May 052017

UndoingUndoing — acrylic and graphite pencil on paper, 20″ x 20″, 2012 (from Lachesis measure exhibit, 2012)

Bonnie Baker in studio 8
Bonnie Baker in her studio


The work I make is connected to rural culture. I grew up in the farmlands of Southern Ontario at a time when big tobacco agribusiness was at its peak. The affected communities changed rapidly as small family farms adapted to industrialized agriculture. Transformation, for good or bad, made a permanent impression on me. I use the imagery of vacant highways, emptied landscapes, abstract cloudscapes, animal bones, twists of rope, and topographical lines to suggest frailty and uncertainty where once was tradition and stability.

The fact that I continue to work within the representational genre is a choice. I am fascinated by the representational element. There is much room for large and small space, for both intimacy and distance within the same work. I never feel constricted or boxed into a dead end by iconic objects or landscapes. Though physical objects appear defined, ideas surrounding them are limitless.

From Geography of Bliss exhibit, 2016

Seal Island Bridge Split ViewSeal Island Bridge Road Camera Split View — graphite and mica on paper,
40″ x 60″, 2016

Bridgetown 2011Bridgetown Road Camera Feb 2011 — graphite, charcoal and pastel on paper,
22″ x 30″, 2016

Hubbards 2012Hubbards Road Camera Feb 2012 — graphite and wax crayon on paper,
22″ x 30″, 2016

Road leads awayroad leads away — graphite on paper, 40″ x 60″, 2013


My approach is governed by the Japanese concept called mujinzou, which loosely translated means inexhaustible supply. I may have an idea when I go to the studio, but many theories fail during investigation, which leads to new passages. I allow myself many failures, then explore the unintended consequences. Often the by-product of initial attempts contains profound meaning. I think navigating the passages can be more significant than the finalized state.

from Lachesis measure exhibit, 2012

7. Infinity 500 pxInfinity — charcoal and wax crayon on paper, 36″ x 72″, 2012 

FrayedFrayed — charcoal and crayon on Mylar, 36″ x 24″, 2011


I begin by looking closely at a subject, methodically creating drawings of the same image over and over to understand my subject better. Once the image gains a life of its own, then I can look at it, think about it, and revise it. The revised drawing is now an expression of a new thought, rich in emotional expression and poetic aftermath. What is left behind by erasure or alterations is the debris marks recording the drawing’s history, exposing it to a richness and depth that happens by chance.

From Boneyard series, ongoing

VertebraVertebrae — graphite on paper, 26″ x 31″,  2016
Lamb's HipLamb’s Hip — graphite on paper, 24″ x 38″, 2016
Right AntlerRight Antler — graphite on paper, 22″ x 30″, 2016


I prefer the restraints imposed by charcoal and graphite sometimes mixed with organic elements, reserving colour for printmaking. Drawing in black, white, and grey intensifies focus without sentimentality, avoiding the temptation to appreciate only the meditative beauty of the subject.

In a similar way, my printmaking also records objects belonging to a rural environment and an ecology of transition. Using combinations of printmaking techniques, I am concerned less with the perfection of the editioned print, letting the image develop at the press as multiple variations often lead to play and exploration of a subject.

From Archipelago suite, ongoing

ConfluenceConfluence — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012
ConvergenceConvergence — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012
IsthmusIsthmus — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012

I work full-time as an artist and this gives me a great deal of happiness. I am usually working in my head. I am thinking about projects as I walk, shop, and do household tasks. I make mental notes on changes to things I am working on. I cannot predict who or what will influence how I see or think about what I am working on, only that these experiences will subtly revise how I critically think then technically express themes in my work. The time spent in the studio is far less than the time spent thinking about, making notes on, and preparing for actually working. Working in the studio is my way of being alone, of being curious, of seeking clarity. It is often a confusing, uncomfortable and frustrating way to work, but if I persist long enough, new paths are uncovered.

—Bonnie Baker


Bonnie Baker works at drawing and printmaking. Before moving to Nova Scotia, where she now lives, Bonnie studied glass blowing at Humber College in Ontario, lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, and travelled through Alaska. Bonnie has studied printmaking at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, at Women’s Studio Workshop, NY, and with master printmaker Cecil Day. In addition to drawing and printmaking, Bonnie worked with textiles from 1984 to 2007.

