A Bountiful Yield
- Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- February 2, 2023
The wisdom in Anne Truitt’s final journal.
Sculptor Anne Truitt’s rectangular columns, bold shafts of color, transformed the loft space into a minimalist temple. My visit with a friend to the 2016 exhibition in the East Wing of the National Gallery, “Anne Truitt in the Tower,” was a tardy first encounter with the celebrated local artist who had died 12 years earlier.
Born in Maryland in 1921, Truitt lived much of her life in Washington, creating in studios throughout the city. The exhibition included a map of those locations and a video of the artist at work in what would be her final studio behind her home in Cleveland Park, near where we’d recently moved.
Fascinated by the forthright but mysterious columns, contemporary yet timeless, I returned to the exhibition with my husband. Later, we walked up the hill from our apartment to Truitt’s former home. From the alley, we caught a partial glimpse of the backyard studio’s tall windows and could almost imagine her still at work.
During her lifetime, Truitt published three of her journals (Daybook, Turn, and Prospect). One was for sale in the museum store during the 2016 exhibition. Tempted, I hesitated but passed it by, thinking of another tower — the leaning one beside my bed of books-to-be-read. And after all, Truitt was a sculptor, not a writer, right?
Her fourth journal, Yield: The Journal of an Artist, has recently been published posthumously by Yale University Press. My husband gave it to me for Christmas. I read it immediately, pencil in hand, unable to resist making notes on these pages even though it felt transgressive — like scribbling graffiti on a sculpture. Reading, I learned Truitt was always a writer, an excellent one who originally intended to devote herself to words.
Yield is the first book I’ve completed reading in 2023, and I suspect it will remain among my enduring favorites. Truitt writes about her work, her family, her friends; she reflects on art, history, politics, and world events. She considers and records the lifelong, continual process of becoming who she is as a person, a woman, an artist — and the continuing process of being who she is as she ages.
Truitt wrote this last journal with an eye to possible publication. Her daughter Alexandra Truitt transcribed the pages, a labor of love which keeps her mother’s voice alive. Included in the text is a photograph of one hand-written page, revealing how Anne Truitt herself annotated and revised these journal entries as she went along, as meticulous about finding the right word, the right shade of meaning, as she was about choosing the right shade and tone and application of paint for a sculpture. Like her life, like all lives, Truitt’s journal remained a work in progress right to the end.
Although Yield was not published in her lifetime, Truitt chose its title, as intentional in her wordcraft as in her sculpting. A few days ago, walking home from another pilgrimage to the alley for a glimpse of those reflective studio windows, I noticed the sign at my street corner with fresh eyes: YIELD.
To yield, to give way, to accept, is often necessary along life’s course, ever more so as we age. Truitt was surely mindful of this as she chose the word for her title. But I suspect foremost in her mind was its first definition in the American Heritage dictionary: “to give forth…as if by a natural process, especially by cultivation.”
Truitt’s final journal volume shares the harvest of a lifetime’s attentive cultivation of, and attention to, the experience of living. She offers a cornucopia of insight and responsive contemplation on working, creating, family and friendship, loving and losing, life and death. Anchored in her present moment of weather and light and events, Truitt takes stock of the past and considers the future — not flinching from reflecting on death, the final leave-taking, absence from the world.
She works on through the vicissitudes of aging and the turmoil of events like 9/11. She must walk with increasing care to her studio, although it’s just a few steps down and away from her house. Physical frailty amplifies distance and increases risk. In the studio, she must adjust the scale of her effort — climbing only two steps on her stepladder to paint. She yields, accepting the exigency of an aging body, but continues to create.
Truitt chose to become a sculptor rather than an author because, she writes:
“I had less interest in narrative than I had thought, and no knack for how things happen in time. And one day, standing in my sunny dining room…it occurred to me that if I made a sculpture it would just stand there and time would roll over its head and the light would come and the light would go and it would be continuously revealed…a sculpture simply stood and time went on around it. For that reason I decided to study sculpture.”
Her sculptures remain timeless and continuously revelatory. But how fortunate that although she was relatively “disinterested in narrative,” she continued writing the story of her days, the way things happened in the narrative arc of her time, the ebb and flow of light and shadow on her life.
Truitt admired the way Rembrandt “let the people in his portraits be…[He] sees and honors each so profoundly that he renders the specific universal.” In Yield, Anne Truitt renders her own self-portrait and honors her extraordinary, specific life. And she illustrates the universal experience of being mortal. “I feel as if I recognize my life as I live it,” she says. Surely, writing it down is part of the dual process of recognition and living.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.