Layers and the Palimpsest

Artist Credit for Featured Image: Jillian Goldberg

The Palimpsest in Art and Words

A palimpsest is a surface that has been re-used or altered, bearing visible traces to an earlier form or to aspects apparent beneath the surface, which allows us to perceive the past in the present. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The word is composed from a Greek word palin which means again.

The Layers, a poem by Stanley Kunitz, is the basis for exploring the meaning of palimpsest. The term palimpsest is a term relevant to art therapy and composing with layers of materials, each with particular significance and a representation of time.

A palimpsest is a layering of deposits, an archaeological history and dimensions of experience. It is a term associated with the layering of manuscripts, but can be used to define layers of meaning that are built upon. A palimpsest is a composition of surfaces, with multiplicities and types of styles that layer upon each other. It can be understood as repurposing, or adding to what has come before. Memory is a palimpsest that is continually being crafted and overlaid with a legacy of inscriptions.

Artist, Sally Hirst

The term palimpsest refers to something reused or altered, still bearing visible traces of its earlier form apparent beneath the surface. Elements within my paintings are based on fleeting images, imagination and experiences. Through the building of layers, scraping, and re-working the surface I aim to reveal both the history of the painting and a sense of place”

Reference, Palimpsest by artist Sally Hirst–3/artwork/palimpsest-8

The poem The Layers by Stanley Kunitz is a description of a palimpsest in relation to memory, loss and regeneration that we create with the materials of our lives.

The Layers


Reference: The Poetry Foundation

I have walked through many lives, 
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.