SANCTUARY AS SUBJECT MATTER: A MICRO INTERVIEW WITH DIANE SAMUELS
by Elaine Sexton
Elaine Sexton: One striking aspect of your work is the hand of the maker so much in evidence. For example, “Moby Dick,” a huge carpet (47 x 8 feet) is made up of hand-written text, on handmade, hand-dyed paper, countless fragments, pieced by-hand, text from the book like a quilt. You’ve described elsewhere how reading deeply informs your work. Would you say a few words about how you developed this particular way of mapping that experience?
Diane Samuels: I am a reader. Scheherazade’s life depended on telling stories. Mine depends upon reading.
Before beginning this series, I used to listen to audio books while I was drawing. I would keep a list of the books, mainly fiction and poetry, that I listened to while making each drawing. While I was drawing and listening I would become completely immersed –my hand, my head, my body, the stories. I had to set an alarm so I could take breaks, stretch, do yoga.
The drawings were about my home, the street where I live, Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh. My husband and I are co-founders of a non-profit, City of Asylum, which provides sanctuary to writers in exile –writers who are forced to leave their homes and make a home in a new country. In drawing, I was trying to understand the word “home” by looking very closely at details of my own home.
The audio books were transporting me to other places. I decided I wanted to more fully engage with what I was hearing, but I didn’t want to illustrate. I wanted to fall more deeply into the books –more deeply than when I was reading or listening. So I decided to try hand-transcribing. The first book I chose was “The Odyssey” –the classic coming-home story—which ends with Athena calling for an end to bloodshed and for making peace immediately.
I loved the process. I would read a line out loud, then slowly repeat it, and hand-transcribe it. The words physically became part of me. They embraced me. The descriptives and epithets –-“the wine-dark sea”, “the grey-eyed goddess”—became part of my rhythm.
Benedictine monks hand-copied sacred texts with the idea of gaining a deeper understanding of the sacred. By slowly reading the books, then reciting them out loud line-by-line and hand-transcribing each line, I hope to honor the books that have guided my life while conveying the experience of my encounter with them. As a collection, these drawings serve as a library and archive of texts essential to my navigating the world.
ES: I think the fact that you started with something the scale of “The Odyssey,” says a good deal about how fearless you are in taking on big projects, and seeing them through. Another big project you have committed yourself to is a non-profit foundation helping writers in need. There seems to be a direct link from your humanitarian efforts to the way you used the text of exiled writers and the constitutions of their countries of origin. How did this come about?
DS: I don’t think of taking on large projects as being fearless, but as finding shelter. I know that I will be sheltered between the book covers within a new world through the very last page.
The books I choose to hand-transcribe are all books that have to do with home: coming home, feeling at home, leaving home, and making a home.
My husband Henry Reese and I are Co-founders of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. We started in 2004 to provide sanctuary to writers in exile, writers who were persecuted in their home countries because of their literary writing. Their lives are in danger because of their words. It is the writers who are fearless.
Our impetus for starting the sanctuary program was hearing Salman Rushdie speak in the mid-1990’s about the need for safe houses for writers who are under threat around the world.
We began with the idea of providing sanctuary to one writer and the program has blossomed and grown in response to the writers’ needs and to our community’s desire to become involved. Profound respect for literature, making a home, giving voice and a way to listen to that voice are at the very heart of the program. Some press: NY Times 2015 (we’re at 2:45 in the video), The Atlantic, The New Yorker ....
When Khet Mar first arrived from Burma to the City of Asylum program, she talked about the constitution of Myanmar. She told me it was radically rewritten after the Saffron Revolution. I found a translation of that constitution into English, and read it with Khet Mar’s comments in mind. Then I read the constitutions from China, El Salvador, Guatemala, and the United States. I decided that hand-transcribing each document would be an interesting way to understand the United States as well as the home countries of some of the City of Asylum writers.
