ART & SOUL, HEART & SOIL: TANYA HARTMAN’S So That I May Carry You with Me

By Danny Orendorff, 2015

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Encircling the main gallery of Tanya Hartman’s exhibition So That I May Carry You with Me at the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art are verses 33–34 of Leviticus 19, found in the third book of the Hebrew Bible. Gently installed as linear text along all four of the central gallery’s walls, the verses read, “When a stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” Including a repeat of the first of the two verses with the gender pronoun switched to “her,” Hartman has painstakingly produced each character, each punctuation mark, and each dot above every i and j by hand from slip-cast and glazed earthenware. The installation, known as Alphabets and Earth: Clay Letters (2015), functions as a soft grey horizon line for the exhibition as a whole, setting the coordinates of a vast spiritual journey.

Leviticus 19:33–34, with its clear directive to provide sanctuary and compassion to foreigners, is an often recited set of verses uttered when drawing upon religion to support international immigration and human rights movements. The message seeks to undo the rigid dialectic of insider-outsider by encouraging acceptance, generosity, and neighborliness based on a holy and universal concept of humanity. Yet, it also recognizes that there are invented divisions amongst us. We have inherited vast sets of in-groups and out-groups, established by way of power hierarchies, borders, and boundaries. Leviticus 19:33–34, even as it advocates for greater human inclusivity and compassion, indicates that we, as a civilization, have had the tendency throughout virtually all of recorded human history to classify and contain, rank and file, other-ness based on certain perceptions of different-same, foreign-native, strange-ordinary.

As of June 2014, The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that there are over 51 million displaced per-sons across the world, the first time since the World War II era that the figure exceeds 50 million people. (1) Today, as the world’s population tops out over 7 billion and continues to increase exponentially, perhaps the experiences of over 51 million individuals is too small a fraction to constitute ordinariness. Regardless, 51 million still seems like an awful lot of people. This is particularly so when considering how the figure only accounts for those currently identified as displaced and does not account for the many more millions (billions?) of individuals who have naturalized someplace since their displacement, or whose present-day and ordinary lives are actually the byproduct of historically recent traumas within their ancestry.

In May of 2006, while on sabbatical from her teaching position in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Kansas, Hartman began volunteering with the St. Louis Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma and, later, with Sudan Sunrise in Kansas City, an organization dedicated to aiding South Sudanese refugees locally and abroad. Hartman, herself, is descendent of Jewish grandparents who escaped Nazi per-secution in Germany by fleeing to Mexico. While it would be altogether reductive to think that Hartman began her volunteering with such organizations in an attempt to connect by proxy with the experiences of persecution endured by her own ancestors, her volunteering may have been compelled due to a particular kind of empathy developed in those, like Hartman, who not only understand, but feel vulnerability as a pre-condition of their identity.


Taking in Hartman’s exhibition, it may be difficult to classify just what her primary medium is as an artist. Painting, embroidery, sculpture, beadwork, collage, ceramic, and more appear within her prolific portfolio of artworks. Yet, it may be the act of journaling that is most recurrent throughout. The author Joan Didion wrote in 1966, “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rear-rangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” (2) A preservationist of stories and relationships, Hartman’s art practice does indeed seem compelled by the desire to remember. A battle against the loss of forgetting.

By 2007, one year into her volunteer work with refugees and survivors of genocide, Hartman initiated the durational and conceptual art project What Was Beautiful (2007–14), in which she typed 365 short, daily observations in response to one question, What was beautiful today? Answering her own prompt, Hartman would list fleeting and ephemeral things: qualities of the Kansas landscape, the appearance of a passerby, the sounds of insects. Printing her accumulated texts using a standard inkjet printer and later cutting each individual word out of paper, Hartman intricately collaged the cut-out text upon small, delicate pieces of cream and off- white handmade paper connected via thin lines of embroidery floss. The resulting artwork is an astonishing composite of passing time, memory, and self-care; an intimate and infinitesimal diary perhaps written as an antidote to the depressing realities of contemporary global warfare she encounters while volunteering.

The diaristic format reoccurs within her next body of work, titled Rhyming the Lines: I Wrote a Short Story (2010). A series of 16 diptychs of collaged words on paper, the project reveals Hartman’s interest in intertextuality, or of multiple texts always-already existing within one given text. Having written a short story of the same name in 2002, years later Hartman found herself drawn back to what she had written, curious about how her short fictional work contained subliminal similarities to many of the news stories and works of fiction she had been or would soon be reading. These included literary works by Barbara Kingsolver and Mona Simpson, as well as reports of the capture and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl by Pakistani militants in 2002 and, earlier, the murder of Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl in 1993 in South Africa. Pearl had been executed just months prior to when Hartman wrote her story, but it wasn’t until years had passed that she realized how her own fascination with the episode, and identification with both Pearl and Biehl, had psychologically influenced the inflections of her writing.