Community engagement is very much part of her practice. Among other projects, she has organized public events involving outdoor projection of text written collectively by several hundred strangers over a six-hour period; printmaking marathons using skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, and all things wheeled; exhibits on the open interpretation of the book form; and environmentally sensitive installations by several artists along a walking trail. She’s a founding member, active printmaker, and administrator of Elephant Grass Print Collective, a community-based printmaking studio in the fishing village of Parker’s Cove, Nova Scotia. Following her 2016 exhibit of drawings, Geography of Bliss, Bonnie is now focusing on a series of woodcuts and etchings that explore the crossover between her drawing and printmaking practices. Bonnie is a 2016 recipient of an Established Artist Award from Creative Arts Nova Scotia.


Apr 052017




miss my friend Robin. Robin Kilson. She was a black panther who was raped by the Black Panthers. And I met her when I was fairly young and she taught me a lot about betrayal, and betweenness, and belonging. And she died ten years ago and they say not to look into the face of what is sacred and to close your eyes or to avert your eyes or maybe just cover your eyes because then your eyes are still open and what you’re seeing is something beyond sight.

I think Robin talked so much about deprivation of belonging, and all of the places that she fought to belong in and arrived at only to realize she didn’t belong and she didn’t want to belong and I wonder if she feels that way now that she’s dead.

Does she feel a sense of belonging with the dead?

She’s not my relative. There’s no blood between us but she has felt like an ancestor ever since she passed away. More of an ancestor than my own ancestors, and there’s no reason for me to belong to her but I feel that I belong to her. And somewhere there’s a long thread that hasn’t been broken between the two of us.

Most of what we talked about were broken threads. Most of the time we spent together was holding threads to see if they would reach. She was a sixty year old quadriplegic African American Black Panther and I was a 19 year old lost child in the west and we would take these strings and somehow they tied together and the knots still hold but I know for her there were strings she tried to tie to people she thought were like her, other black panthers, other women, other afro-caribbeans, other people from Boston, other professors, other people in wheelchairs, other people with shaved heads.

I don’t think the strings that we always expect to connect are the ones that hold.

But the one that we tied, has held.


I must have been around nine probably when my blood grandmother said she had a very exciting day planned. And we packed a picnic together.

There were crickets in the summer. It was absurdly green in the South in June with noises of bugs and leaves and flowers bursting out and we were making fried chicken and ham sandwiches and Dr Pepper bottles and I knew we were going for a picnic that’s all I knew that we were going for a picnic and we got in her car and we drove and we got out and it was a beautiful place but it was a cemetery and a graveyard and I asked her why we were there and she seemed so happy. And so full of joy about the surprise that was awaiting me. And this adventure that we were on. And she said I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you, and we ran through the graves in her housedress and me in my brother’s clothes like a little boy and we reached a tulip poplar tree full of huge pink flowers falling all around and she pointed glowing at the ground and she pointed and pointed and pointed and she said, look look look, here’s your grave.

And I realized somewhere that day that she had bought my funeral plot. She had gone to the cemetery and bought me my grave. And that she hadn’t done this for anyone else. It was just for her and my grandfather. And she said, So that you’ll always be here. You’ll always have a place to belong.

And we ate our fried chicken and our Dr Pepper and its bottles on this beautiful green sloping blossom-filled path, where I had been given a place to decompose.

And I realized that was not where I belonged.

I think she wanted me to lay with my ancestors but the ancestors that I had were not her.

The thread that I tried to tie to her was not a thread that tied and held.


We have pipelines threading underground. The Black Snake pipeline. The Dakota Access Pipeline, the black snake of prophecy that is connecting the north to the south of this continent and is burrowing through the sacred and its eyes are open but it’s not seeing. The people who are destroying the earth and tunneling through the graves of the ancestors are not seeing. Their eyes are open and they are not seeing and I want to say, go to your grave, and lie there, and open your eyes in the darkness. Who will reach out to you? When you descend that far, whose string will follow you down?

