Fall 2015 Writing Prize Recipient- Jim Sienkiewicz

The Graduate Theological Union Writing Prize recognizes a paper that incorporates artwork, themes, and/or content from a current Doug Adams Gallery exhibition. Spring submissions are due in February 2016. Stay tuned for recipient Jim Sienkiewicz’s (Ph.D Student in Art & Religion, GTU) Brown Bag Lunch presentation in Fall 2016.

The Erosion of Memory: Works by Anne Tait

Jim Sienkiewicz

The cemetery is my classroom and the stones are my teachers – Anne Tait1

The current exhibition at the Doug Adams Gallery features twenty-six pieces by Rhode Island based artist and professor Anne Tait with the theme of the show centering on 19th century gravestone imagery and its relation to death. While the engagement of this timeless motif might initially stir up dark visions of morbid subject matter, the iconography depicted in these works of various media instead reinvigorate the classic conception of mortality and evidence a profound joy for life. In her art Anne Tait has regularly returned to the topic of human ephemerality and created an extensive body of stone carvings that reference graves and their related imagery. The exhibit at the Doug Adams Gallery consists primarily of Tait’s works on paper and historical photographs she has made in collaboration with photographer Brian Miller. There are actually quite a few pieces created in cooperation with additional persons such as a Vermont Marble Company pattern with stone carver Kevin Duffy and the largest object on view, a sandblasted glass tondo produced in partnership with the Warren Monument Company.

Candace, 2009 sandblasted glass in collaboration with the Warren Monument Co.

The physicality and visuals of these specific collaborative efforts are fitting in that marble is the primary material of the 19th century gravestones Tait has routinely sought out in her fascination with cemeteries. This interest is bolstered by turn of the century photographs of these stones being carved and finished at the Vermont Marble Co. In fact the entire north wall of the gallery space is devoted to these vintage photographic reproductions as well as ink sketches executed on drafting linen that were used as maquettes for the gravestones pictured alongside them.

Patterns (ink on drafting linen) and photographs in collaboration with Brian Miller

These monuments and their representations of sleeping angelic infants and a lamb replete with symbolic Christian connotations is complimented by the 1892 lithograph Memorial for Iva Nicol, died July 1, 1886.

Memorial for Iva Nicol, died July 1, 1886 (lithograph) 1892
Memorial for Iva Nicol, died July 1, 1886 (lithograph) 1892

This ornate contemporaneous artifact is also allegorical in how the white dove and an hourglass that slowly drains its sandy contents hint at the cessation of life, but also of an eternal paradise yet to come. These are just a few of the common funerary icons that were routinely illustrated on graves during the period, with some others being a rope or chain cut short (a metaphor for a life ended too soon) and empty shoes symbolic of the death of a young child.2 Tait’s chosen objects all demonstrate a strong awareness of Victorian culture, and this artistic conceit of history is critical to interpreting the collection of work both on the personal and larger societal levels.

By far the individual alluded to most throughout the show is that of “Candace”. The opening and closing pieces of the exhibit as well as an incremental series of variegated polychrome woodcuts all feature this name as their title(s). Who is/was Candace? This person has clearly manifested significance in the life of the artist. All of these images feature hands as a motif, a visual repetition visible elsewhere and all total present in eleven of the twenty-six artworks. 2009’s Candace Series features three woodcuts in different hues, each print employing its own proportion of green, pink, red and terracotta.

Candace Series, 2009 polychrome woodcut

The use of the same block only in varied colors yields the common icon of hands cupping something in their palms. The abstracted limbs are barely recognizable and the object being held in the gestural currents of linear form are even more difficult to discern. An embroidered wool canvas hung immediately beside these serial images perhaps offers up a clue as to what Tait is slow in revealing to the viewer. Memorial for Rozie V & A (2013) illustrates two white rabbits perched on and near a blue flower, and a quick scan between this object and the Candace Series appears to project the animal’s form into that of the hands, a credible interpretation as I was able to learn from the gallerist that Tait had initiated the embroidery as a tribute to her pet rabbit that had passed away.

