“words and letters” at the athenaeum

Saturday, June 7: Today I go to an exhibit in Alexandria that was written up in the Washington Post Weekend Section.  The exhibit titled Words and Letters came about as the curator at the Athenaeum explored a wide variety of artists in the DC metro area who use text in their visual art.

The Athenaeum in Old Town Alexandria
The Athenaeum in Old Town Alexandria

The Athenaeum is one of Alexandria’s two surviving examples of Greek revival neo-classical architecture open to the public. The room has 24-foot high coved ceilings, enormous windows and beautiful woodwork.  The exterior features four Doric columns across the portico and walls of stucco over stone and brick.

The Athenaeum
The Athenaeum

The building was constructed in 1852 as the Bank of the Old Dominion.  Robert E. Lee did his banking here. During the Civil War, it served as the Chief Commissary’s Office for the Union Army.  Between 1870 and 1963, the building was owned by the Citizen’s National Bank, served as a factory, and served as the area’s first Free Methodist Church.  In 1964, it was purchased by the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association (NVFAA), repurposed as an art center, and renamed the Athenaeum for the Greek word Athenaion, a temple for Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom.


Wordfall, a curtain made of 60,000 paper clips wrapped in words, is the first piece I encounter in the exhibit. Two artists created the piece: Lisa Hill, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at Northern Virginia Community College, and Francie Hester, an artist with works represented in various collections from the World Bank to the IMF. The words aren’t just random words, but are the words of two writers who both succumbed to brain cancer.  Diane Granat Yalowitz was a journalist and senior editor of the Washingtonian magazine.  Brendan Ogg was an aspiring writer with a love of poetry from the past, including that of John Keats and TS Eliot.  Brendan was a close friend of Diane’s son, Adam.


Diane first succumbed to brain cancer, and Brendan followed six years later.  In separate efforts, Diane’s articles and Brendan’s poetry were woven together as a tribute to their life and spirit by friends, family and even people who didn’t know either of the writers.

Wordfall, up close and personal
Wordfall, up close and personal

Marty Ittner’s encaustic collages show a random assembly of disparate elements.  Says the artist: “There may be meaning or no meaning, and that is the beauty.” One of the three collages is titled Slope.  The volunteer docent tells me the artist used old family photographs as part of the collages.

Marty Itner's Slope
Marty Itner’s Slope

Artist Billy Colbert has used popular culture, personal experiences and cultural leveraging to serve as narrative for his mixed media works.  His collages include scraps of text with graphic material, including W.W. Denslow’s “Wizard of Oz” illustrations.  Colbert works and resides in Washington, D.C.. He received his MFA in painting from the University of Delaware in 2000, where he was a Presidential Fellow.

Billy Colbert's "Watching Something Happen When You Know You Should Stop It."
Billy Colbert’s “Watching Something Happen When You Know You Should Stop It.”

Here are some of the other collages in the exhibition.

Robert Cwiok's "Rectilinear Collage Study No. 3"
Collage using envelopes
Collage using envelopes
Collage using envelopes

“Secrets of the Elements is what happens when a chemist becomes an artist and meets an advertising copywriter turned poet.  Art and haiku meet the periodic table and tell a story as old as Lithium.”  Lithium 3 is created by Langley Spurlock and Martin Tarrat.


"Lithium 3" by Langley Spurlock and Martin Tarrat
“Lithium 3” by Langley Spurlock and Martin Tarrat

Here is but a piece of Pat Autenrieth’s Grasping at Straws, which features the word “Mama.”  It’s nearly impossible to read because of the size of the quilt, nearly 5 feet tall, which makes the letters appear as patterns rather than text.

Pat Autenrieth's "Grasping at Straws"
Pat Autenrieth’s “Grasping at Straws”

According to the exhibition brochure, “In her early work, Lynn Schmidt used letters and numbers as formal elements.  Later she introduced dictionary illustrations and text into the paintings and sculpture as links to the wider, outer world.”  In The Road Home, she uses acrylics and a collage of dictionary illustrations, unstretched canvas, and grommets.  In her #125, Trap, she uses found objects such as a minnow trap and toilet tank balls, and a collage including a surveyor’s measuring tape and dictionary illustrations.”

Lori Anne Brooks was a writer when young, and using text as a subject matter for her painting lets her give in to both passions and honor the stories that make up who we are.

Cara Ober layers drawing, painting, and printmaking into mixed media works that examine and reinterpret sentimental imagery.  She says the fun in working with text is confusing its literal meaning to create layers of (mis)understanding.  Her work reveals the inadequacy of words in expressing the complexities of experience.

