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Project: Billy Renkl

G L E A N I N G S :
a response to the journals of Henry David Thoreau

 I was trained as an illustrator, and much of my life as an artist has been organized around pivotal texts: Shakespearean dramas, Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rilke, Annie Dillard, e. e. cummings. In each case, the text has given me a way to examine myself. I don't seek to illustrate such texts (by which I mean the thin representation of a narrative moment); I always try to respond to what resonates in them, in their meaning and language.
            Two springs ago a student's commitment to hiking the whole of the Appalachian Trail unexpectedly led me to Thoreau and his essay on walking, published posthumously in 1862. I spent this past summer thinking about the wealth of ideas in Thoreau's journals, a new text for me, through this series of small works. Thoreau famously said "I have travelled extensively in Concord." The poignant humor of this is that Concord was a small town. I didn't need to leave Clarksville and my small home studio to engage that rich document, and to mine it for ideas (as Thoreau, himself, had done in his lifetime).
            Thoreau is often quoted by environmentalists, and I expected to find in the journal big ideas with which to think about contemporary culture. Instead, I found intimate ideas that pertained to my own life and work. Thoreau was 25 when his beloved brother John died in his arms. Four years earlier he had written this: "Every part of nature teaches that the passing away of one life is the making room for another." Did he remember having written that? Did he pull that out of the journal to help him understand his brother’s death? One hundred and seventy-five years later I know that it consoled me; I found it in the journal some weeks after my mother died.
            This work was supported by a 2012 APSU Summer Research Fellowship. I am especially grateful to Provost Denley, Dean Dennis, and Assistant Provost Johnson for their sponsorship and administration of this program.

- Billy Renkl, APSU Professor of Art

Select works from Gleanings


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