Memorial for Rozie (V&A in Tree), 2013 Jacobean embroidery: wool
Memorial for Rozie (V&A in Tree) (Jacobean embroidery: wool) 2013

If we return one last time to a reading of these Candace images we can decipher how the artist has created a backdrop of foliage for the hands that not only creates a natural setting for the tableau but also seems to reference the acanthus leaves so common in both Greek column design and that of 19th century tombstones, as it has always been a popular vanitas icon of death.

As the attentive viewer will surely recognize, the recurrence of hands is not some lackadaisical artistic device, but one that requires careful scrutiny beyond any overt graphic implications. A comparison of the Emma Abbott Series (2007) with the singular Star Hand (2006) is a case in point.

Emma Abbott Series, 2007 polychrome woodcut
Star Hand, 2006 mixed media on paper

The four Emma prints highlight the imposing downward thrust of a backhanded pointing finger that draws the spectator’s eye from the top to the bottom of the picture. This iconography can be interpreted in several ways. The organic reed-like forms clutched by the hand and dispersed around it almost create the impression of a shockwave, the result of the violent hand’s gesture striking the surface beneath it. This surface is also reminiscent of the shape of a book, possibly a bible. One might even speculate this as a reference to fire and brimstone preaching about the ultimate fate of man and the terrors of a spoiled existence besides the more immediate suggestion of a body’s interment after burial. This severe narrative is only slightly enervated by the soft pastels of Tait’s chosen color palette. If we turn from the Emma Abbott Series to Star Hand, then the psychological antithesis of the former pictures is apparent in the latter piece. Star Hand revises the pointed finger of the Emma’s into a smooth upward traverse of the work on paper’s focal point towards the radiating star at its apex. Besides the reversal of the hand’s verticality, the view of the palm towards that of the viewer also creates a much more intimate experience than the emotionally distant backhand of Emma. One feels as if they are gently being guided by this nebulous figure of compassion to come to peace with the world before us and always remember the infinite that lies ahead. This divine figure is one of sympathy or even pity and as Nabokov tells us: “beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies.”3

It is intriguing to ponder how the memorials of Tait function in the larger space of the Badè Museum. Exhibited parallel to The Erosion of Memory are ancient artifacts that contain amongst other items remnants of tombs and historic remains. The ossuary (a container used for depositing human bones) bears the closest relationship to Tait’s work but the larger scope of history presented when one considers the millennial discrepancy in the ages of the two show’s displayed objects again raises the underlying theme of history throughout the contemporary artist’s exhibit. In essence the gravestone imagery of Anne Tait functions as a reverse palimpsest, one that slowly fades over time and gradually removes any trace of its former state. As viewers we are left to contemplate our own mortality, yet not take to despairing it. If we learn to approach earthly temporality with a direct and honest gaze, then we might also learn to thoroughly and truly live the time each of us might be granted, leaving traces of our spirit if not our corporeal form and hopefully the vapor of the undying inner self that can never be extinguished. Perhaps The Erosion of Memory is so attractive to both Tait as well as ourselves because of the human fascination and even excitement with death, a dilemma Aristotle resolved in the subject’s ultimate intimation of “self-possibility”.4


1 Tait quoted in a profile of her work for the Visual Arts Community at Roger Williams University blog, retrieved on 9/24/15 from http://vartsrwu.blogspot.com/2010/12/profile-anne-tait.html

2 Beyond the Dark Veil : Post-Mortem & Mourning Photography , 2014, pgs. 102 & 175 Jim Sienkiewicz, 1,314 words

3 Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature , 1980 Jim Sienkiewicz, 1,314 words

4 Beyond the Dark Veil , p. 24

Photo credit- Lily Manderville, Programs Manager, CARE