I met the lovely Diane Samuels a few months ago at a wonderful dinner party for The American Academy in Jerusalem.
Diane had just come back from a 10-week fellowship at the academy and spoke to the group about her time in Jerusalem and the work she did while there. I was so engrossed listening to her talk about her art and life. I needed to learn more! And I’m so thrilled she agreed to an interview during which I could ask her all the questions I didn’t have time to ask that evening.
Diane is a renowned visual artist whose art is built from other people’s words. Her work is featured in numerous public and private collections throughout the world. Her public art installations are located at The Center for Jewish History, Brown University, Reed College, and a home for the disabled in Grafeneck, Germany among many others. Her solo exhibitions include the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Mattress Factory Museum, the Leo Baeck Institute and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati just to name a few. (You can find her full bio here). She is represented by The Kim Foster Gallery in New York.
Diane was so generous to answer all my questions so thoughtfully and thoroughly. I couldn’t leave out a thing so I’ve split the interview into two posts. I’m excited to share both parts of the interview with you this week and next.
How and why did you become an artist?
My mother was a teacher who painted, sewed, and knit, and my father was a salesman who could fix anything. I grew up on Long Island and almost every Sunday we would go to the Lower East Side to have a meal and then buy fabric, zippers, thread, hardware, and paints. I loved being in the stores while my parents shopped—listening to foreign languages being spoken and looking at the shapes, textures, colors, and mysterious objects. I grew up in a making-things-and-reading home.
I was lucky to have wonderful teachers. Mr. Johnston, my eight-grade earth science teacher, took our class to a park, staked out a square foot of earth for each student, and asked us to observe that square foot of earth for 30 minutes and write down everything we saw.
I was sure that these would be the most unbearable 30 minutes of my life. After all—it was just grass and weeds. Then I started looking and noticed the shapes of the grass blades, the shades of green, the grass that had browned where light couldn’t reach it, the tiny insects moving through it all and interacting. I noticed the small stones, the colors and textures of the earth.
When the thirty minutes were finished, I had filled several pages with notes and had found a new way of looking at the world. I have been trying to complete Mr. Johnston’s assignment for the past 50 years.
Given patience, attention, and invested time, the extraordinary shows up everywhere, even in the most ordinary of places. I chose art as a profession because I can research, explore, problem solve, experiment, and learn.
What inspired you to work with other people’s words and stories? Can you tell me about your method of translating and scribing?
I love reading and I love listening to people tell stories about their lives. My life is divided between a private practice of reading and transcribing and a social practice of sitting in public and talking with people, then transcribing their words from memory.
The inspiration for working this way came from reading great literature and from talking with people who told me stories that provided illuminating insights and observations about the world. Sometimes the observations about very small or seemingly mundane topics provide a window into new worlds of thought and imagination. Sometimes the very small, personal stories can illustrate and elucidate gigantic issues.
I am a scribe. I write the words of others. My goal is to make a library of entire books that I have hand-transcribed—all having to do with place and home and exile. The first book I transcribed was Homer’s Odyssey, the classic tale of coming home.
I find that by hand-transcribing great literature and other people’s stories, I physically, emotionally, and intellectually absorb them in a way I cannot by reading or listening. First I read a line of text out loud, and then I slowly write it by saying the words of that line from memory. My hand and my voice are working together. I audio record while I work.
Preserving and protecting the written word are also closely related to your work as co-founder of City of Asylum. Can you tell me more about that?
City of Asylum provides sanctuary, a home, to writers in exile. Literature can present possibilities that repressive governments find threatening. My husband, Henry Reese, and I co-founded City of Asylum Pittsburgh in 2004. My choice as an artist is to honor writers who provide essential insights into the world. Our goal in City of Asylum is to make sure the writers’ voices are not suppressed.
Being around writers in exile, writers who are imprisoned in their home countries for literary writing and who cannot carry their books with them when they flee their countries, has made me think about the material form of a book. Is it a traditional bound volume, a scroll, a digital text, an audio experience, something that is memorized and carried in the mind until it can be safely transcribed, something that is writ small and folded into the hem of a skirt? How can a book be camouflaged? What would a book look like if we could see all the words at once?
Since 2008, I have made a series of drawings, each formed by hand-transcribing an entire book onto a single large sheet of paper. From even a foot away, the drawings appear to be abstractions. But close-up the micro-handwriting is legible as text.
Many of the texts—the Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey, the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, Five Neighbors/Five Constitutions—relate to issues of home, migration, language, and authority (political and textual) that are before me every day. Another work, Nosotros, el Pueblo/We the People is a hand-transcription of the United States Constitution in Spanish written in the form of an American flag on paper handmade in and imported from Mexico.
Can you tell me more about the Gertrude Stein and Salman Rushdie pieces?
For about six months Gertrude Stein’s family lived at 850 Beech Avenue in Allegheny City, now Pittsburgh—nine blocks from Sampsonia Way, where I have lived since 1980. I wanted to look closely at her work by transcribing and reading, starting with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and continuing with The Making of Americans. Gertrude Stein was an American who made her home in Paris by choice, an American living out of the United States, but looking back in.
Salman Rushdie is one of the founders of the exiled writers asylum program. We started City of Asylum after hearing Salman Rushdie speak about the fatwa issued on him and the number of literary writers in peril around the world who are in need of sanctuary, a home.
Next week, Diane will talk about her work at The Center for Jewish History, The Memorial Garden in Grafeneck that honors the Jews who were murdered there by the Nazis and, lastly, her experience as a fellow at The American Academy of Jerusalem.