by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I painted my first Emily Dickinson in 1992, probably as a kind of totem. I had spent my early childhood living in a cottage my parents rented on the property of a defunct artist’s colony in the hills outside Honolulu. Founded by artists Lillie Gay and George Burroughs Torrey after they eloped (with some scandal attached), the colony was called “Wailele”—“Leaping Waters”—in homage to Kalihi Stream, which cut through the artists’ estate, and the Falls which was so central to the atmosphere there.
Our cottage was isolated from the world outside—from “civilization”—but the Torrey mansion and thatched “teahouse” gallery, where art salons had lit up so many tropical nights, were only a short walk down a lava stone path. I spent \my playtime in the shadows of that world, beside huge paintings that still occupied the teahouse walls.
But I didn’t pursue art myself (though I did play around with it) until a Drawing 1 class in college, where I rendered passionately and the instructor decided very publicly that my drawings “had no imagination.” I put aside the earnest pencils and charcoals, the Conte crayons, in favor of another perilous pursuit: poetry.
Several years later a friend reeled me back into the world of art with some exercises in Betty Edwards’ Drawing with the Right Brain, which then led to a few years of study with artists Jimmy Suzuki and Anne Gregory (http://www.annegregoryart.com/), which resulted a few years after that in my first solo show. Since by this time I was also deeply involved in the life of poetry, I began to wonder how I might incorporate the poetry with the art, fuse the two somehow.
In the mid-eighties I went to the Degas show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I learned his method of working chalk pastels into wet watercolors. I came home immediately and tried Degas’ technique—painting three nudes colors I intensified with the melted pastels; then I inked in a poem (“Shadow Woman,” which appeared in Hawaii Review) in unbroken lines, as a frame around the three figures, adding fragments of lines here and there like little free-floating webs of word-dust. (The poem was in part a meditation on how our cells replace themselves every seven to ten years.) The piece hangs in my dining room twenty-five years later. It is certainly more successful than other pieces I attempted, but it never accomplished what I hoped for: the fusion of visual image and word into something entirely other.
But: Back to Emily: In the early nineties, I was working in an arts program for homeless and low income women—teaching both art and poetry—and came up with an idea a group project. The women painted self-portraits in acrylic on blank, unglazed 5 x 5 ceramic tiles; when finished we assembled a splendid mural—a mosaic of painted selves. The project set me off on a tile-painting mission of my own that included (along with portraits of several women artists in the program, including “Judy,” of A Camellia for Judy, and icons like Kahlo and O’Keeffe) my first painting of Dickinson—just her face this time, with that bit of famous ribbon at her neck, on a red background, with leaves, a crescent moon and those familiar lines, that wishful mantra: “I dwell in Possibility/ A fairer House than Prose.”