A Poet and a Sculptor Meet at Jason Russell House

In October, the Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture collaborated with the Arlington Historical Society to bring work by the accomplished Boston sculptor Leslie Wilcox to the hallowed grounds of the Jason Russell House. Now Jessie Brown, an accomplished poet who lives just down the street, has written a poem in response.

Wilcox has arranged what appear to be garments on six of the Jason Russell House’sstately trees to create an installation she has titled Arboreal Attire. Inspired by the fashions of the 19th and early 20th century, Wilcox also seeks to reveal the idiosyncratic character of individual trees. Her sculpture captures a hybrid presence, part human and part force of nature. Memories of people from the past unite with the shapes and spirits of the trees themselves to bring a diverse cast of characters to a forested space.

Wilcox’s sculptures look delicate, even ephemeral; in reality her gowns and jackets are tailored from tough, durable stainless steel mesh. Her Arlington installation required weeks of demanding work, hoisting pieces of translucent metal up into each tree, wrapping and draping the sculptural garments around massive trunks,and carefully stapling seams into place, ensuring that the trees are not harmed in
the process.

Poet Jessie Brown and her dog, Ruby, stopped by frequently to admire the work. Lively conversation ensued, and Wilcox shared that she had enjoyed collaborating with poets for past exhibitions. ACAC’s curator Cecily Miller asked Brown if she would write a poem based on Arboreal Attire and its unique site, a family residence built in the 1740s. The result is “Make Yourself at Home,” a provocative meditation on time and history, art and nature. Brown’s poem explores the sense of mysterious presence that Wilcox’s sculpture has introduced into the small but sylvan space of the historic house’s front yard.

How did Brown experience the process?

“I’ve always loved the Jason Russell house, not only for its history, but for the green space it provides for the whole neighborhood. It gives a wonderful kind of breathing room: pines, a colonial herb garden, rabbits scampering across the lawn—with the #77 bus churning right past, and the shops across the street. People love to stroll by or just sit on the benches. I walk through nearly every day, and was thrilled to come across Leslie Wilcox’s sculptures. Different figures went up over several weeks, as if the grounds were being repopulated, slowly, from different eras.  Her installation sneaks up on you: is that a tree? a coat? a person? Do they know each other? Where are they going? The process fascinated me. It made me imagine all those who’ve been here before us; I couldn’t stop thinking about them. The poem, “Make Yourself at Home,” grew out of that excitement. Not only the people, not only the creatures, but even the trees, the plants, the very ground we stand on here, may be speaking. It holds a history that connects us.” 

Make Yourself at Home

Beside the thoroughfare: white pines, stone wall,
an acre empty except for your breathing.
Once forest, once orchard, now field,
this thin grass takes your steps.
How many hoofprints has it held?
How many moccasins? Or even trees—
see how one leans toward you, graceful in pleated sleeves;
one wears snow like wings on a kimono;
one stands silent, blackclad, hat in hand.
Old quince, maple, oak…  Still,
today floods in on you: the sixth mass extinction,
the way plants sing through their roots,
how monarch flights splinter down years…
You lean against fieldstone, and feel
the breaths of others, seen, unseen. The trees
keep reaching. They look down the road
beyond you, to the children coming, and call out
their greetings in a thousand tongues.
What if you are not alone?
What if you were never alone?

—Jessie Brown

 

Jessie Brown is the author of two short collections, What We Don’t Know We Know (Finishing Line Press) and Lucky (Anabiosis Press).   Her poems and translations have appeared in numerous local and national journals, including venues like The Comstock Review, New Madrid, Minerva Rising, Full Bleed, and the American Poetry Review.  An Arlington resident, she leads poetry workshops both independently and in schools and communities throughout the Boston area (www.JessieBrown.net ). She is offering a new 8-session series in Arlington, open to poetry lovers, writers and artists of all experience levels, starting in late January.