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Language of Art: The Written Word

For Grades 9-12

Table of Contents

Featured Work
Background Information for Educators
Activity: Words to Art
New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

Featured Work

Lesley Dill
(American, born 1950)
Divide Light #2, 2002
Paper, glue, thread, tea, and pins
38 x 4 1/2 x 3 inches (96.5 x 11.4 x 7.6 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
George Cary Fund, 2003


  • Students will learn about Lesley Dill and how she uses words in her artwork
  • Students will create a Lesley Dill–inspired sculpture
  • Students will read and analyze a poem by Emily Dickinson that inspired a work of visual art by Lesley Dill
  • Students will read other poems by Emily Dickinson and write their own free-verse poems


“Language is the touchstone, the pivot point of all my work.”
– Lesley Dill

This lesson plan explores the influence words have on visual artists and how text can be visually appealing. Lesley Dill is an artist who explores themes such as language, emotion, the body, and experiences through many different media. Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1950, Dill started out as a teacher in the 1970s, and retains an interest in teaching and community. She returned to graduate school in 1980 and began her career as an artist. Her artwork is often considered text-based. She describes speaking and listening as an intimate experience and, although her words are not always readable, she believes that the sheer presence of language can be comforting. The time she spent in New Delhi, India, where she explored Indian traditions, has had a major influence on Dill’s artwork. Her focus on the sensorial—skin, eyes, mouth, hands—elicits simultaneous feelings of strength and vulnerability in her artwork.

Dill’s sculpture Divide Light #2 embodies words from the poet Emily Dickinson, and is part of the “Divide Light” series. The words “divide light” are created out of paper and pinned to a cast of her own hand. Dill was inspired by the expressive Indian tradition of placing henna (a reddish dye made from the leaves of a henna shrub often used to dye the skin and hair) on hands, and replaced henna with words for this sculpture.


  • Pencils
  • Paper
  • Telling Tales Presentation, Slide #8
  • Optional materials: Found objects, yarn, string, glitter, paint, magazines, etc.


Read this poem by Emily Dickinson with your students.

Banish Air from Air . . .
Banish Air from Air -
Divide Light if you dare -
They’ll meet
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
Force Flame
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Flits Steam.

Have the students look at the image of Lesley Dill’s sculpture and ask the questions listed below. Remember that no answers are wrong, as students are interpreting what they see.

  • What do you see?
  • Can you read any of the words?
  • How does this poem relate to the sculpture?
  • What part of this poem do you think is part of the sculpture?
  • What title would you give Lesley Dill’s sculpture?


Many artworks by Lesley Dill are greatly influenced by Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Dickinson’s work was very unique in the way she challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the work of other poets from the mid to late 1800s. Other poems by Dickinson that have inspired Lesley Dill include “A Single Screw of Flesh,” “I Felt My Life with Both My Hands,” and “These Saw Visions.”

Share some of Dickinson’s poetry with your class and compare it to other poetry they have read or written. How is it different? Have the students write a short free-verse poem.


Ask students to take the poem they have written and write it out in any font they choose (for example, block lettering, graffiti-style, calligraphy, etc.) on a piece of paper. Ask the students to select from the following activities to create an artwork:

  • Collage the letters from the poem onto a new piece of paper. Students can choose to re-arrange the letters to make new words or to make their poem undecipherable. Add drawn/collaged elements from magazines, books, etc.
  • Compile found objects to create a sculpture and paint the whole sculpture one color. Collage the poem onto the found objects, adding any other elements as needed.
  • Collect all of the students’ poems and cover a large found object (such as an old chair) with all the written poems. Have students decide how to arrange everything. Add other collage elements or objects as needed.


  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts (Visual Arts, including the museum visit) 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • College and Career Readiness Core Anchor Standards for Reading 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11 (New York only)
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1, 2, 3, 6
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing 1, 4, 7, 9, 10, 11 (New York only) (plus 5 and 6 if drafts and presentations are developed from the writing)


  • Audio for Younger Students

  • Audio for High School Students

  • Audio Description