning” cycle, that enlightenment had to come from suffering. It’s a value that I don’t think is appreciated today; no one wants to suffer now, they want to pop a Xanax. [Laughter].
Dill: Except Buddhists. [Laughs]
Oh, also, Mary Rowlandson…how should I say it…Mary Rowlandson ate the fetus of a deer fawn inside of a female deer that was killed. I said that really awkwardly, but in any case, she wrote that, she was thinking how repulsed she would be if she were not in this situation of near starvation like the tribe was. So she was transformed, and I think that’s the role of poetry and language. One of the really strong voices that we have today, for transformation, is that poetic voice.
Rail: The poets are really carrying that transformative vision forward?
Dill: Yes, I think so.
Rail: What about Anne Hutchinson? She starts her own kind of religious group for women, and the elders in her community find this almost heretical, disturbing. I believe she was actually tried, and charged as a ‘Jezebel.’ She’s a key figure in the history of religious freedom and of women in ministry, challenging the authority of male ministers. This is something that doesn’t exist today in most Christian traditions, this idea that a woman can challenge the authority of male religious figures.
Dill: I think because she had her vision of immediate revelation while she was on the ship coming over here, she felt grounded in grace. And that—as a good Puritan woman—gave her a feeling of total safety and comfort in her life, and a reason to be who she was. So she felt that it was the experience of events of illumination that give a conviction that you’re right. It gives you a conviction that you’re inside of truth. So she was fearless. What makes the women in early America, and even in America today, have utter conviction? In Anne Hutchinson, it was in her experience of grace and of God.
Rail: She heard an inner guiding voice. It wasn’t an experience through a religious group. It was a personal, revelatory experience with God.
Dill: Almost all the personas that I’m working with have un-asked-for visionary experiences. They are not sought after. They have them, and they react to them, and it affects their lives.
Rail: In Carl Jung’s book Memoirs, Dreams, Reflections, he talks about the importance of these visions, the importance of inner voices, and how these experiences can really determine the rest of a person’s path in life. I remember somebody asking a Rabbi why nobody ever hears the voice of God today, and the rabbi says, “Because people no longer know how to bow low enough to hear.” I thought that was such a wonderful answer; this idea of opening one’s self, of being open to experience other dimensions, and other voices.
I feel like we’re so mired in a kind of pseudo-rationalism, that we’ve forgotten what William James talks about in terms of varieties of religious experience.
Dill: They had their experiences in modesty, restriction, and inner joy. It changed the course of their lives. Jonathan Edwards as well, and Sojourner Truth.
I believe language as song and as text possesses a kind of quietness, a space that allows words’ power to evoke and move emotions. I’m interested in the soft space behind language.
“To be alive is Power—Existence in itself—without a Further Function—Omipotence—Enough.”
ANN MCCOY is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She teaches in the Yale School of Drama, graduate design, and was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019.