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Divide Light #2

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, Buffalo, New York; George Cary Fund, 2003 (2003:17). © 2002 Lesley Dill.

Poetry-Inspired Sculpture

Featuring Lesley Dill's Divide Light #2, 2002

Conceptual Basis

Lesley Dill uses text, often inspired by literature, in her symbolic sculptures. In Divide Light #2, 2002, Dill finds her inspiration in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Banish Air from Air . . . .” By combining text with a sculpture of her own hand, she captures her feelings and thoughts on the literary piece. This lesson focuses on Dickinson’s free-verse poetry and the symbolic uses of the text-based art of Lesley Dill. Students will study and discuss poetry, create their own poems, and design a sculpture combining the two art forms. 

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, Buffalo, New York
George Cary Fund, 2003

Lesson Objectives

  • Become familiar with the artist Lesley Dill and her text-based artwork
  • Read, analyze, and discuss Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Banish Air from Air . . .”
  • Support the understanding of basic art elements and principles
  • Create an artwork using mixed media inspired by literature and poetry
  • Learn about and write a free-verse poem


  • Plaster wrap or papier-mâché materials
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Paint
  • Paint brushes
  • Scissors
  • Mixed-media materials

Background Information for Teachers

About the Artist

Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1950, Lesley Dill studied English and taught before becoming an artist in the 1980s. With her knowledge of literature, Dill explores the influence words have on an artist and the visual appeal of text in her artwork. Much of Dill’s work is text-based. In discussing the influence of text, she has stated, “Language is the touchstone, the pivot point of all my work.” 
Themes featured in Dill’s work, which is created with mixed-media materials, include the relationships between language, body, emotion, and experience. Language also adds layers of meaning to her artwork, especially the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Spiritual elements in Dill’s work reflect her travel and studies of Indian culture and traditions. 

In addition to her sculptural work, Dill is a photographer and performance artist. She also created and directed an opera, Divide Light, based on the language of Emily Dickinson.

About the Art

Divide Light #2, 2002, includes words from the poet Emily Dickinson. The title comes from Dickenson’s poem “Banish Air from Air . . . ,” which begins, “Banish Air from Air – / Divide Light if you dare –.” A part of a series called “Divide Light,” the words “divide” and “light” are created out of paper and featured on a sculpturally rendered hand. The hand is a cast of Dill’s left hand and made from a decorative Japanese poster called chiri. The words, also made from chiri, are spelled vertically and in shades of brown as the result of being stained by tea. Multiple bunches of thread hang two-to-three-feet down off of the hand. Dill was inspired by the expressive Indian tradition of using henna, made from leaves of shrubs and used to dye skin and hair, as body decoration. In the Indian tradition, henna is used to draw elaborate designs on hands. In Divide Light #2, Dill replaces traditional henna designs with text.

Vocabulary for Students

text-based art: a form of artwork that centrally focuses on the use of words and text

free-verse poetry: an open form of poetry that does not have a set pattern of rhyme or rhythm

mixed media: the use of a variety of materials in an artwork

Building Visual Literacy: Poetry and Art

Many artworks by Lesley Dill are greatly influenced by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Dickinson’s work was unique in the way she challenged the existing definitions of poetry in the 1800s by writing in a free-verse form. Sharing poetry by Emily Dickinson can allow for students to study Dill’s inspiration as well build a better understanding of Divide Light #2
The following poem, “Banish Air from Air . . .” contains text featured in Dill’s Divide Light #2. Read the poem to your students while they view Dill’s sculpture. Ask students about the poem and sculpture, including how the two relate. 

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
Fit -
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
Force Flame
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Flits Steam.



Breaking down the different layers of meaning in an artwork allows students to build abstract thoughts based on concrete observations. It is an interactive way to teach visual literacy in your classroom. Once students have discussed how the poem and artwork relate, additional details about the work, including Dill’s inspiration from Indian henna, can build a deeper understanding of the sculpture. 
After studying the free-verse form of Dickinson’s poem, ask students to create their own free-verse poems. The poem can have a variety of topics or themes chosen by the instructor. This writing exercise will serve to transition into the artmaking activity.

Artmaking Activity

For this artmaking activity, students can use inspiration from a poem by Emily Dickinson, or from their free-verse poem. Students should work in pairs; one student will wrap the other’s hand, then the students will switch the following day. Students will be creating a plaster cast of their hand, such as Dill’s in her sculpture. Creating thumbnail sketches will allow students to visualize how they would like their finished work to look. 

Instruct students to apply petroleum jelly to the whole hand and wrist of the hand they wish to cast. Place a pencil on the backside of the jellied hand. The pencil will make it easier to cut the plaster off later to free the hand from the cast. Dip the plaster strips into the water. Remove the excess water by squeezing through fingers like a squeegee. Too much water will slow the drying process down, making the cast set oddly. 

Begin applying the strips around the wrist. Do not apply the strips too tightly. Be sure to rub and overlap the pieces. After the wrist is wrapped, have the person pose their fingers. Remind students that their hand gestures should be appropriate and reflect their poems. Rubbing the wet fibers of the plaster wrap will ensure that it is sealed and all pieces are smoothly fused together. Once the whole hand is plastered, carefully slide the pencil out of the cast. An instructor should carefully cut a slit up the crease until the student is able to gently pull the plaster cast off of the hand. 

Once the plaster cast is off, repair the scissor cut and any broken finger areas by adding additional plaster strips around those sections. Once the cast is dry, the bottom can be cut to ensure the hand will stand or hang straight. Hands can be sanded with sandpaper to create a smooth finish. Students can hot glue the hands to a base and apply mixed-media materials or paint to finish the sculpture.

Lesson Tips

  • This lesson can be tailored to address a variety of themes and topics. For example, to create a unique self-portrait, students can plaster wrap their hands holding a special symbolic object.
  • This lesson can provide a cross-curriculum connection to sign language by having students sign a letter and plaster cast their hands. Groups of students can even collaborate to create signed words.
  • If you do not have access to plaster wrap or papier-mâché materials, students can create a drawing of their hand. Students can decorate or illustrate their hands to illustrate the meanings of their selected poem.

Optional Reflections and Lesson Wrap-Up

  • Students can create poems inspired by the sculptures of their peers.
  • In this lesson, students studied free-verse poems. Students can also create haikus that summarize their feelings on their artmaking process or completed sculptures.
  • Sculptures and poems can be hung and displayed together.

New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum Standards

  • New York State Learning Standards for the Arts: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • New York State Learning Standards for Social Studies: 1
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
  • College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing: 3, 4, 5, 9

Teacher Example

Plaster cast of a hand holding a purple bird, black feathers and the word "HOPE."
Example of finished artwork based on lesson plan. Artwork by School Program Coordinator Kelly Macagnone.


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