2 Kings 4:8–37
Making Room for Care and Creativity
A Room of One’s Own
Commentary by Xiao Situ
The nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson is one of the most famously reclusive figures in literary history. After the age of 30, she rarely stepped beyond her family’s house and grounds in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Focused in close range on Dickinson’s second-floor bedroom, this photograph portrays the poet’s interior life as hermetic and claustrophobic. The curtains are pulled to shade the room from both daylight and views. Framed by thick mahogany scrolls, the narrow bed appears stiff and uncomfortable to sleep upon.
Yet there are also details that hint at the abundantly creative and vibrant soul that inhabited this room. The sheer curtains part to allow slivers of the outside world to filter in. The paisley fabric folded atop the bed is a type of shawl that was fashionable in the mid-1800s, suggesting Dickinson’s engagement in some of the cultural trends of her time (Wardrop 2009: 39–40). The picnic basket on the chest refers to Dickinson’s playful habit of using a rope to lower a basket of cakes and cookies out of her window to the children playing on the lawns below (Jenkins 1930: 40). The oil lamp allowed the poet to write deep into the night.
Nearly 2,000 Dickinson poems survive. When the poet’s sister discovered the poems after Dickinson’s death, the pieces of paper seemed to spill out of the dresser drawer. Perhaps it was precisely the solitude that Dickinson experienced in this room, with these particular furnishings, that enabled her to be so poetically prolific.
The woman of Shunem wisely intuited that a simple room furnished with a bed or couch, a chair, a table, and a lamp was exactly what Elisha needed to most effectively do the holy work of God. The miracles that Elisha would go on to perform—including the resurrection of the woman’s own dead son on the very bed she provided for him—came out of the peace and privacy he garnered from the moments he spent in this chamber.
Jenkins, MacGregor. 1930. Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company)
Wardrop, Daneen. 2009. Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing (Hanover and London: University Press of New England)
Commentary by Xiao Situ
The woman of Shunem could not have known that the bed or couch that she placed in the room she built for Elisha would one day also be the location of the prophet’s restoration of her dead son to life. This simple piece of furniture, originally intended for rest became a site for the prophet’s holy work.
The Mexican artist Frida Kahlo spent a lot of time in bed. She contracted polio at the age of six, which led her legs to develop unevenly. A tram accident at the age of 18 caused major injuries to her spine. As a result, Kahlo experienced great physical pain and discomfort on a nearly daily basis, and underwent over 30 operations during her lifetime. Her body required frequent medical attention and the supportive aid of orthopaedic corsets, prosthetics, and devices (Wilcox & Henestrosa 2018: 13, 30, 78). Consequently, much of Kahlo’s life involved convalescence in bed.
Yet the artist’s bed was also her stage and studio—a site for exercising her boundless creativity and imagination. Kahlo had an easel attached to her bed, allowing her to paint while lying down. She also had a full-length mirror fixed to the bed’s canopy so that she could see herself when she painted the numerous self-portraits for which she is now most famous.
Kahlo’s artistic repertoire went beyond canvas. She painted on her plaster corsets; fixed her hair into elaborate coiffures; wore elaborate jewellery and garments; and applied makeup and nail polish to accentuate her features (Wilcox & Henestrosa 2018: 121–26).
Gisèle Freund’s photograph shows Kahlo fully dressed, with rings on her fingers and enamel on her nails. On the table beside Kahlo’s bed are towers of books and baskets filled with cosmetics and other personal effects. There is even a miniature toy bed in which several dolls are tucked beneath a crocheted blanket. Like the bed made for Elisha the prophet, this bed was not only a piece of furniture included for the purposes of rest and recovery, but also a place of immense life-giving creativity and self-expression.
Wilcox, Claire and Circe Henestrosa (eds). 2018. Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up (London: V&A Publishing)
Rest as Resistance
Commentary by Xiao Situ
In a pale yellow gown, performance artist Tricia Hersey lies asleep at the centre of Charlie Watts’s photograph. Numerous rectangles frame Hersey’s reclining body: the wooden bench, the beams of a red iron scaffold, the bricks and windows of an industrial niche. In the midst of all these linear forms, the folds and textures of Hersey’s garments create a contrasting set of effects: lightness, softness, and fluidity—a sanctified realm whose dreamy mood Hersey establishes through her act of sleeping. The white tulle that cushions her head unfurls outward, making her appear like a winged angel.
