Water Journeys

Words // Tamra J. Higgins

Journey to Jericho, Vermont and on an unassuming back road, you will find the art studio and workshop of Dianne Shullenberger. In the studio you will find water, captured in fabric collages, created by thousands of pieces of cloth and hundreds of yards of thread. Climb the stairs to the workshop and there you will find tables and cupboards overflowing with pools of material and drawers drowning in spools of the thread used to outline and accent each collage. Continue further through a low doorway, and you will discover the framing workshop where Dianne herself mats then frames each creation.

Dianne began her professional career as an artist after moving from Chicago to Vermont in 1978. While her children were in school, she worked from10:00 to 3:00, drawing, painting, and quilting. Eventually, she found that the handiwork in quilting took time away from the creative process, so she began exploring, tearing, and layering the fabric in new ways. Before long, themes emerged in her material musings: fruits and vegetables, waves, reflections, and her latest collection, the migration of water.

Water seems to be everywhere Dianne is, whether she is in Vermont or at her summer cabin in Michigan. “Things I do,” she shares, “get me around water. I kayak, ski, hike, bike, and run.” Her outdoor activities, though, are not the only source of inspiration. “The idea of a journey of a stick or object thrown into the water was something I always asked my grandkids. I wanted them to imagine their water journey to the ocean.”

To begin the process of capturing the journey of streams, marshes, and estuaries, Dianne sketches or photographs specific places. From these pictures, she recreates the image by pinning piece after piece of fabric in corresponding colors onto her work board until she has a realistic representation. After the piece is constructed, she removes the pinned collage and sews it together with myriad colors of thread. It is the thread, she explains, more than the fabric, that gives each piece its watercolor effect.
“Many places I go, people can’t, so they experience them through my work. I take them along. If I do a good job, others will experience it, too.” Dianne would like others to understand “that all bodies of water migrate. A water habitat has specific vegetation that distinguishes it from others.” As a means of sharing this message, she asked her friend of more than 25 years, Mary Jane Dickerson, to collaborate with her.

To get to Mary Jane’s place, you journey a little further into the Vermont countryside. Arriving at her home in Jericho Center, you are immediately struck by the master flower gardens, the meticulously restored 1869 house, and inside, her office, where books line the walls and sit in stacks on chairs. Professor Emerita of the University of Vermont where she taught literature and writing for over 30 years, Mary Jane is a soft spoken and measured woman with the feistiness of her North Carolina farming roots lying just below her surface.

Mary Jane’s journey to poetry, as she explains it, has been “two steps forward and one step back.” Her first couple of steps were indeed in the forward direction. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she worked with poet Randall Jarrell who was kind and encouraging to an aspiring poet wanting to write about such things as beaver ponds or the North Carolina landscape. As her poetry developed, Mary Jane became especially interested in how family intersects with regional, national, and world history and how these “connect in significant ways, how people signify.” Now in retirement, she explains her writing is a part of a new life she’s created, one that’s complementary to all that she has done.

Having been commissioned to write a poem once before, Mary Jane agreed to write a collection of poems to accompany Dianne’s water journey fabric collages. “I said yes because I wanted the challenge; I wanted to do something out of the ordinary.” And so she began researching Vermont history and geology to better understand the journey of water.
As month followed month, Dianne never pressured Mary Jane, never asked her how it was going, only waited patiently for the poet to get back to her. After several months, in January, which to Mary Jane is “the best writing month, the clearing house of the mind,” she wrote the initial drafts over three weeks. “I had to create a framework to work within and once I created the first poem, I could see the closing poem.” It is these two poems that bring habitants – people, mammals, birds, reptiles – into the waterscape and create a more personal connection for the reader.

“I was given a gift to work with Dianne. I wanted this project to matter.” And as one word led to another word, as one work led to another work, the estuary of ideas and collages became Water Journeys, a project that truly matters.