For years, artist Robert Schultz has made creative reuse of historical Civil War-era images, developing photographs from the Library’s Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Portraits in the flesh of tree and plant leaves found on former battlefields. In turn, the Library has acquired some of his art.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up and went to college in Iowa, then did graduate degrees in creative writing and literature at Cornell University. I taught at Cornell; the University of Virginia; my alma mater, Luther College; and Roanoke College, where I served as the John P. Fishwick Professor of English until my retirement from teaching in 2018. Since then, I’ve worked full time as a writer and artist.
Over the years, I have published seven books — poetry, a novel, biography, memoir — but my work in the visual arts is a fairly recent development. Especially since my retirement from teaching, I have begun to make and exhibit work, most of which is done in photographic “alternative” processes — camera-less work in the chlorophyll print process and creative uses of a scanner.
How did you come to use leaves in your art?
I learned the chlorophyll print process from its modern originator, Binh Danh. I first saw his work in an exhibition that traveled to Roanoke, Virginia — big tropical leaves with portraits of Khmer Rouge victims in them and smaller leaves with images out of the Vietnam-U.S. war.
They floored me, and I started writing poems in response. When I contacted Binh with questions, he responded generously, and we struck up a correspondence. Then, when Hollins University brought him to Roanoke for a residency, he and I met and began to travel to Civil War sites, where he took photographs and I made notes for poems and essays.
This was the beginning of a collaboration that has yielded two books and two art exhibitions. When we prepared the exhibition “War Memoranda” for Roanoke’s Taubman Museum in 201), Binh taught me his process and I took on the task of making Civil War-era portraits in leaves to accompany Binh’s portraits of Vietnam-era soldiers he had made in mats of grass-like leaves.
Why, in your estimation, is chlorophyll print making especially apt for memorializing the Civil War?
My very first glimpse of Binh’s leaf prints made me think instantly of Walt Whitman, and the central metaphor of “Leaves of Grass” is the guiding trope of my work: “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men, / It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.”
For Whitman, and now for me, the grass and leaves are “hieroglyphics” and “uttering tongues” speaking elegies in spring’s renewals. Also, for Whitman and for me, the grass is a figure for the American ideal of democracy, “Growing among black folks as among white, / Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.”
When did you first use the Library’s collections, and what is a favorite photo or two you’ve discovered?
In 2012, the Ric Burns Civil War documentary on PBS drew heavily from Drew Gilpin Faust’s 2008 book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” and made liberal use of portraits held in the Library’s Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Portraits. That’s when I became aware of the magnificent Liljenquist collection of cased daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes.
That these portraits were made available on the Library’s website in high-resolution digital images made my work possible. I could download a portrait, print it onto a plastic transparency, place the transparency onto a leaf and put it out for the sun to do its work. Under clear areas of the transparency the leaf would bleach, but under dark areas the shielded parts of the leaf would retain their natural coloration, making the image in the flesh of the leaf.
I was drawn particularly to the portraits of very young soldiers whose expressions are so open, who look so vulnerable. In their new uniforms they appear mildly astonished by their unfolding fate. I’m thinking, for instance, of this unidentified young soldier in a Union uniform and forage cap or Sergeant William T. Biedler of Company C, Mosby’s Virginia Cavalry Regiment, or this unidentified young African American soldier in a Union uniform. I am drawn also to the heartbreaking images of family members in mourning, such as this unidentified girl in mourning dress holding a framed photograph of her father.
Which works of yours has the Library acquired?
Tom Liljenquist has acquired five of my portraits for the Library. They are based on an African American soldier in a Union uniform holding a rifle-musket and a revolver; the young soldier in a Union uniform and forage cap mentioned above; an officer in Confederate uniform with his wife and baby; a boy holding a photograph of a soldier in Confederate uniform atop a Bible; and Mathew Brady’s 1862 portrait of Walt Whitman.
It is ideal that these pieces will be held with their source material — the small, cased portraits — and near the Library’s great Whitman collection. My work on the leaf prints began with visits to the Library and the Liljenquist Collection, and the Library is the best possible repository for the chlorophyll prints. I know the work will receive excellent care, and I’m honored to have my work made available to its researchers and visitors.
What are you working on now?
A chlorophyll print is a one-of-a-kind piece; a leaf cannot be editioned. So, I have been using my scanner to make digital images of leaf prints that have not yet been cast in resin for framing.
In one new series, “Being Seen,” I scan a leaf portrait, then enlarge the image on my computer and crop it tightly, showing just the face from eyes to mouth. In this work, I’m sharing the intense gaze I have encountered on my computer monitor while preparing images — repairing scratches, adjusting contrast and so on — for use in my processes. The gaze peering intently from my monitor seemed to ask hard questions about the human cost of war.
In another series, “How the Dead Speak,” I make compositions on the scanner using leaf print portraits in combination with fresh plant specimens of various kinds. I make these scans in a darkened room with the scanner’s lid removed. The resulting image shows the composition against a deep, black background. In this work, inspired by Whitman’s great poem, “This Compost,” the dead speak in leaves — in nature’s cycles.
I’ve continued to explore new uses for leaf print portraits. Now I’m making poet boxes, inspired by Joseph Cornell’s three-dimensional compositions made in found wooden boxes. I’ve found a variety of old boxes in antique shops and am currently working on boxes for Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and Robinson Jeffers. For instance, traveling in California I visited Jeffers’ Tor House, where I was able to gather a few stones, eucalyptus pips and other materials that I will arrange in my box with short poem excerpts and chlorophyll prints of the poet.
I am spending less time in my studio, however, and more time at my desk, working on a novel in which the 1939 World’s Fair figures prominently. Its title will be “How the Future Was.”
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