Issue Introduction: Word and Image - Warren and Jane Rohrer

It is both a privilege and a joy to publish this issue of the Journal of Mennonite Writing on the words and images of Warren and Jane Rohrer. Both Warren and Jane Rohrer were at the cutting edge of artistic accomplishment among persons from Mennonite contexts. I first met them in the mid-1970s, after I had graduated from college with a major in art and was working in New York City in publishing. Home for the weekend in Philadelphia, I was invited by my parents to join them at a gathering of Mennonite scholars, artists, and thinkers, around supper at someone’s home. On our drive there, my mother sketched verbal portraits of the Rohrers. Warren of course was the artists, but Jane was remarkable in her own right. According to my mother, Jane was an incredible seamstress—that she could sew anything, even a coat, with designer skill and flair. Towards the end of the long, intense evening of conversation, I asked Jane, who was wearing a stylish cloak, about her fashion skills and sewing. “Oh, I don’t do that anymore,” she said. “I write poetry now.” And thus, a literary conversation began. The example of Warren and Jane Rohrer was a beacon in my own efforts to engage in creative acts of writing, art, and scholarship, Thirty years later, I was delighted to publish a selection of Jane’s poems in A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

“We ganged up and ran away together” is how Jane often refers to her and Warren’s departure from the Mennonite community for a life of art making. They gave each other courage. Their marriage was a refuge, a home on the intersection of several worlds of which they were a part, but to which they did not fully belong. Warren’s painting career was their joint major project. Warren created paintings, while also teaching, and Jane was his constant companion, conversation partner, and an astute critic. Jane well understood that having a career as an artist entailed far more than creating the actual paintings, a project to which she contributed in a spirit of collaboration and fulfilment. Jane also actively contributed time and energy to the retrospective show of Warren’s work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2003. https://philamuseum.org/exhibitions/2003/62.html

After their two sons, Jon and Dean, were grown, Jane began to study poetry seriously and was active in a number of writing groups. Her poems appeared in The American Poetry Review, edited by Stephen Berg, one of her teachers and mentors. But it was not until Warren’s death in 1995 that Jane published her first volume of poetry, Life after Death, with Sheep Meadow Press. Her second book of poems, Acquiring Land, was just published in 2020. The poems, in relation to the paintings, offer a moving and often transcendent portrait of a creative partnership.

This issue is interdisciplinary in nature, featuring contributions from poets, historians, critics, and journalists. It is also indebted to the organizers of the exhibits whose catalog and curatorial efforts created such a solid foundation for knowing the work of the Rohrers:

At the Palmer Gallery of The Pennsylvania State University, Julia Kasdorf, Christopher Reed, and Joyce Henri Robinson put countless hours into creating the vision and directing the generosity and labor of those who helped to bring the exhibit to its opening, the pandemic notwithstanding. The exhibit opened February 10 and will run through June 6, 2021. In the current issue we have linked numerous aids to bringing more depth and accessibility to the exhibit, including four online videos, expertly produced. These videos offer an ideal starting point from which to approach this issue, and the best images of Warren’s work outside of the catalog and the exhibit itself.

At the Woodmere Art Museum of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, William R. Valerio immediately saw the value of an exhibit of Warren’s paintings with Jane’s poems, valuing their contributions in the context of his deep knowledge of Philadelphia arts and artists. This special exhibit, which does not repeat any works from the Palmer exhibit, will open in 2022, from April 9 – June 10.

A special thanks to Sueyun Locks of the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, who has supported Warren’s work for decades and loaned key works for the exhibits.

The publications Field Language (The Palmer Museum of Art, PSU Press, 2020), the catalog for the exhibit, along with Jane Rohrer’s second collection of poems, Acquiring Land (Dreamseeker Poetry Series, Cascadia Publishing, 2020), are reviewed in this issue by Ervin Beck and Melanie Zuercher, respectively. A focused review of “Hearing the Brush,” the chapter of Field Language dedicated to Jane’s poems, is offered by Ann Hostetler.

During the 1990s, the Rohrers participated in an informal “creativity” discussion group, arranged by Lois Frey Gray, a clinical social worker who was interested in creativity among Mennonites who had made contributions in the areas of art, literature, fashion design, anthropology, and botany. The group met twice yearly from 1993-2000. Under the heading “Mennonite Creator’s Group,” an edited and condensed version of Lois’s summary and transcript of the group’s first meeting appears, prepared by Ann Hostetler from a typescript digitized by Philip Ruth and housed in the Warren Rohrer collection at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. This summary offers a rare glimpse into formative conversations among a group of Mennonite artists and intellectuals. Special thanks to Lois Frey Gray for making this material available.

In “The Possibility of Positive Marginality,” Historian Steven M Nolt offers a unique historical perspective on Warren Rohrer’s Mennonite upbringing, internalized difference withing his family, and his family’s particular relationship to Mellinger Mennonite Church and several church plantings in Lancaster, County.

We are pleased to reprint, with permission, Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s poem “Boustrophedon” from her book, Eve’s Striptease (Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1998). Written for and dedicated to Warren, the poem explores this ancient Greek literary term that refers to the act of plowing a field as a metaphor for writing, one of his many versions of “field language.”

The issue ends with a bow to Magdalene Redekop, whose recent work of criticism, Making Believe: Questions About Mennonites and Art (Univ. of Manitoba Press, 2020) explores the relationship between visual and verbal arts among Mennonites, primarily in Canada. Redekop’s book does, however, consider the work of Warren Rohrer, and is a must-read for anyone interested in probing more deeply into the relationship of Mennonites and the arts.

Finally, gratitude to Julia Spicher Kasdorf, who has been both muse and fact-checker for many elements in this issue.

All remaining errors are my own, and can be quickly remedied if you point them out to me by sending an email to me at cmw@goshen.edu


About the Author

Ann Hostetler

Ann Hostetler is the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press 2003) and author of two collections of poems, Empty Room with Light (Dreamseeker 2002) and Safehold (Dreamseeker 2017). Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including The American Scholar, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review,Rhubarb Magazine, Testimonies and Tongue Screws: Poems, Stories, and Essays Inspired by the Martyr's Mirror, Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010), The Mennonite Quarterly Review and PMLA . Professor Emerita of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, Hostetler is the web site editor of the Center for Mennonite Writing and co-editor of its Journal. She directed the 2022 Mennonite/s Writing conference at Goshen College.