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Collecting Words • A Reflection on Lenore Tawney by Kathleen Mangan

Sarah Madges

Lenore Tawney (141), postcard to Maryette Charlton, February 15, 1969

Lenore Tawney (141), postcard to Maryette Charlton, February 15, 1969

This essay was originally a part of collaboration with The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, Pen to Panel.


The handwritten word played an important role in Lenore Tawney’s daily life and in her artistic practice.  Tawney was a regular correspondent and diarist who filled dozens of tiny journals with fine script.  These writings only rarely referenced her artwork or reflected events in her life.  More typically, Tawney ‘s notebooks were filled with quotations from her extensive readings.  “Collecting” passages in this way provided the opportunity for meditation on their deeper meanings.

Lenore Tawney (142-3), letter to Maryette Charlton, Jan. 27, 1970 [cont'd below]

Lenore Tawney (142-3), letter to Maryette Charlton, Jan. 27, 1970 [cont'd below]

In 1964, she began sending postcards to friends.  In her own words, “the postcards came from wishing to communicate…but not knowing what to say.  You know—you don’t want to say anything but you want to be a friend.  So I began making these postcards with messages that looked like writing but they were just signs.  There was a message but it was [an] invisible, unreadable message.”

Almost immediately, she began to incorporate her handwriting in collages and constructions.  The meaning of these written words was also fugitive, intended to communicate, but in a mysterious, elusive way.  Fine, thread-like script was superimposed upon lines of text from old manuscripts; written lines were piled atop one another so they could not be deciphered; and at other times delicate lines on translucent paper were turned upside-down.  Tawney’s goal was to make “visionary” experiences “visible.”

In this 1970 letter to Maryette Charlton, Tawney alludes to a deep, unconscious form of communication.  She describes a visit with Nanrei Kobori, the chief abbot of Ryoko-in in Kyoto, a Zen master and a highly regarded calligrapher.   Reflecting on Kobori’s teaching, Tawney notes that “When we are drawing a line, it is a part of our being.”  And as such, she believed in the power of art to convey “unreadable messages” from deep within.

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Kathleen Nugent Mangan is the Executive Director of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation.  A former curator at the American Craft Museum, Mangan was guest curator of the Museum’s 1990 traveling exhibition, Lenore Tawney: A Retrospective.  Following the retrospective, she continued to work with Tawney on numerous exhibitions and projects.  Mangan joined the board of the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation in 1995 and became its director following the artist’s death in 2007.