June 2024
Conscience and Consciousness
Edie Dillon’s Multi-layered Sculpture
Edie with Yellow Dirt Testimony

When asked about his experience composing the "Hallelujah Chorus" from his Messiah, George Frederick Handel replied, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wish to make them better.” This quote has always stuck with me over the years and has made me think about art in a deeper way than just being something I enjoy.

I was recently fortunate to spend some time with local artist and writer Edie Dillon, who has spent many years thinking about this very subject. Can art do more than entertain? Can it, in fact, bring about changes in thinking, feelings and actions? “As far as affecting the human heart and mind, I think maybe music is the art form that does it the best, but I think visual art can do the same thing. It can go for the heart and bypass the head, or at least create an opening. The best of it combines those two,” she says.

Del Rio — Forgotten Language

Edie is far enough along in her biography to clearly see what she calls “through-lines,” recurring themes like red threads woven through her life. Raised in the East, she spent two years at Wesleyan University, then felt moved to do something completely different. She joined the Student Conservation Association and was sent to work in Washington’s Olympic mountains. She’d never been west, never worn a backpack, but she felt that summer as if she had found a home and a calling. She went on to earn a BS in forestry at the University of Washington, focusing on the interpretation of cultural and natural resources. Communication and conservation became prominent through-lines in Edie’s life and work.

She served for some years as a US Forest Service ranger in the northern Cascades, and lived in Stehekin, the most isolated community in the contiguous US, where she experienced firsthand the tension around the Sagebrush Rebellion, when ranchers and good old boys began rebelling against the federal government. In Bellingham, where she’d relocated to study for a teaching degree, Edie met her husband, Tom Fleischner, and ran a recycling-education program and a summer nature and arts camp for children.

After moving to Prescott, while initiating a recycling program for Yavapai County, becoming education director at the Highlands Center for Natural History and running a local arts and nature camp, Edie started taking painting classes at Yavapai College. She speaks highly of the YC art programs, and has a deep appreciation for the freedom from academic constraint, language and modeling that a small community college can offer the student versus most art schools. She loved painting, but when her children came found it hard to find the time to get into the painting zone, and noticed that her work was becoming more three-dimensional. Once, when working with available materials, she attached (clean!) cloth diapers to a painting.

In 2003 Edie signed on to manage the YC art gallery. This began her professional leap into the art world and another through-line: working with artists to create cohesive and meaningful exhibitions.

Still seeking ways to balance her love for creative work and need to communicate about sustainable living, in 2007 she wrote her master’s thesis for Prescott College exploring whether “art is an effective means of communication about social and environmental issues.”

Today political consciousness is common in art and there is greater awareness of marginalized voices, but till recently the pendulum had swung hard toward commodity and away from social engagement. 

Edie has often combined her passions for art and education through performance art over the years, creating a play for Tsunami on the Square, parades, and presentations for the Center for Biological Diversity, where she worked during the late ‘00s promoting awareness of the Verde River and the environmental costs of the proposed Big Chino pipeline.

The Inevitability of Freedom

In 2017 the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff put out a call to artists to participate in a five-day boot camp to learn about uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, after which they had six months to produce work based on the experience that would become a show called Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land. Although Navajo is nominally sovereign, treaties stipulate that the federal government retains its mineral rights, and toxic, radioactive uranium has been mined there, wherever it was found, for decades. There are hundreds of abandoned mines on the reservation, and wind raises toxic dust, leading to elevated rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Edie created a 22-foot mushroom cloud constructed with lace tablecloths (“What says ‘Everything’s fine!’ in the ‘50s better than a white lace tablecloth?”) and over 3,000 N95 masks, which was the minimal protection the Dine could have used but were never offered by the mining companies. To promote broader consciousness about this issue of resource colonialism, Edie invited people from all over the country — friends, artists, college and elementary students — to decorate the masks.

Assembling the masks and then installing the sculpture, titled Yellow Dirt Testimony: A Promise in Many Parts, took six months. “Making that piece was a real highlight in my art life, with the community aspect, the ideas, the knowledge and learning that happened, and the feeling of being a part of a group of people that wanted to say something about this.”

This Gun Shoots Moonbeams

In an act of what her brother termed “imperfect karma,” Edie later returned to the piece when Covid was devastating the Dine, and gathered helpers to liberate the masks from the fabric, re-attaching the elastic bands. She was able to connect with local people to transport the re-repurposed masks to Navajo, where they were distributed. Yellow Dirt Testimony had immense effect on many levels.

Another significant work Edie created in 2020, simple but profound, was a reading of the US Constitution on the Yavapai Courthouse steps for five weekends leading up to the November election. Many people took part in the readings, which Edie saw as a way to bring art, performance and politics together. 

In the last decade or so Edie has created mixed-media sculptures and shown them around the country as her impactful work has drawn increasing interest. She’s also pursued her passion for writing about natural history and art.

Edie serves on the Gallery Council for the Natural History Institute and her work is currently in a show there called Green Guardians: Artists Standing Strong for the Verde River, which will run through July 12. Participating artists have created works to express their love and concern for the Verde, which has been severely diminished and is again being threatened by developers clamoring for another pipeline. Edie used mixed media to create two pieces for the show, Elegy for Del Rio and Forgotten Language. Her pieces hold layers of meaning, some very subtle, as in the hand-beaded flowers she made for Elegy — fringed willow-herb, seep monkeyflower, fragrant bedstraw and a rare riparian sunflower, all once common around the now mostly dried-up wetlands of Del Rio Springs.

Looking forward, Edie has essays coming from the Center for Humans and Nature and River Glass books, and will be among four artists featured in the exhibit Wonder: Social Surrealism in Contemporary Art at the Coconino Center for the Arts, October 19-December 21.

Edie Dillon’s work is not just skilled and stimulating. It asks the observer to pause, look deeper, and listen with the heart. You can find more about her art and writing at ediedillonart.com and wellspringstudio.org.

Green Guardians
Artists Standing Strong for the Verde River

Natural History Institute Art Gallery

126 N. Marina, April 26–July 12, Tuesday–Friday 9am-5pm

For more information on the exhibit, visit naturalhistoryinstitute.org/event/green-guardians-artists-standing-strong-for-theverde-river/

On the Upper Verde Wild and Scenic designation: wildverderiver.org

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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