As I mentioned yesterday, last June I drove over to Toronto, crossing Michigan’s upper peninsula and then driving south through a comparatively remote region of Ontario. I wanted to see an exhibit by artist Lilian Broca. I’d come across her work online and been intrigued by her interpretation of the stories of Queen Esther and Judith from the Bible. She creates large-scale mosaics, and they are stunning. The depth of color and quality of light in compositions of glass is different from paint, regardless of how saturated the color of the paint is. Even when the viewer can’t actually see through it, glass suggests translucence. Paint can suggest depth, but even when I’m looking at watercolors, I’m seldom as captivated by the light itself as I am when I look at objects made of glass.
Edward Hopper said that “Maybe I am not very human” because all he wanted to do was “paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Reading that quotation at an exhibit of Hopper’s drawings at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York a few years ago, I realized that visual artists are often trying to translate their response to the world into a particular medium, the way we writers experience a gut feeling during certain events or conversations, knowing that a poem awaits us, and our task is to translate our own responses into language.
What was most intriguing about Broca’s exhibit, after I recovered from my awe at the mosaics themselves, was that she included the initial drawings, the cartoons with the sightlines angled across the paper, beside painted versions of the drawings, and then the actual much larger mosaics. For someone as woefully uneducated in visual arts as I am, her revelation of her process was astonishing. If art conceals the artifice, Broca unconcealed hers. Yet the magic remained, for I sensed that the final version had hovered at the edge of her mind long before she committed pencil to paper, and that the drawings—these were finished drawings, not casual sketches—were an early stage of her translation of her vision into glass. The drawings were a middle step in the process of articulating her vision, just as writing down the words sometimes occurs well after a poet’s conception of the poem.
I’ve tried to talk to visual artists about the images in their minds that precede the images they create on paper or canvas or through clay or glass, but such conversations often lead more to bewilderment than to clarity. They feel the way writers feel, I suspect, when we’re asked where our ideas come from. Who knows why our attention is captured by one situation and not another? Artistic inspiration flees when it is actively sought; they arrive when we are receptive but not engaged in active pursuit.
I don’t exactly haunt art museums, but I enjoy them. I’m lucky now to work at a university whose art museum is only a few feet away from my office. Exhibits of drawings, paintings, photography, and now mosaics have substantially informed my own work. Poets have been inspired by other art for millennia, of course, and we can probably all name our favorites. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts" is among the most famous modern examples, and I learned a lot from his strategies there (as well as from Bruegel’s representation of the myth). Among my favorites are Stephen Dobyns’ Balthus Poems, and I own an anthology of poems inspired by Hopper’s paintings.
Museums are unusual spaces in that they almost relieve us of the limitations of space. Or they foreground different spatial limitations—the frame—so that the space where we literally stand recedes. Gazing at a painting of a forested path becomes the opposite of walking along a forested path. Both experiences inspire me and my work, but it’s often the museum more than the world beyond it that truly engages my imagination.