A month ago I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming, to participate in a conference devoted to art and patronage. My job? To provide a brief overview and discussion of ekphrasis, the practice of writing about visual art. Sponsored by Arts Without Boundaries, the conference focused on representational art and featured four top-notch artists, Clyde Aspevig, Jacob Collins, T Allen Lawson, and Tucker Smith, all considered “representational” or “realistic” artists. Featured speakers included Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur, who spoke about collecting and patronage with an overview of contemporary realists, and Adam Duncan Harris, curator of the National Wildlife Museum in Jackson, who hosted the event and spoke about wildlife art as well as a George Catlin exhibit on loan from the Smithsonian.
I listened, watched, and wrote notes as quickly as I could. It was a kid-in-a-candy-store experience for me to get an inside scoop on the artists’ world. There are plenty of parallels to writing, but because of my limited knowledge, the medium seems magical. For example, I learned about a kind of paint casually referred to as “stringy white.” It’s no longer available but apparently just the right thing for the crest of waves, and as I listened, I was thinking about the rhythm and sound of the words, "stringy white."
Then it was my turn. I had never spoken before an audience of artists and other art experts, and I was pretty nervous. My examples came from the same broad category of realistic or representational art. I read Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” various responses to Brueghel, Madeline DeFrees’ response to “Vermeer’s A Woman Holding a Balance,” and Greg Pape’s “American Flamingo,” a poem written about Audubon’s painting by the same name. I relied on John Hollander’s substantial book, The Gazer’s Spirit, for definitions and read the poems with interspersed discussions about the limitations of language and visual art.
In language, we work in image but can’t literally create image. Visual art works with movement, depth and narrative, though literally it’s impossible to create these elements on a static, flat surface. What’s fascinating to me is how the imagination allows us to reach beyond the limitation and how the artists and writers create illusion and rely on gesture to facilitate the work of the imagination. The artist/writer offers, and the viewer/reader reaches, and if all goes well, somewhere in the middle things become clear. Recent developments in neuroscience are equally fascinating for what they have added to our understanding of this process. The brain can rely on the information provided in a given medium and respond with specific mirror neurons that would be involved with the direct experience of an action or image. For example, an image or a word-picture of someone drinking tea will tip off the specific part of the brain associated with this action. We identify with the action, then fill in the gaps with our imagination.
One misconception about landscape painting, I learned, is that the artist simply arrives at the perfect spot and “copies” what is there. This reminds me of the common misconception that a first-person poem represents the writer’s personal experience. In both cases, these literal assumptions ignore the breadth of the imagination. While creative work can represent actual experience, poets and artists make choices. They delete and recreate to find the rhythm required by the work, which may later guide the viewer or the reader through the piece.
We talked about training, the attempts and failures. We asked about sources of inspiration, and what we do when something isn’t working. Tucker Smith mentioned that he sometimes holds a mirror to his work to help him find what’s not right. I wondered what the mirror would be for writing. Reading in front of an audience? For me this is very different from speaking the poem aloud behind a closed door. Does the audience reflect the effect of the poem back to its author?
We also talked about the shaping that may allow a piece to have the appearance of simplicity and provide the viewer and reader with an entrance to the work, whatever the medium. But we also mentioned the many mistakes and shortcomings behind that, and always the continued pursuit.