Hersey is founder of the Nap Ministry, an organization that advocates rest as a form of resistance against contemporary grind culture. According to Hersey, the oppressive mechanisms of capitalism have cultivated a valorisation of overwork that has led to sleep deprivation and chronic exhaustion, particularly among Black Americans and other communities of colour that have been disproportionately harmed and exploited by systemic racism in many of society’s institutional structures.
As the ‘Nap Bishop’, Hersey curates installations and collective napping experiences that guide participants in reclaiming the healing, creative, and liberating powers of rest. Hersey views these acts of communal resting as a form of reparation. The rows of cotton plants in Watts’s photograph allude to the inextricable link between American slavery, the global cotton industry, and the degradation of the Black body within capitalism’s economic logic of labour in the nineteenth century. By sleeping beside the cotton plants, Hersey spiritually connects with her Black ancestors and transforms generations of enforced labour, bodily trauma, and lack of sleep into deep communal rest.
Like the woman of Shunem, who built and furnished a room for Elisha so that he could rest whenever he passed her house on his pilgrimages, Hersey choreographs spaces and opportunities for others to rest as they pursue the spiritual work of reparative social justice. Hersey is not only like the woman of Shunem in her hospitality, however; she is also like Elisha in making real her prophetic vision. Rows of cotton plants stretch from Hersey’s body towards the viewers’ space, as though extending an invitation to join her movement of rest as resistance and reparation.
Lying beneath the beams of the iron scaffold, Hersey recalls the prophet sleeping in his small chamber, caring for his soul and body even as he sets out to do the work of God.
Unknown artist :
View of Emily Dickinson's bedroom at the Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts, 2010s , Photograph
Gisèle Freund :
Frida Kahlo, wife of Rivera, a painter herself (Frida Kahlo in her bed), 1952 , Gelatin-silver print
Charlie Watts and Tricia Hersey :
Resting with the Ancestors, 2017 , Archival Digital Print Photograph
Where the Soul Rests Creativity Springs Up
Commentary by Xiao Situ
The woman of Shunem’s hospitality towards the prophet Elisha returned to her fourfold. First, in repayment for the thought and effort she put into building and furnishing a private room for this holy man of God, Elisha prophesied that she would bear a child, something she had longed for but could not have due to her husband’s old age. Second, when this child—a son—died from sudden illness some years later, Elisha restored the boy to life on the very bed the woman had included in the prophet’s room. Third, Elisha shared with the woman his omen that a famine would come to the land, advising her to move with her household to live in the territory of the Philistines for seven years (2 Kings 8:1–6). And finally, when the woman and her household returned to Shunem after the seven years, her association with Elisha led the king to have her house and fields restored to her. She had built a ‘house’ for Elisha, and in return the prophet ensured the continuity of her ‘house’—both her literal house as well as her genealogical line.
The unnamed woman of Shunem was gifted in the art of care as creativity. It took initiative and imagination for her to come up with the idea of building and furnishing a room for Elisha. She anticipated that a space for solitude and rest would help the prophet accomplish more effectively his vocation as a servant of God. In turn, Elisha’s miraculous revival of the woman’s dead son was also an act of ‘inspiration’, for through the exchange of inward and outward breaths he brought the boy back to life. The boy sneezed his way back to the realm of the living in response to Elisha’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. By making a designated space for the prophet’s soul to rest, the woman nurtured Elisha’s future acts of life-giving creativity. Hospitality was the woman’s form of creative expression, as the carrying out of holy works was Elisha’s.
For the women either featured or evoked in these three photographs—Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, and Tricia Hersey—places of rest were synonymous with places of the greatest creative activity. For Dickinson and Kahlo, retreating to the solitude of one’s room or answering to the body’s need for convalescence were not antithetical to being prolific artists. In fact, these conditions amplified the magnitude and originality of their work and self-expression. For Hersey, resting is not only a form of creative self-expression, but also a format by which ancestral connection, communal care, and social justice through collective engagement can be shared and thus exponentially generated.
The common ethos that undergirds all four women’s investment in places of rest—whether they are rooms or beds or other sites where the soul can lie down and be vulnerable—is their faith that an abundance of creative work and activity would spring forth from them. Dickinson, Kahlo, Hersey, and the woman of Shunem do not operate according to a mentality of scarcity, fearful that creating a space for solitude, devoting oneself to interiority, or allowing one’s body to convalesce means a lessening of one’s gifts or a limitation of productivity. Instead, they approach the soul’s need for care and recuperation as a fundamental basis for bringing into being a kind of creativity that is plentiful and boundless, perhaps emulating God’s first act of creation.