There’s a sense that the pipeline doesn’t belong. It doesn’t belong in sacred space. It doesn’t belong. Oil doesn’t mix with water. Oil doesn’t belong in our water. Gas doesn’t belong in our water. It has its own grave. Which perhaps are dinosaurs. Perhaps bringing the fossil fuels from the earth is the most ancient grave robbery we’ve ever known.

All I know is that at night when it’s dark and my eyes are open I want to reach down farther than a drill, farther than any equipment could go, to the birthplaces and death places and sacred places that are under what we take for granted.

I was raised not believing in dinosaurs. My mother said that dinosaur bones were placed in the earth by god during the seven days of creation so that when they were found in the 19th century, in the 20th century, in the 21st century, they would test the faith of the nonbelievers. And it wasn’t until I was 20 that I learned that dinosaurs were real. The black snake of oil, of gas, of fossil fuel. A fossil is a body. Is a dead body of something that was once living. That people have chosen to exploit. My grandmother decided where I would be buried while I was still alive—even at nine that felt like a form of exploitation.

How—how do we see the dead?


I was in Vienna working on a project that involved the archives of the anthropology department at the museum and there was a young anthropologist who had found some disturbing files. She was a woman, and the department was male dominated and they didn’t like her around. Interrupted their reality, I suppose. And they put her down in the vaults, which are underneath all of the beautiful Hapsburg plazas of Vienna. And she said, I’m afraid what I found is going to get me fired. And I’m afraid my supervisor will destroy them. And they have to be seen by someone who can see them. And I didn’t know what these were. She told me to bring my camera and told me I needed to see.

And I saw hair and fingernails and she explained they were from Jews collected for anthropological purposes a few days before they were murdered in the gas chambers. And each of the envelopes had a number. And each of the numbers corresponded to a name. And each of the hairs were different. Some were light, some were dark, some were straight, some were curly—there were fingernails of infants, there were fingernails of old men, everything numbered and I thought this is what I’m here to see, the remains of the dead something sacred, and she said, no there’s more. We must have to go down deeper. So we took the elevator and we went down for a long time. It was the longest elevator ride I’ve ever taken. And at the end of it were tunnels and more tunnels and at the sides of the tunnels were climate controlled—almost prison cells—but they called them archives and she opened the door with a key and there were banana boxes everywhere. As far as you could see down the metal industrial shelving cold—so cold—so far underground—banana boxes. Banana boxes from the 1930s, the 1920s, the 1950s, and then older boxes that were also fruit boxes that said—in languages from all over the world—bananas, oranges, and she looked at me and I knew I was supposed to see, I was seeing boxes of fruit but maybe if I closed my eyes I would see what she wanted me to and I did and it felt terrible down there. It felt terrible down there.

And she led me over to a box, and it was full of carefully marked femurs. And she said, this was a tribe in Niger. And we walked a little ways further and there was another row of shelves and there were orange boxes and there were newspapers and she just said, we’ll just unwrap the first newspaper. And there were finger bones and wrist bones—an assortment of tiny fragments and she said this was an aboriginal tribe in Australia and this, this continued through every continent. Another collection of fruit boxes filled with such strange fruit, and I asked her as I tried to breathe why the fruit boxes and she looked and me and she said, they so closely correspond to the size of human bones.

And I realized the orange is the hand. The fist. The black fist of Australia. Is the size of an orange on a ship brought back to a museum in Austria. And a banana is the length of the femur of a pygmy tribe in Africa, brought back by camel, by train, carried down stairs after stairs after stairs down into a cold basement in Vienna where they were fossils. And they were fossil fuels. They were fuel for hatred. They were a fuel for power. They were a fuel for control. A fuel for sadism over other people.

We don’t get to choose very often where the fossils of us remain. I don’t know how I feel about an afterlife. If Robin… The Robin I remember from the Black Panther photographs. The Robin I remember as she lay in bed dying still loudmouthed, still brave, still damaged, still full of threads.

Is she an ancestor fossil? I draw strength from her but I don’t desecrate, and I want the oil workers and the gas workers and the everyday people with their pipeline and their black snake to go down deeper. They don’t respect the fossils.

