When the poet Jean Toomer walked through the South in the early twenties, he discovered a curious thing: Black women whose spirituality was so intense, so deep, so unconscious, that they were themselves unaware of the richness they held. . . . They dreamed dreams that no one knew—not even themselves. . . . They waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known. . . . For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not "Saints," but Artists. . . . Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality—which is the basis of Art . . .
—Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens
Like the poet above, I took my walk through the South a few years ago and discovered a black woman's creativity that haunts me still. And like Alice Walker in the passage above, I was struck by two characteristics in my encounter with Dinah Young. She was apparently unaware of her own genius as an artist and—connected with that unawareness—she lived a life of "spiritual waste," as Walker calls it. For Dinah Young had littered the grounds of her environment with emblems of creative genius that she herself disavowed as art while nonetheless continuing to "waste" them all over her landscape.
The woman wastes her art like the Prodigal Son in the parable, who spends his treasure promiscuously and mindlessly, for he has not yet "come to himself."
Walker speaks of the mindlessness of these genius women in terms of insanity. "They were so rich in spirituality," she continues the passage excerpted above, "that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane." "Not so with Dinah!" we might protest. True, she feigns a certain absence of mind when asked about the significance of some piece of her work. "Oh, that ain't nothing," she might say in defiance of our perceptions of a compellingly artful assemblage. "That's just some junk," or, "It was just lying there like that." Nonetheless, we suspect a vast reservoir of cunning and irony in her disavowals. To follow Walker's clue: perhaps she wastes her art, and disavows its riches, precisely as a way of safeguarding her sanity.
Consider what it might mean to acknowledge that the craft of concealment becomes a constitutive element in the work of an artist who is concerned as much about camouflage as she is about creativity. But let us defer discussion about why this particular artist might prefer to camouflage her art. First, attend to the works themselves.
A WALK FROM THE WOODS
The works fall into four categories that constitute a kind of spectrum of sites within which they are located, ranging from the woodlands adjacent to Dinah Young's house to the house itself. Perhaps a better schema would represent the works within a topography of four concentric circles. (1) The outer ring comprises the woods beyond Young's property line and yields to (2) the open field, with a few trees, that demarcates her grounds and within which lies (3) the yard of implements and artifacts that surrounds (4) the house itself where she resides. The works themselves that are located within those concentric rings may be described in general terms as follows: (1) woodland sculptures, (2) field constructions, (3) yard craft, and (4) building-framed ensembles.
Woodland Sculptures. You are walking along a path in the woods and you are suddenly captivated by what looks like a natural pyramid found in nature. You are immediately surprised that two substantial tree limbs, five to seven feet long, have fallen into position in such a way, with their broader or flatter ends splayed out on the ground, while their narrower ends converge off the ground to meet in the cleft of a standing, still-living tree trunk. Together the three objects form a three-sided pyramid whose base sits on the forest floor. The framework for a lean-to tent is one interpretation that comes to mind. A more abstract perception suggests a funnel engineered to collect, store, channel, or "vector" energy of some sort.
Further along the trail, you come across another unlikely phenomenon of nature. A rotted tree stump sits low and squat on the ground while a short protuberance of sheared wood arises out of one edge of the stump. Horizontally straddling the stump is a detached, lighter-toned pole or tree limb that rests athwart its dark base. Again you are captivated and peer more closely to determine how that pole-limb could have fallen "just so." Your sense of an artful intelligence at work is strengthened not only by the balancing act that the pole-limb performs in relation to the jutting wood and squatting stump but also by another strange coincidence. A living tree limb from an adjacent tree, in the shape of a tuning fork, extends over the other two objects with a kind of sheltering effect or blessing-hand gesture. Viewed together, the three objects signal and signify.
On the alert now for similar tableaux, you are not disappointed. This time, a slender, vinelike limb with no leaves is found extending archlike from the ground where it is rooted (or inserted?). You are in no danger of mistaking this arrangement as a natural phenomenon, for the other end of the limb is threaded through an "eye of a needle": a shorter limb in the shape of a figure eight (anthropomorphic?) is partially encased in the ground and rises out of the forest floor to offer a large needle-eye opening for the arcing limb to penetrate and extend itself. Harnessing grace is one abstraction that comes to mind, but symbioses or conjugal relationships are also suggested.
Field Constructions. The versatility of the intelligence at work is further evinced as you depart the woods and view the space intervening between yourself and the house across the way. The moderately large space (perhaps fifty yards across to the house) hosts certain trees standing tall, separate, and isolated in an open field. But accompanying the trees are additional objects, appearing natural and supernatural simultaneously. Vertically propped within the embrace of their lower boughs, or else leaning against their graceful trunks, are large, singularly straight tree limbs or even small trees themselves, without limbs or leaves, uprooted and strategically placed. The effect is otherworldly, as if the tall trees had dropped down projections of some sort in order to make contact with the ground, or were themselves being assailed by foreign, more lissome relatives, less encumbered than themselves. Yet another conceit to which imagination gives rise is that of giant shepherds' crooks or prophets' staves, left resting in the trees while their supernal owners are temporarily away or otherwise invisible.
