A ‘Visual Biography’ of Bob Dylan Is on Display at the Van Ness in Fenway

The exhibition features multilayered works by Lesley Schiff, who had her own "plugging in" moment in the '70s.

bob dylan lesley schiff exhibition

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Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan went electric—much to the dismay of many who attended the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and witnessed his first-ever “plugged-in” set.

Ten years later, in New York City, an artist named Lesley Schiff had a similar experience. She put aside traditional painting, which she had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and began experimenting with copiers and laser color printers, creating multilayered artworks that would eventually be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, and other public and private institutions.

Now, Dylan and Schiff’s crafts intersect at a pop-up museum on the fourth floor of the Van Ness in Fenway, where an exhibition titled “LIT: A Portrait of Bob Dylan by Lesley Schiff” is on view.

It’s what Schiff calls a “visual biography,” comprised of portraits of Dylan himself—depicted at different ages, from his 20s to his 60s—illustrations of his lyrics, and images of iconic objects like his sunglasses and harmonica.

“There are other artists that I like, but I wouldn’t want to spend that much time with them,” said Schiff in a phone conversation from her studio in Manhattan. “Dylan’s like a treasure—you just keep delving, and there’s more, and there’s more, and there’s more.”

While working on the project, Schiff constantly listened to Dylan’s music, studying different variations of each song—the album version, a live performance done the same year it was recorded, a live performance done years later, and so on. She planned out the soundtrack to align with Dylan’s age in the portraits she was working on.

“I was listening and looking and then asking, ‘Give me the secret, tell me who you are. How do I paint you? What color is that word that you’re saying?'” said Schiff. “You notice that he’s never standing still—he’s never stagnant, never mannered. He has his style, but he never allows himself to be stylized, especially in the writing. The songs are constantly evolving and growing and representing where he’s standing at that moment in life.”

Schiff collaborated with Matthew Carter, the Cambridge-based, award-winning designer who designed the classic Verdana and Georgia fonts, among others. Carter created a unique font for the lyrics in her works.

“His font would become Bob’s voice,” said Schiff. “I didn’t want to interpret the lyrics—I wanted to just create a background that the lyrics could sit in, and the background would sort of echo whatever he was saying. I was looking to not interfere, but create some kind of friendly environment to enhance or turn up the volume—not say that I know what he means.”

The exhibition is authorized by Dylan’s camp, who gave Schiff access to his archives and rights to use lyrics and photographs. Schiff met with them after including three portraits of Dylan in a series of 100 artist portraits commissioned by Columbia Records for the label’s Manhattan office.

Schiff’s contract allows for ten worldwide exhibitions—the one currently on view at Van Ness is the first.

“It’s an unusual opportunity,” said Schiff of the pop-up art venue in the Fenway. “We always thought either we get a certain kind of recognition from the established art world, or we go the maverick route—and that’s in keeping with Dylan. Dylan’s a maverick. He did these concerts at Minor League Baseball stadiums. Who does that? Bob Dylan.”

Schiff has a “wish list” of future venues for the show and has been scouting locations in California, New York City, Germany, London, and Miami. The artist attended the opening reception for the exhibition at Van Ness last week and was pleased with the outcome.

“I’ve had people in and out of the studio, so I felt a certain reasonable amount of confidence that people would be positively responsive, but it was just incredible to me how long people were taking to look at the work,” she said. “To see people stand in front of your work and really read it, that’s a thrill. It tells you that there’s something to read, that you actually did accomplish that.”

“LIT: A Portrait of Bob Dylan by Lesley Schiff” is on view through October 18 on the fourth floor of the Van Ness, 1325 Boylston St., open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and free for children ages 12 and under. For more information, visit schiff-dylanexhibit.com.