How far down do they need to go to learn respect?

And will it take their lives, as well as ours?


In the middle of the United States there’s a town called Saint Louis. There’s the Saint Louis Arch, which would go by the name of a landmark. A landmark. A mark on the land that we all can agree upon perhaps when it’s erected, when it’s an arch that’s erected in a town like Saint Louis with the Mississippi River running below this arch that connects nothing with nothing to nothing. White is not connected to black. The segregation of Saint Louis is not affected by this landmark, arch, bridge from nowhere to nowhere.

It was 1992, I feel like it was before we recognized bombs as something that could land on us, here, there were stink bombs and smoke bombs for Fourth of July. Winter. New Years Eve. A holiday where a smoke bomb could be lit off against a white bank of snow or a dusky twilight early in the evening for children to be out. A flash of magenta or a flash of turquoise the gorgeous colors of smoke bombs from roadside fireworks stands. But in 1992, I only knew magenta and turquoise and saffron and cyan as the vivid colors coming from bombs that did not explode but only smoldered.

And so I was in Saint Louis with a young man my age who was very angry. And he was not interested in smoke but he was interested in bombs. And this young man had gotten me into his car and we had driven and driven and driven—I had no idea where he was taking me and then in front of us is this archway. And an archway is a gateway is a point in a journey where you’re crossing a threshold. But the threshold was so unclear. It didn’t cross the Mississippi, it didn’t cross, nothing was connecting, it wasn’t a bridge it didn’t make sense, and then we were in the elevator. The elevator at the Saint Louis Arch is a box that ascends a staircase it rocks the shape of the architecture the bend of the steel. The chamber is so small—it’s crypt-like—your knees are touching knees and you’re rocking as the car, a cube, is making a journey up an angle that is circular and there’s the roundness that doesn’t fit with the squareness and yet by god you’re going to the top.

By god, I went to the top. And this is where the bombs were not going to be smoke bombs but incendiary bombs, explosive bombs, bombs that would bring the arch down. The arch from nowhere to nowhere would explode in the name of this boy’s anger.

At the top of the arch it’s surprisingly narrow and you lie on your stomach at a strange angle that’s not standing up or not lying down, it’s suspended but you’re supported, it’s the angle of flight but gravity is still pushing you down onto this carpeted surface and there are windows and you look out on black Saint Louis and white Saint Louis and the Mississippi River and he says to me I’m going to blow it all up. And in that moment in that position in the arch from nowhere to nowhere, the gateway was the belief that I and everyone around me was going to die. It’s not a question. Might we die. Could we die. We’re in the process of dying. It’s—we are about to die. And since that threshold, that was crossed with no visible explosion, I have never since been human again. Not in a sense of being mortal and not in a sense of being immortal, but at that angle, suspended, between lying down and standing up, lying down and standing up. Lying down and standing up. In the space in between the two where you’re at an angle, traveling towards a destination that is no longer human.


To escape this man, I got a bus going anywhere. I was in Nambé Pueblo, I was in Española, I was at a Greyhound station, it was blindingly bright and it was as far as my money would take me. Somebody—I don’t remember who—a woman, came up to me and she said you look like you need help. I’m not sure she used the word help. Then her husband was standing beside her. And I remember nothing about the word help. I just knew that I was to go with them. And when I arrived in their adobe there were ravens on the windows, one by one, each window I would look at and they, they said again this thing to me that was not help, it was not, you need our help, it was a word that I cannot remember. And they kept saying, you need, you need, and I was not lying down, I was not standing up. I was not human, I was not alive, I was not dead I was not mortal, I was not immortal, and they gave me peyote and I became a scorpion.

For five days I was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion but I was a scorpion. I was not a human who thought she was a scorpion. I was not a scorpion who thought she was a human. I was neither a scorpion nor a human. I was a human and I was a scorpion.

They told me my tail had the capacity to kill. I had never thought of myself as having the capacity to kill. I looked at myself and I was black and shiny and deadly. I had never been deadly before. For five days I was deadly. I walked. I walked outside. I walked the pueblo. I was not dead. I was not alive.