On the edge of the wood just as you enter the field it is fitting to find a more liminal construction. What would otherwise look like a stack of firewood awaiting portage to the woodshed or fireplace appears, upon closer inspection, to be more artfully arranged than any woodpile. Strata comprising wood of varying sizes and lengths are arrayed at various angles, beginning with the larger and shorter blocks located at the bottom of the stack and the longer, more slender pieces extending propeller-like at the top. The overall effect is that of assorted earthbound materials waiting to take flight; an effect that is punctuated by one lone stick, extending skillfully through the upper layers of the stack and emerging significantly from the top, into the receptive air.
Yard Craft. More ambiguous are assemblages of yard debris: kindling and firewood collected on sheets of tin siding, or found alongside a rusted automobile-wheel cylinder, or arranged hauntingly next to a shiny aluminum mailbox severed from its roadside stand. In all these instances, the question of artful intention is even more important than in the previous cases.
You may be tempted more vigorously to wonder whether intentionality informs these works until you proceed further toward the house, discover its treasures, and then look back upon the yard objects littering the space between and recognize anew their crafted character.
Building-Framed Ensembles. Finally, you reach the house and discover along its sides and frame another set of objects of varying composition and stature. Perhaps most engaging are the combinations of wood and fabric that render the house itself an integral part of this "installation" art. For example, one installation alternates wood and fabric in a way that suggests a massive weaving project or the construction of a loom on the same scale as the house itself.
More conventional is the fabric draped behind and framing a wood ensemble. The ensemble features a single tree limb that curves upward at one end where it balances in the air like a see-saw. The other end is grounded by a perpendicular supporting limb. Elsewhere, beneath the curved limb are other constructed works that ground, complicate, and counteract the motion and energy of the limb's aerial arc effect. Alternative construals suggest a ship under sail or the most graceful and organic machinery imaginable.
APPRECIATING ART THAT CONCEALS ITSELF
The assumption that art is only white man's work is built into the very culture itself. Art which pays homage to the idea of reaching all of society and influencing it, becomes embarrassed when it is actually expected to do so. ... [Works of art] which seemed like revealed truth when [presented] by the white artist have tended to cause doubt and embarrassment when [presented] by a black one. —Ishmael Reed quoting the "young White painter" Alex Gross writing in the East Village Other (Ishmael Reed, "Introduction," 19 Necromancers from Now (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970)
Why does Dinah Young so assiduously deny the genius so evident in her work? A hypothesis lies ready at hand for anyone who dares understand the history and pathology of art appreciation in North America. By her disavowals, Young appears to be instinctively protecting herself from caricature as a "crazy woman" on one hand, and from censure as a hoodoo practitioner or "conjure woman" on the other. Ishmael Reed lucidly articulates this alternative fate for the black artist.
"So strange" is our racially contorted context for artist creativity that, according to Ishmael Reed, "one has to go to the supernatural for an analogy." In that connection, Reed expounds both a supernaturalist and mental health framework for black artistic production in this cultural context.
The Afro-American artist is. . . . a conjuror who works Juju upon his oppressors; a witch doctor who frees his fellow victims from the psychic attack launched by demons of the outer and inner world. (Ishmael Reed, "Introduction," 19 Necromancers from Now)
These representations of the black artist as conjuror, on one hand, and as engaged in mental-health conflicts ("psychic attack"), on the other, resonate profoundly with Dinah Young's antipathy to being identified as an artist in her own right. It is indeed her own right to decide whether to take on the onus-the black artist's burden-of being alternatively identified in this culture. Thus, Dinah has chosen; like a trickster she has chosen to outmaneuver both identifications. By her disavowal, she decides not to be identified as either (1) performing folk-magical art—“hoodoo" charms or works in the vernacular—or (2) being mentally unbalanced-daring to claim artistic stature and genius in a culture that caricatures a black woman who does so.
For Dinah Young has decided not to enter the racial contest that Ishmael Reed once described as our culture's artistic "rivalry":
Perhaps at the roots of American art is a rivalry between the oppressor and the oppressed, with a secret understanding that the oppressor shall always prevail and make off with the prizes, no matter how inferior his art to that of his victims. (Ibid.)
Perhaps the secret harbored by Dinah Young's disavowal of artistic identity is her "secret understanding" of this rivalry and its dangers-dangers that she has chosen not to incur. But perhaps she is all the more conjurational, all the more "psychic," and all the more a trickster in her very disavowals. Perhaps the most transformative art is the art that craftily conceals itself while waiting for an age that has the wisdom and integrity to finally appreciate it. Until then, despite all our contemporary speculations, Dinah Young remains our "unknown Dinah."