Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Painting Writers’ Houses

I had a student several years ago who created a perfect project for my class on houses in American literature and culture. He wrote and produced a film about a literature professor who was terrified to leave his house and a young woman who spent her life painting “portraits” of houses. It was a doomed love story. The professor was meant to dwell indoors reading and underlining pages of text, and she was drawn to contemplating the domestic landscape from outside it. (We spent a good bit of time on Cather's The Professor's House--so perhaps this was a modern retelling of her tale).

I have loved the idea of “portraits” of houses ever since—It seems to me to get at one of the desires we act out when visiting the places where people we admire have lived and worked. We want to see how they are reflected in their places. We want to see the domestic self-portrait that a house or study might provide.

A recent mural commissioned by NYU for their Languages and Literature building combines views of many different writers’ workspaces (Frank O'Hara, Edith Wharton, Washington Irving, Jane Jacobs, Pedro Pietra, and Zora Neale Hurston). The mural by Elena Climent, is a series of trompe-l’oeil widows through the writers’ bookshelves into their workspaces, and was profiled in a New York Times article here.

I haven’t seen the mural in person, though I will certainly make the effort next time we’re in NY. At her blog Climent has posted an image of the entire mural and a detail of Washington Irving’s desk. The article detailed her work and research is brief, but I’m curious about her research process and her experience touring these sights.

(Images here are of Washington Irving's house and study at Sunnyside, from HABS via the Library of Congress )