Writing with Artists

On August 15-17, Northern Prairie Arts in Watertown hosted a plein air, “Paint the Northern Prairie.” I’ve enjoyed working with artists for a long time because their work inspires me. Not only do I get to see things from another artist’s point of view, but I deepen my understanding of their artistic processes. Last night I learned the term “negative painting,” for example.

I haven’t always had a comfortable relationship to visual art though. My poem “Art Lessons” (in Keeping Them Alive) captures my sense of what “making art” meant—the practical arts of cross-stitch and sewing that I watched my mother practice when I was growing up. I never learned much about art from school, and art museums were the only kind I never visited as a child. But in graduate school, my professor invited me to meet artist Anne Lindbergh and respond to her installation Air/Mass in the Sheldon Art Gallery, and I loved how it shifted my perspective. I knew I had to lean into the discomfort and revise my feelings about art so I could work with it. Learning ways of reading art was key, so I began roaming galleries more regularly and applying bits of literary theory and history to what I saw. I started to learn historical contexts and artistic lineages along the way.

New perspectives on subjects and art-making influence me directly and indirectly. All of the poems in my chapbook Unbound & Branded, for example, were responses to a portfolio of artists responding to Kate Moss. Art and artistic processes inform my last two books, Untrussed and Bluewords Greening. My current poetry project, influenced by my husband who is an architecture professor, uses architecture and as a touchstone—another dimension of art.

At the plein air, I met some great artists and learned a lot from our generative conversations. I also started about nine new poems, worked on a grant proposal, and finished up an essay. How’s that for a productive retreat? I hope more plein air and artists groups will expand their invitations to writers, and I hope to see more writers at next year’s “Paint the Northern Prairie.”

TRY IT: Here’s a writing prompt to jump start writing from art.

· Find a piece of art in a museum (or online if you live too far from one) that intrigues you.

· Spend ten to fifteen minutes brainstorming to capture the visual imagery of the piece. Remember that imagery is conveyed through concrete, sensory language. “Think from within images” as poet Heather Sellers says. Consider if you were “in” the piece: What would you see? Taste? Smell? Hear? Touch? (Don’t worry about lines or rhyme or anything yet. Just jot down your observations in words.)

· Use this as raw material for your own poem. You can veer off in an entirely different direction or work closely with the artistic image.

Photo credit: Patrick Anderson

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