New Jersey artist uses poetry to express sense of place

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 with 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 February 5, 2014, do explore a number of overwhelming themes: climate change, pollution, territorial land disputes, rising sea levels, emotional breakdown. But talk to the artist, and you learn it’s about the words.

“All the work starts with writing and ends with writing,” she 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,” “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,” said 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.”


The link between words and pictures

Elsayed 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.

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.

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.”


Visualizing where we call home

The artwork 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 — Elsayed 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.

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.

The experience of her family moving so frequently underscored the importance of story for connecting to places. “It’s one of the things that shaped the way I see the world. 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.”


The Artful Blogger is written by Ilene Dube and offers a look inside the art world of the greater Princeton area. Ilene Dube is an award-winning arts writer and editor, as well as an artist, curator and activist for the arts.

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