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Visiting artist paints moving portrait of a poet

Barbara Hammer, an accomplished feminist filmmaker with a career spanning over 40 years and 80 films, came to UMBC on Wednesday as a part of the Visual Arts department’s Visiting Artist series. She presented her latest film, a feature length essay documentary “Welcome to this House” (2015), which captures a captivating look at the life of poet Elizabeth Bishop.

Hammer came to speak about her work to a packed lecture hall before showing the film, which was funded by the Guggenheim Fellowship. The film’s focus was on Bishop’s life, specifically the many places she called home, ranging from her childhood in Nova Scotia to her home in Cape Cod.

The film is a study of how our homes shape us and how spaces can create an artist while also examining Bishop’s life and the lesbian closet of the 1950s. The film’s personal meaning to Hammer is evident, as she notes that this movie “brought together my three interests, psychology, literature and filmmaking […] into one project,” something “I hadn’t had a chance to fulfill before.”

Hammer’s film mirrors Bishop’s own search for home, as she follows in the poet’s footsteps, tracing her life from her childhood in Canada to her homes in Key West, Brazil and Boston, as well as the women she loved there. This journey searches for answers to what made Bishop the woman she was. As a whole, the film is more that just a study of Bishop’s homes, but rather an introspective look at how our homes shape our lives.

Hammer is a well-known experimental filmmaker and her talent is put on display here as she makes effective use of footage through the many places that Bishop has lived. The film is shot mostly in close-ups and is set to readings of Bishop’s poems and letters. Hammer allows the viewer to explore the surroundings as though they too are there. The words of the poetry add significant context and meaning to what each of these places meant to Bishop in her life.

Interviews from figures in Bishop’s life further round out the audience’s understanding, while still allowing them to come to their own conclusions about who they perceive Elizabeth Bishop to be. The music, composed by Joan La Barbara and hand-selected by Hammer, is essential to the film’s tone, creating a wholly unique sound. Dr. Linda Dusman, the chair of UMBC’s music department and acquaintance of La Barbara found it “interesting to see how the filmmaker made use of the music,” in an “extraordinarily poetic exploration of a poet’s life.”

Indeed, rather than glorifying or condemning her sometimes-controversial subject, Hammer paints a picture of a complex, but ultimately human artist — one who was often striving for the same things most of us strive for. Hammer manages not to present a bias without seeming dispassionate, instead creating a nuanced portrait of an artist through film.

     “Welcome to this House” is available to order on Hammer’s website