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Amelia Etlinger Collection

About the Collection

This digital collection aims to give an overview of the wide range of work created by Amelia Etlinger, 1933-1987. Etlinger was born in New York City and moved with her family to Clifton Park, New York in the late 1960s. After reading ee cummings, Etlinger started to create visual poetry that evolved into elaborate and collaborative works of natural material collected in the woods behind her house as well as fabric, thread, beads, costume jewelry, Japanese papers, and other found material.

Etlinger was relatively unknown in the United States during her life time, but her work has been exhibited widely internationally, and most notably in Italy, where it was well received by concrete theorists and the Italian Poesie Vivisa community. Throughout Etlinger’s career, this community of avant-garde artists, curators, and critics including Mirella Bentivoglio, Franca Zoccoli, Betty Danon, Paula Claire, and Ugo Carrega befriended her and supported her work. While she has been critically assessed within the realms of Fluxus, Poesie Vivisa, mail, fiber, book, conceptual, and feminist art, Etlinger was adamant in correspondence and interviews that she was a poet, not an artist, and that “art is the danger to the visual poem.” By the 1970s, her poetry had evolved away from words as her primary medium and she began writing her poetry in her language of threads.

Etlinger’s work in this collection ranges in size from 4 foot by 5 foot tapestries to 2 inch bundles of lint, paper, and thread. The most common formats found include “packet poems,” which consist of department store boxes with the poem inside and sometimes out, and book-like structures created from manipulated paper and fabric sent in manila mailer envelopes. In addition to personal fragments associated with each recipient, common material includes frayed chiffon, organza, jacquard, Japanese tissue papers, facial tissue, colored cellophane, different weight thread, yarn, and cord, and always natural material. The most prevalent natural material are rose petals, but Etlinger also uses other flower petals, ferns, leaves, dried berries and seeds, and delicate dandelion seeds usually found at the center of her work. She frays the edges of almost every piece of woven fabric, and the frayed warps and wefts are also incorporated into her work and often tied or bundled and nested around other material. Tin foil and wax paper are often found wrapped around the department store box poems, and pieces in the boxes are often wrapped in multiple layers of tissue.

The majority of the Amelia Etlinger Collection, consisting of over 100 works, correspondence, and criticism, was donated by Ellen Marie Helinka [Bissert], who has been instrumental in preserving Amelia’s legacy. Helinka founded 13th Moon: A Feminist Literary Magazine in 1973, and it was the poems in Ellen’s interview with Etlinger that won her the Fels Award in 1976. Helinka and Etlinger maintained their relationship and correspondence up until Amelia’s passing in 1987. Helinka was also corresponding with Mike Belt and preserved and donated his collection of Amelia’s work to the Poetry Collection along with her personal collection. Other material was donated by Mirella Bentivoglio, with whom Etlinger had both a personal and professional relationship, Paula Claire, and others, and additional items were sent directly by Etlinger to the Poetry Collection curators in the 1970s and 1980s.

This digital collection showcases some of the techniques used and the variety of Etlinger’s work from packet poems to box poems to book objects as well as her use of such materials as rose petals, sea shells, and black chiffon bands. Each piece consists of multiple layers, and some pieces or elements remain completely unopened. Images in this collection have been carefully selected to show these layers in depth, but cannot reveal the pieces in their entirety.