5 Fast Facts: Word Art and #5WomenArtists

Blog Category:  5 Fast Facts
A close up photograph of an artist's book. Each layer of blue paper has an organic, irregular shape cut out of the middle so the layers form a tunnel. A line of text is printed in small type on each page, receding into the tunnel like an underwater cavern.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about NMWA collection artists whose works are inspired by the written word!

1. Julie Chen’s Octopus (1992) | Poem by Elizabeth McDevitt

As you peer through this tunnel book by Julie Chen (b. 1963) to read Elizabeth McDevitt’s words, the receding text mirrors the growing distance between two people described in the poem. The speaker likens the other’s defensive behavior to that of an octopus, and a close look reveals the creature’s tentacles emerging from the sea-hued, wave-like pages.

2. Ann Hamilton’s Awaken (2000) | Poem by Susan Stewart

In Awaken by Ann Hamilton (b. 1956), the flowing, abstract pattern hand embroidered on the woolen blanket is a transcription of Susan Stewart’s unpublished poem. Hamilton’s continuous cursive renders the text illegible, though a printed version is displayed nearby. For Hamilton, “that relationship between the thread and the written line and the drawn line, [is] about a…very fundamental act of making.”

Ann Hamilton, Awaken, 2000; Wool and cotton thread, and paper, 60 x 84 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Ann Hamilton

3. Faith Ringgold’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail (2008) | Letter by Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with others, was arrested for his nonviolent resistance to racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. From his cell, Dr. King addressed criticisms of his tactics, expressing the need for direct action in the fight against racial injustice. Forty-five years later, Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) illustrated the letter with eight serigraphs directly inspired by the text.

A print of Martin Luther King Jr., a medium-skinned man with short black hair and a black mustache, wearing a light blue jumpsuit standing behind the bars of a jail cell. He is holding a pen and paper in his hands and his mouth is slightly open as if he is speaking.
Faith Ringgold, Letter from Birmingham City Jail (print one), 2008; Serigraph print, 15 3/4 in. x 13 1/8 in. x 3/4 in; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the artist

4. Renée Stout’s the streets of used to be (2009) | Poems by Carol A. Beane

While working on this project, Renée Stout (b. 1958) and Carol A. Beane looked to their surroundings in Washington, D.C. Reflecting on housing insecurity, violence, displacement, and signs of gentrification, Beane wrote six poems and shared them with Stout, who responded with six paintings. Then, text and image came together in a pocket accordion created from handmade paper.

5. Kazuko Watanabe’s The Diary of a Sparrow (1999) | Text by Enji Watanabe

From 1895 to 1963, Enji Watanabe journaled about his childhood memories, new inventions, personal tragedies, and reactions to current events. In 1996, Kazuko Watanabe (b. 1949) translated her grandfather’s volumes to modern Japanese and English. Moved by his descriptions of periods of upheaval and transformation, Watanabe paired excerpts with her own prints in an accordion-style book.

Kazuko Watanabe, The Diary of a Sparrow, 1999; Multiple-plate color etchings, computer-manipulated photoetched images, handprinted on European and Japanese paper, 9 1/4 x 7 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by the Library Fellows of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © 1999 Kazuko Watanabe

Curious about other visual and literary artist duos? Read about Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes (1859–1912), and Yani Pecanins (1957–2019).

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