Collaging, in her familiar manner, the words of her short story across 16 pages of paper, Hartman paired semi-autobiographical addenda with each page, arranged as diptychs. The addenda relay Hartman’s thoughts on how fiction “became a part of my unconscious life, seeping into the writing of the story.” (3) Additional fossil-like embroideries of organic, embryonic shapes were then introduced atop the text-based compositions. Composed of poetic and abstract verse, these embroidered thought-forms interrupt both the linearity of the pages and the one-to-one relationship of text to addenda. Other embellishments (snaps, buttons, fixtures) are also affixed to the surfaces, functioning as metaphors for the sort of psychological suturing Hartman was attempting between fiction and reality, emotion and intellect. As a whole, Rhyming the Lines reveals the untidiness of how we take-in and process information as human beings, pointing to the ruptures and gulfs of subjectivity that disable us from ever holistically understanding the experiences of others, or even our own.


In a series of diptych works known as Alphabets and Earth from 2014, Hartman juxtaposes military-style, top-down views of war-torn landscapes with undecipherable charts and graphs featuring myriad specimen-like elements resembling human matter (hair, teeth, fingernails). Eight sets in all, each duo is named for a nation where religious, ethnic, or tribal battles have led to situations of conquest, genocide, or war, including Serbia, Hungary, Rwanda, Poland, Germany, Cambodia, and America. For the duo of works dedicated to South Sudan, Hartman has composed a gnarly canvas coated in a thick impasto of ashen grey oil paint made all the more severe through the unlikely addition of black and silver sequin elements resembling miniature craters or shattered terrain. Paired with it is a graph-like arrangement of small bunches of hair organized into a cellular grid, recalling the quack pseudoscience of eugenics. In these works, Hartman seems to suggest that it is humanity itself that is lost when attempts are made to order human lives and rule through force.

Judith Butler, in her 2004 collection of essays Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, argues for “reimagining the possibility of community on the basis of vulnerability and loss.” (4) For Butler, it is when we begin to apprehend our mutual human vulnerabilities, presently or throughout history, that we may be able to see beyond the often superficial and categorical differences that so easily divide us (race, ethnicity, religious orientation, etc.). Such superficial differences have been invented to justify wars and genocides, and prevent us from recognizing something common, chronic, sacred, and shared amongst us all—our basic, human susceptibility to violence. In recognizing the precariousness of all life, our empathetic feelings of grief and grieving could be extended beyond our own immediate losses and become political resources for opposing all forms of violence. In short, Butler contends that our basic human capacity to grieve the loss of human life indicates a hopeful starting point for a new kind of coalitional anti-violence politics.

The expressive and orderly Alphabets and Earth diptychs correspond to the nation of origin of the individuals Hartman has met coincidentally or works with as a volunteer trauma counselor. These are the same individuals featured in eight painted portraits, titled Icons from a Broken World, located at the center of her exhibition at the Daum. Installed along walls painted a deep royal blue, the portraits take on a saintly quality, as much due to the environment as to the intricate surface treatment Hartman has provided for the backgrounds of each painting. Having meticulously applied thousands of tiny glass beads to the surface of the works, Hartman produces a push-pull tension between the figure featured at the center of her paint-ings and the viewers beholding them.

The detail and tactility of Hartman’s beadwork compels a viewer to stand very near to her work, bringing them face to face with the direct gaze of the forward-facing individual depicted. Suddenly eye to eye with an ordinary appearing individual who, nevertheless, we know has endured and survived the inconceivable, a strange intimacy emerges. These enigmatic encounters with the figures Hartman has lovingly painted allow for an entirely more humane consideration of the living individuals at the center of global atrocities— individuals all too frequently reduced to statistic form.


In her 2012 experimental publication Depression: A Public Feeling, theorist Ann Cvetkovich introduces the concept of the “sacred everyday” as a strategy for combatting feelings of futility and fatigue that plague a mind conscious of the global atrocities occurring under capitalism. Included under the concept of the “sacred everyday” are such small-scale and domestic gestures as journaling, crafting, exercise, and prayer. Such habits and rituals provide daily sustenance against the feelings of powerlessness that compel complacency. Linking creative practice with the spiritual, Cvetkovich argues that “the combined forces of the ordinary and the spiritual can be an antidote to despair, alienation, and depression.” (5)

It is only fitting, then, that Hartman surrounds the small enclave of honored individuals featured at the center of her exhibition with dozens of small sculptures she’s produced called Prayer Paddles (2007–14). Eccentric, nebulous little handheld objects, each artwork is composed from such modest materials as wood, wire, and fabric, and each is embellished with decoratively painted patterns and collaged text relaying a prayer. Featuring such titles as To Remember Home, For Anger, and To Treat All People with Dignity, these diminutive and deeply auratic artworks are simultaneously ordinary and ecstatic, micro and macro, infused with all the power of our most spiritual yearnings, yet scaled to be held in the palm of our hands. These are the gorgeous tensions that belie Hartman’s sincere and soulful art practice, born from daily assignments and intimacies, resulting in manifestations of common, compassionate prayer.


1) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “World Refugee Day: Global forced displacement tops 50 million for first time in post-World War II era,” (accessed Febru-ary 18, 2015).

2) Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 132-133.

3) Tanya Hartman, Rhyming the Lines: I Wrote a Short Story, (accessed February 18, 2015).

4) Judith Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004), 20.

5) Ann Cvetkovich, “The Utopia of Ordinary Habit: Crafting, Creativity, and Spiritual Practice,” in Depression: A Public Feeling (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 202.