Inspiration can come from so MANY places! It can spring from something that we experience—love, loss, passion, emotions—or from things that we see—beauty, nature, patterns, bodies, machines. The combinations and ignition points are infinite, but one thing that doesn’t necessarily spring to the head of the list is that incredible creative spark that can ignite when two or more creative people springboard their art off of each other. Absolute magic can happen!
I had the extraordinary opportunity to have this kind of fun a couple of times now in a collaborative setting through the community arts group I belong to, Sheboygan Visual Artists. As the name makes plain, we’re a (continually growing!) bunch of folks who like to create visual arts. There are painters (oils, watercolors, acrylics), photographers (digital, film, video), sculptors, paper-makers, jewelry designers, fabric artisans, and folks who enjoy expressing themselves with collages and mixed-media works of art. Pretty much, though, the name still says it all. It’s all stuff that you LOOK at.
But a couple of years ago, and then again this spring, an extraordinary collaboration took place that paired up more than a dozen poets from a local “poetry circle” with the same number of willing visual artists from our group. The experience was absolutely galvanizing, and the connection between our 3-D works of art and the written word was mesmerizing.
The rules of the game were simple. Each artist and each poet submitted a trio of works they had created previously. The poets submitted poetry, the artists submitted photos of their art. Then each artist was randomly assigned a poet, and each poet was randomly assigned an artist. The mission: for each artist to create a NEW ART WORK based on one of the three poems we were handed, and for each poet to create a NEW POEM based on one of the three photos they received. The results would be unveiled at an “art and poetry” show months later, and combined into a book showcasing the fruits of our labors.
I was so thrilled at how this all worked out that I have to give a shout out at least for the parts that I was involved in.
As the starting point, I picked out three of my earlier photos that I thought might provide a little creative fodder. Two were of nature—flowers and plants—but the third was of an old barn in the stages of magnificent ruination and deconstruction. I’d lovingly watched it for several years as I drove past it on my way to work, and rued the day that it would finally fall. I had even written a photo essay about it, chronicling its impending demise and the way it continually surprised me by simply remaining upright after a night of storms or epic winds.
And it was the picture of the barn that caught the eye of “my” poet, a young writer and teacher named Gina Covelli, and spurred her to write her poem “Still Standing.” And boy, how she NAILED IT!
I carry tradition in these bones.
Bones that stood a century
on this land that owns me,
between here and nowhere.
A land once wild and ideal for dreamers
But tamed and measured,
Systematically cut into row upon row
By straightforward Hollander logic.
They say it’s stubbornness
The way I face the sun every day
In the same pressure-loaded silence
And old-fashioned humility
Of those that came before me
Of those that built me
Of those never to return.
Time and frost have stripped me
To nothing but raw marrow
Even now that my work is done
My own artistic task was to pick from poems supplied by Dawn Hogue, and I was immediate drawn to “Barn Quilt.” I was absolutely captivated by the description of an elderly woman, in the twilight of her life and whose family had largely written her off as frail and old, who feels “a young girl awakens” instead. The poem contemplated the arrival of winter, and snow covering long grass and raspberry canes. And I was at first consumed with the notion of finding a snowy, artistic scene of a vintage barn after a snowfall, while the flakes still clung to ivy around the windows and the blanket of white lay undisturbed.
The deep purple evening star
fades on Aunt Gracie’s barn
and spent raspberry canes wither,
ready to be cut down for mulch.
Soon the stone walk will disappear
as will the still vigorous grass
she hasn’t the time to mow
under downy blankets of snow
that only birds
or her snowshoes will disturb.
It is an autumn sky,
the morning haze lifted
to a light yellow afternoon.
In the fruit cellar, she rustles
through yesterday’s bushel
for twelve unblemished apples for us.
Seven bushels line the wall,
the best for pies, the others to press,
the fallen she has left for bees,
and if she’s lucky,
one evening, a doe.
Later, in our own home,
we speak of her. We say
perhaps this is her last year,
that she’s getting so frail,
unaware that in her bones
a young girl awakens
with each step up the ladder,
each glint of russet catching her eye.
Well, the best laid plans… As the deadline for submitting our artwork for the show drew near, the weather first just plain refused to cooperate. It didn’t snow. For a very long time. And then when a blizzard finally dumped several inches of white stuff on us, I was too busy shoveling the sidewalks of my sizable corner lot to think of breaking out the camera and hunting for picturesque snow-covered barns on snow-covered byways. If I could even get the car out of the driveway.
And yet…the snow came through for me anyway, in the form of a stand of nearby birch trees that were half-coated along their lengths with snow driven sideways by the storm. Among the photos I took, I began to see the shape of an eye peering out between the trees, as if a ghostly woman was partly hidden. It seemed mysterious, and haunting, and it captivated me. And so into the pairing it went.
The night the show opened the gallery was packed as artists and poets and friends and family jostled around to view the new synthesis of words and art. Pictures were taken, handshakes were exchanged, introductions were made, and congratulations filled the room.
And then at the appointed time, we all piled in, standing room only, to a makeshift darkened theater where the poets and artists took turns reading from, or talking about, their new works as images were cast behind them on a screen.
It was magical. It was reverent. It was an evening full of awe, and anticipation, and wonder, and of so much more than the sum total of what we all could have created working alone.
When it comes to jump starting a creative process…I can’t recommend it highly enough!