Sometimes it all seems overwhelming. You take in a big breath. “Oh, Everything.”
That’s the title of Dahlia Elsayed’s large painting of what look to be islands of grass marked off with red flags, as if this land is claimed.
The paintings in “Dahlia Elsayed: Hither and Yon,” on view at the New Jersey State Museum through Wednesday, February 5, explore a number of overwhelming themes: climate change, pollution, territorial land disputes, rising sea levels, and emotional breakdown. But talk to the artist, and you learn it’s about the words. It is poetry as visual art.
“All the work starts with writing and ends with writing,” Elsayed notes. “I feel like the process I use is more related to poetry than painting. Poetry and painting have a lot of similarities: surprising juxtapositions, quiet pauses, and the sense that a small gesture can imply something vast.”
“Have we said naps already?” is one of many lines, boxed, in a large painting of what looks like a map of an island against a deep blue body of water. Most of Elsayed’s canvases are maps of a world she has fabricated. These islands are not Manhattan or the Maldives, but parts of the artist’s inner world. “To bore oneself,” “to count and count down,” “to sqab,” “to cut one’s hair in a tiny bathroom with dull scissors” are all part of “Navigations in the Present Tense.”
In “Start of the Pre-Season,” a diptych, we get an aerial view of islands in a Caribbean blue water, with red dots to mark such key spots as “hippie poets,” “a friendly inner battle,” “a little foul language,” “some implied meaning,” “early morning bus ride,” and “haven’t we seen this place before?”
“She creates personal narratives which at first appear enigmatic, but through their accessible imagery and language allow for individual reaction and interpretation,” says curator of fine arts Margaret O’Reilly.
Elsayed — an assistant professor of fine arts at City University of New York — begins her process by typing on a typewriter, a blue Smith Corona she found at a garage sale. “It’s a way of writing freely, and I then edit it down to phrases or stanzas. On a computer I find I edit too much. With a typewriter you don’t get visual distractions. It’s more self-editing than what spell check might do, and not so easy to second guess a word, so I come out with a first draft and mark it up in pencil.”
It’s not impossible to find ink cartridges for typewriters, but Elsayed’s typewriter has no ink. “I use carbon sheets over a blank sheet of paper. It helps to obscure what I’m typing.”
Elsayed began as a poet. As a poet, she began as an artist. With a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Barnard and a master’s in creative writing from Columbia, she loved both writing and drawing as a child. Her sketchbooks would have writing in them, and she liked the way comics combined pictures with words. “They went together in a deeply satisfying emotional way,” she says from her home in Palisades Park. As an undergraduate, “I thought about separating story from drawing.” At Barnard, she won a poetry award and was published in small literary journals. An agent expressed interest in her thesis, and she might have moved forward as a writer but realized the work was missing a visual component.
Elsayed started making small books and prints. “It was a logical place for text and image to coexist,” she says. She interned at the Center for Book Arts and worked in printmaking. Soon she transitioned into painting, in the form of diptychs and multiples. These had a sequential line, like books but not bound. She was able to take art classes at Columbia and completed an independent study with fine arts faculty.
The process of writing is parallel to the process of making art. “You begin with either a first draft or a sketch, then refine and edit. Just as line breaks or pauses or word choice are important in poetry, this can be applied to images: Where does rest for the eye happen, or shift into another thing on canvas. For me, it’s fluid to go back and forth.”
As an educator in the visual arts, being a writer “opens my interpretation of the forms art takes.” When looking at text, for example, “we have a cognitive response where we create the image. The opposite happens when looking at image. We put a story to it, filling it with narrative. It’s human nature, a way to understand. It makes the viewer active in a way that reading does, giving you a role in how that form exists for you.” With good writing, “it is metaphorical enough, so it doesn’t have a specific meaning but is open for the reader’s interpretation.”
Mapping is a perfect container for relating text and image, says Elsayed. “You look at a map and follow the marker, there’s no hierarchical relation. But conceptually it’s interesting how places change rapidly.” In Northern New Jersey, for example, buildings go down and buildings go up, changing physically. What happened to landmarks and monuments? When these change, how do our stories change? I’m using these altered landscapes, or maps or aerial views, to navigate a place physically and psychologically.”
Mapping also relates to the artist’s ancestral journey, and her landscapes are places of transience. “There’s no historic plot of land where we’re from; it’s a temporary experience.” No generation in her family was born and died on the same continent, writes Elsayed, who is half Armenian, half Egyptian. Her grandmother was born in Turkey, but her family left Turkey for Egypt before the Armenian genocide in 1913.
Her Christian mother married an Egyptian Muslim, “so socially I’m totally Egyptian but technically Armenian and speak the language.” Both parents came to the U.S. in 1968, and Dahlia was born a year later. Though her multilingual mother had lined up an office job in a bank in San Francisco, a stopover in New York led to something more permanent when her father got a job as an accountant at the United Nations. Raised by a grandmother who lived with them, Dahlia grew up speaking Arabic and Armenian. Her father died when Dahlia was 7, and after that only Armenian was spoken at home.
Elsayed says she works hard to code and mask the autobiographical elements of her work, but there is a piece in show, “The Long Layover,” made during a residency in Headlands, California, about what family life would have been like in San Francisco if they had stuck to the plan.
The family lived in Manhattan, then Queens, before moving to Palisades Park where Elsayed, 44, lives to this day with her husband, a professor and artist raised in Massachusetts, also of Armenian ancestry. “It’s a commuter town, close to New York, but you still have a driveway and a car.” Her commute is to Newark, where she maintains a studio.
The experience of her family moving from place to place underscored the importance of story for connecting to places. When the Arts Council of Princeton opened its re-imagined Paul Robeson Center for the Arts several years ago, Elsayed was artist-in-residence and worked on a project about the John Witherspoon neighborhood and the historic role it plays in Princeton. She interviewed the people who had experienced the Arts Council building when it had been the black YMCA. She collected the oral histories to create a community-based artwork — a sculpture with text flags and inside, a large wall drawing of map of John Witherspoon neighborhood, where people could pin their own experiences.
Says Elsayed: “Story can define a place — a bakery your mother went to as a child, an imaginary architecture and color palette — that’s the approach I’m interested in, how narrative brings landscape to life.”
Dahlia Elsayed: Hither and Yon, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesday through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., through Wednesday, February 5. Suggested admission $5. 609-292-6464 or www.njstatemuseum.org.