Pat Autenrieth has always been attracted to using words in her work.  In the case of I Said No, the artist says it’s a satire on the fatuous names of lipstick. Women’s lipsticks often have names such as Pink Cloud, Dollhouse Pink, Orchid Frost, All Heart.  In this quilt, the lipstick names speak to emotions, and angry ones at that: Rage, Contempt, Smolder, Sarcasm, Insolence, Sneer, Pout.

Pat Autenrieth's "I Said No"
Pat Autenrieth’s “I Said No”
Another textual painting
Another textual painting

After enjoying this exhibit, I take a walk down to Old Town’s waterfront, where I see some nice views of the Potomac.

Bicycle shop
Bicycle shop
A lovely day in Old Town Alexandria
A lovely day in Old Town Alexandria

Have you visited an interesting art exhibit lately?


27 thoughts on ““words and letters” at the athenaeum

  1. Oh, Cathy, I adore this art! Gosh, that “wordfall” piece is amazing. Art that incorporates language is my favorite, which is why my art business is called idiomART. Have a wonderful weekend, my friend.

    Hugs from Ecuador,

    1. I like your art business title, Kathy. I loved that Wordfall piece too, especially the story behind it. Truly a labor of love. Hope you’ve had a lovely weekend. What’s the weather like there now? You’re in the middle of winter, right?

  2. Thanks for the visit. Quite unusual creative pieces, but I did enjoy looking at them with you. “Wonderfall” is definitely my favourite too 🙂

    And I went to several art galleries recently in Dumfries and Galloway, some very nice cubic style paintings being exhibited in the Tollbooth (example on my recent post) and also some abstract “Iridescent Passages” a unique “enamellist approach” to painting. The paintings reflect light and are opalescent so I stood and gazed at them for ages from different angles.

    1. I tried to find the cubic paintings on your website, but alas, I’m lost! I should not be so far behind, Jude! I’m sorry! If you send me the link, I’d love to see. The “iridescent passages” sound wonderful.

  3. I have been thinking about you a lot lately. I am not here so often but never see much from you. I hope you are well? This post is tactilely fantastic Cathy!

    1. I don’t post much these days, Kathryn, and neither do I have time to read other people’s blogs. Hopefully if I go abroad to China, I can get back into the blogging groove. All is well. How is your move to Netherlands going?

      1. Hi Cathy! Nice to hear back from you! I am back & fourth and in PA this week for my sons Wedding. I need to find work in the NL or it is going to remain a dream.

        China sounds so exciting. When are you going?

      2. Congratulations on your son’s wedding! How exciting! I wish you luck in finding a job in the Netherlands. What kind of work are you hoping to find? I’m supposed to be in China by September 1. 🙂

      3. CHINA! So exciting. I would really do any simple job Cathy. Going to try and sell my paintings but in the meantime need something…..I am through with the corporate world !!!

      4. Good, I’m glad you’re taking the leap from Corporate America, Kathryn. I’ve given up on that too, but mainly because the corporate world has rejected me, while meanwhile foreign entities are ready to offer me jobs. Good luck selling your paintings and finding some kind of work. Will you need to speak Dutch to work there?

      5. Possibly…… what kind of foreign entities are offering work if I may ask? You can email me if you’d like ?

      6. Well, I’m a teacher, so when I look for work abroad I’m looking mainly at universities, although many primary and secondary schools, as well as training centers for business people, are hiring. I don’t know if you have an interest in teaching English, but there are positions all over the world. Some pay better than others; China is actually quite low, but Korea pays well, as does Japan. The Middle East pays the best, especially Saudi Arabia. There are lots of jobs in Europe too, but you must have the EU work visa and the pay is quite low.

      7. Yes I know the pay is low and I am working on the Visa now. I don’t mind doing something different and with my hands perhaps. I am excited for you!

    1. Thanks so much, Madhu. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. All is well with me; it looks like I may be going to China for 10 months. More about it later. I hope all is well with you too. Miss you!!

  4. I think we can all understand and appreciate Wordfall, Cathy. The other exhibits are more difficult, but it’s always interesting to look, isn’t it? Hugs, darlin’ 🙂

    1. Yes, I agree, Jo, sometimes art is a little difficult to understand. You feel like there must be some deeper meaning. But I think as long as you enjoy looking at it and you connect on some level, that’s enough. Hugs to you. xxx

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