Part of the installation, For Elizabeth, in front of Noyes.

First-year students arrived on campus yesterday. New students could be seen wandering Main Building to find their mailboxes, the bookstore, and the Retreat. These new Vassar community members are getting to know their new home for the next four years. The paths that seem new today will soon enough be well-worn and familiar.

Part of the new landscape they will discover is a series of twenty Laurentian Green granite benches that are scattered along the path from the dining hall to the campus center. At first glance, the benches appear as respite for weary walkers. On closer inspection, first-year students will notice that the benches are inscribed with text.

The benches are a site-specific work, For Elizabeth, by artist Jenny Holzer that was commissioned in honor of Frances Daly Fergusson, President of Vassar College (1986-2006), on the occasion of her retirement. For the commission, Holzer selected passages drawn from works by poet Elizabeth Bishop, Vassar College class of 1934. The chosen texts incorporate a range of themes including love, fear, struggle, humor, and beauty. The benches serve as a metaphor for the complex journey undergraduates make while simultaneously inhabiting and enriching the Vassar landscape.

For example, placed in front of Noyes residence hall, two benches contain stanzas from Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England”:

…I often gave way to self-pity.
‘Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.’
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
‘Pity should begin at home.’ So the more
pity I felt the more I felt at home…

…Just when I thought I couldn’t stand it
another minute longer, Friday came.
(Accounts of that have everything all wrong.)
Friday was nice.
Friday was nice, and we were friends.
If only he had been a woman!
I wanted to propagate my kind,
and so did he, I think, poor boy.
He’d pet the baby goats sometimes,
and race with them, or carry one around.
–Pretty to watch; he had a pretty body…

The reader can imagine the text reverberating with a Vassar student as their emotions fluctuate throughout the school year. As they tread the well-worn path from their mailbox to dinner — either indulging in self-pity or celebrating Friday — there are words from a fellow Vassar student who has walked this path before.

Next Thursday, September 2nd at 6PM we will host Late Night Leaves the Lehman Loeb along the path from the All Campus Dining Center to Main Building. We will consider For Elizabeth through performances of some of Bishop’s poems, excerpts of which are engraved on the benches. Visitors will also have an opportunity to fashion their own souvenir by making a rubbing of a selected passage.

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