This display is part of Democratic Vistas: Whitman, Body and Soul.
A Collaborative Installation by Lewis Colburn and Mark Stockton
Stedman Gallery, Rutgers University-Camden, May 29th-Dec 7th, 2019; Opening Reception on May 29th from 6-7:30pm
“Once, looking at the hopeless clutter of photographs, unable to identify the dates and circumstances of many of them, Whitman lamented, ‘I have been photographed to confusion. . . . . I’ve been taken and taken beyond count.’ Stumbling upon photos of himself he had forgotten had been taken, he joked, ‘I meet new Walt Whitmans every day. There are a dozen of me afloat. I don’t know which Walt Whitman I am.’ -Excerpt from This Heart’s Geography’s Map by Ed Folsom and Ted Genoways
Walt Whitman did contain multitudes. He published six American editions of Leaves of Grass in his lifetime (from 1855-1892.) The final version in 1891-92 is considered the “death bed” edition, as Whitman passed away in 1892.
For nearly the last twenty years of his life, Whitman resided in Camden, NJ, across the Delaware river from Philadelphia. Many admirers and artists made the crossing to visit Whitman, sharing time with America’s unofficial Poet Laureate as he held daily conversations in his rocking chair in the front parlor. As Whitman’s life drew to a close, many of his visitors tried to record and memorialize the poet. These efforts ranged from Horace Traubel’s four years of diary entries recording the poet’s daily life to paintings and sculptures by Thomas Eakins and William O’Donovan to photographs and plaster casts of Whitman’s dead body made by Eakins and Samuel Murray. These death casts are preserved in the libraries of Harvard and Princeton.
Whitman himself participated in creating this mythology, even planning the design of his tomb based on an iconic William Blake print.
Acknowledging this lineage, Mark Stockton and Lewis Colburn have created their first collaborative installation based on the images and artifacts of Walt Whitman’s last days in Camden. Referencing ephemera and photographs from this era, and utilizing 3-D scans made from the casts of Whitman’s body on his death bed, the artists present a contemplative tableau. Their re-created objects and images become a kind of compilation or archive, revisiting the many previous attempts to honor Whitman. The installation partially re-creates a room from Whitman’s house in Camden, including elements such as Whitman’s rocking chair and the fireplace from his living room.
This project combines both drawing and sculpture (Stockton works primarily in drawing, while Colburn works in sculpture) and considers how methods of re-creating an artifact or image can shift its status as a carrier of meaning. The artists have been inspired by the many reflections of Whitman adrift in the contemporary creative landscape, as well as the efforts made to record and memorialize Whitman at the end of his life.
“If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it…” -Walt Whitman ‘Song of Myself’