I found paper that was hand-made in each country – paper made by the hands of people who are directly affected by those constitutions and I hand-transcribed the constitutions’ text in blood red ink.
On each of these constitutions, I hand-transcribed a selection of the literary work of the City of Asylum writer from that country. But each writer’s text is transcribed outside of the border of a map of their home country –since many writers are not able to publish within their home countries.
Percy Bysshe Shelley – “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
I worked in Germany and Central Europe during the 1990’s on art projects that had to do with reconciliation, leaving home, coming back home, and the diaspora. Often folk tales were the foundation of my work –and I was interested in alphabets and writing systems.
There is an Isaac Luria story about the possibilities of the alphabet that has resonated with me for about 25 years. I first read it as a Jewish folktale, but it is told, with slight tweaks, in many cultures. I’ve used it in secular ways –from a memorial project in Germany to my personal studio work to projects with City of Asylum.
My telling of the story: Isaac Luria came across a man whose prayers were particularly efficacious. He asked the man how he prayed. The man said he couldn’t read or write, but could recite the alphabet, so he asks God to take his letters and form them into prayers.
I’ve secularly interpreted the story to mean that the very same set of letters, in any language, can be formed/assembled to write or speak about good or about hate. And giving with a full heart is the essence of generosity.
Respect for literature, making a home, honoring writers and the essential work they do for the world (and for me on a deeply intimate level) are the elements that bind my personal work with the mission of City of Asylum.
ES: The text portion of “First Lines,” a 96 x 66 inch work on paper, is made up of the first lines of 1,750 books in your personal library, each meticulously transcribed by you by hand. I see you call this work “one book, one drawing.” And, honestly, just describing it sounds more like the subject of a book-length project, one a poet might undertake. Given your attachment to books, how did you come to choosing to a visual art over that of a writer?
DS: I have never aspired to become a writer. I read too much to think for a minute that I could write. I am a reader. I am a visual artist who is applying the art of being a reader to her visual art.
ES: Let me rephrase that question as an observation. It is also not uncommon to hear of poets who started out as visual artists, later choosing one practice over another. And things are now more fluid with artists using text (their own or that of others) like your contemporary, Jenny Holzer use of aphorisms, observations, and sometimes the text of poems, as the basis of public works. And others, like Zoe Leonard’s recently revived 1992 prose piece, “I want a dyke for president,” is essentially a poster-size prose poem. This she calls an “Action/Collective Reading Project.” So, in this sense I see a common connection.
DS: Giving figuration to these texts with their own words is at an act of interpretation—a re-writing—that does not attempt to usurp the priority of the author. It is the art of a reader not a critic. The pieces embody texts by giving them another form and by processing them without textual alteration by and through me as a “copyist.”
ES: The closer one looks at your work, sometimes under a lens, the more satisfying the experience, like the viewer is taking a part in kind of forensic investigation. “Scheherazade,” for example, is made up of a hand-written microscript of The Arabian Nights is 10,000 fragments of text on painted paper. What role does scale play in the way you want a viewer to encounter each piece you make?
DS: I think reading is all about scale. A book, before it is opened or read, looks like any other book – small in comparison to the human body. It is not until the reader comes very close, opens the book, and begins to read the 728 pages that she realizes the enormity of the literature.
In my hand-transcriptions of Scheherazade, Moby-Dick and many of the other works, the size of the object is big–scaled to much larger than I am. When viewed from a distance, the works do look like a large textile. But it is only on close inspection, with good eyesight or a magnifier, that the words appear.
Diane Samuels’ exhibitions include the Andy Warhol Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory Museum, the Center for Book Arts, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, and the Czech Museum of Fine Arts. Her work in public collections includes the Carnegie Museum of Art, Reed College, the Center for Jewish History, and the Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry. She is co-founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh and in 2013 was the recipient of a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency and an American Academy in Jerusalem Fellowship. For more information: http://pavelzoubok.com/ and: http://www.dianesamuels.net/
All photographs by Thomas Little.