Power in My Hand: Five Women Artists in Conversation with Emily Dickinson

Since the discovery of almost 1,800 poems after her death in 1886, readers and artists alike have studied, adopted, and celebrated the work of Emily Dickinson. As noted by poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, Dickinson’s work remains relevant in its focus on the feminine and the interior—in the literal sense of the domestic realm and, metaphorically, in the expression of the inner self. Five works in the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center’s exhibition Power in My Hand: Women Poets, Women Artists, and Social Change testify to the enduring legacy of Dickinson’s work.

Sue Huggins Leopard, Past Surmise: Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson, 2008; Multimedia, 2 x 19 1/2 in. (prints); box: 14 x 22 x 2 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Sue Huggins Leopard

In Emily Dickinson, a preparatory drawing for a place setting in her renowned installation The Dinner Party (1977), Judy Chicago (b. 1939) emphasized the link between sexuality, empowerment, and liberation using materials and techniques that would have been familiar to Dickinson and her Victorian milieu. Ribbon work references Victorian sewing techniques, while lace simultaneously embodies reticent femininity and oppression, a seemingly delicate fabric hardened and immobile in porcelain.

A tactile exploration of Dickinson’s work continues in the photography of Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949). The artist photographed a white dress of Dickinson’s against a sharp, dark background. This “portrait” of Dickinson opened Leibovitz’s book Pilgrimage, an exploration of the spaces and belongings of individuals she admires. The photograph evokes the same traditional femininity depicted by Chicago, but here the viewer must consider the absent body of the poet.

The delicate collages of multidisciplinary artist Lesley Dill (b. 1950) respond to Dickinson’s work by incorporating the poet’s text within them. In The Poetic Body—Gloves, Ears, Eyes (1992), Dill depicts the visceral experience of language, giving it an interpreted shape made from Japanese silk tissue paper, accented by letterpress, and structured into collage. Dill’s collage is exhibited alongside a group of works that reflect on spirituality, faith, and the nature of the psyche.

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Judy Chicago, Emily Dickinson (preparatory drawing for The Dinner Party), 1977; Mixed media on paper, 23 1/8 x 35 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition fund; © 1977 Judy Chicago; Image by Google

Dickinson Dress

Annie Leibovitz, photograph of Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, from Pilgrimage; Photo by Emily Moore, courtesy of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

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Lesley Dill, The Poetic Body—Gloves, Ears, Eyes, 1992; Lithograph with letterpress and collage on paper, 13 1/8 x 18 1/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members' Acquisition Fund; © Lesley Dill

Herxheimer-Your Candle

Sophie Herxheimer, poems by Emily Dickinson, Your Candle Accompanies the Sun: My Homage to Emily Dickinson, 2017; Artist's book by Henningham Family Press; Photo by Jennifer Page

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Sue Huggins Leopard, Past Surmise: Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson, 2008; Multimedia, 2 x 19 1/2 in. (prints); box: 14 x 22 x 2 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist; © Sue Huggins Leopard

Reframing Dickinson’s cloistered life, artist Sophie Herxheimer explored the idea that one can be fixed in space physically, but mobile through imagination and intellect. Her work Your Candle Accompanies the Sun: My Homage to Emily Dickinson (2017) was created during a time in her own life when she was “stuck indoors, quite anxious, unable to do much.” Through collages that include Dickinson’s work, Herxheimer’s own poetry, and images cut from a 1930’s book of Swiss tourist photos, the piece demonstrates the creative potency of inspiration and relative isolation.

Printmaker and book artist Sue Huggins Leopard developed an interest in writers and their work, and she began to integrate poetry into her own print projects. She uses the technical process of bookmaking as a way to picture the invisible and embody emotions. Her work Past Surmise: Twelve Poems by Emily Dickinson (2008) explores and communes with Dickinson’s delight in the “small miracles of nature and being.”

In describing her creative process, Dickinson once wrote, “I work to drive the awe away, yet awe impels the work.” In their visual homages to Dickinson, these five artists keep the spirit of Dickinson—and her awe—alive.

—Emily Moore is the archival assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Kiki Smith

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Kiki Smith (b. 1954), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Kiki Smith, Untitled (for David Wojnarowicz), 2000

Kiki Smith, Untitled (for David Wojnarowicz), 2000; Etching and engraving, with aquatint, spitbite, and sugarlift on Hahnemühle paper; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and her biographer, former NMWA Chief Curator Helaine Posner

Kiki Smith (b. 1954)

1. Spirited Away

Smith cites Catholicism’s focus on the human body as source material. “Catholicism is a body-fetishized religion. It’s always taking inanimate things and giving meaning to them.” Smith has based sculptures on Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, but uprooted traditional expectations.

2. Proof is in the Print

Although she is best-known as a sculptor, Smith has also worked in printmaking since the late 1970s. The “endlessly fascinating” printmaking process allows Smith to examine proofs at various stages, offering the artist the flexibility to experiment and re-work an image until she is satisfied with the result.

3. Poetic License

Smith’s work on view at NMWA highlights her interest in the relationship between women and nature. She illustrated Sampler, a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson, and assembled the drawings into one hand-colored and gilded layout. Smith’s imagery was inspired by embroidered samplers from the 18th and 19th centuries.

A visitor studies Kiki Smith’s Sampler, 2007 on view in NMWA’s collection galleries

A visitor studies Kiki Smith’s Sampler (2007), on view in NMWA’s collection galleries

4. Life and Death

Smith lost her father in 1980 and her sister, Beatrice, to AIDS, in 1988. These deaths prompted Smith to explore themes of ephemerality and mortality. In this vein, she has created death masks in homage to her family and friends. She also cited Gray’s Anatomy as inspiration and studied cadavers.

5. Matter of Opinion

Friends fuel Smith’s creative process. She explains that “you get the benefit of everyone’s opinions and so it’s not just about you in your you-dom.” Welcoming other perspectives, Smith says, “I’d rather make something that’s very open-ended that can have a meaning to me, but then it also can have a meaning to somebody else.”

—Olivia Lussi was the fall 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.