I was not human, I was not scorpion—I was deadly.

I asked them what I was supposed to do with this capacity to kill. What was I supposed to do with this capacity to cause pain? Was it justified as self-defense? Could I light this bomb of poison in the name of something like justice? Like revenge? Could it be a firework display of power to say, I can choose to make the living dead.

For five days I walked. I didn’t kill anyone.


Years later, I was working in northern Mexico, on the Tohono O’Odham. We were finding parts of women. They hardly seemed dead. They would have a leg with a shoe, and I would expect it to walk. The desert was full of bodies of women who were fossil fuels but they were desiccated and buried after they were exploited. There was no river of their blood coursing through a land of genocide, it was drying in their veins under the soil—sometimes I knew their names and sometimes… Sometimes there was no name.

I was walking in a forest in northern Europe, and there was a pile of ashes as high as I am tall. As wide as I am long. Grey. A kind of grey the sky will never turn. The kind of grey a rock will never be. Only a human incinerated will turn that color grey. It’s not forgettable.

How much have we forgotten in our landmarks? How many of us know the land on which we walk? The black snake pipeline. What does it really travel through?

Interstate 10. What does it truly travel past?

The Autobahn. Over whose ashes is it built?


I sleep at night but it’s not sleep, it’s something else. It’s not a human sleep because I don’t wake from it. All I know is there’s darkness, and I know I’m dead, and I’m lying down, I’m aware, I’m lying down and there’s darkness, and I’m dead and this lasts and it lasts and it lasts until the shapes of my room come back—the squares the circles, the angles, I sit up, I stand up, I’m upright. Upright is alive. I go outside into the desert so that I can feel the land and I feel like stomping. I feel like pounding. I feel like I should be on all appendages—scorpion legs. Human legs. Arms. Everything pounding, to let out what’s in the earth

Those who are sleeping are not quiet. Our ancestors who sleep—are they dead?

My grandfather sleeps in a green Naugahyde chair after dinner and we’re happy that he’s peaceful, we’re happy that he’s not angry, we’re happy that he’s fallen asleep after an insubstantial meal, and we go about our evening so delighted that he’s resting until we realize his chest isn’t moving, there’s nothing rising and falling, there’s no up, there’s no down—there’s just him at this angle, at this slanted angle suspended in a green Naugahyde easy chair and his heart has stopped and he’s here, but he’s not here.


For animals when they are fearing death, they have three choices. They can fight, they can take flight, or they can freeze. Those are the only three options. Those are the only three options for survival. Fight or flight or flee. And we who are not human who have not earned the title of human, those of us who are dead or have become something else—we have these choices, fight flight freeze, fight fight fight flight freeze, up down over, standing, lying, leaning.

And in the morning when the sun has come up, and I think it might be possible that I’m alive, and I stomp my feet on the desert floor—I want them to rise. I want all of them to rise. I want the trafficked women to rise. I want the genocided tribes to rise. I want the lynched to rise. I want the incinerated to rise.

Do I want them to fight? Do I want us to fight?

And I’m a scorpion again and I know I’m dead and I’m deadly and they’re dead and they’re deadly. And the living are dead and the dead are living and we’re in pain.

And I think, can this tail be used for justice? Is it possible? Can we protect and not protest? Can we have our tail and not be forced to use it? And some mornings as it turns to autumn and the fog rises from the Bosque and for a minute I think, yes, we’re rising—I can’t tell who fought back and who did not. Who froze and who fled. Who fought and who fled. Who fled then fought then froze. Who froze then fled then fought. There’s too many. There are too many. They go on. And on. And the deeper the soil and the deeper the rock the deeper they’ve climbed out and we stand and we look at each other and we say, we want justice, what do we do now?

—Quintan Ana Wikswo


Quintan Ana Wikswo is the author of The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press), a collection of photographs and stories, and a forthcoming novel with photographs, A Long Curving Scar Where The Heart Should Be (Stalking Horse Press, 2017). Other work appears in magazines such as Tin House, Guernica, Conjunctions, the Kenyon Review, and Gulf Coast, and in anthologies, artist books, and exhibition catalogues. Her projects have received multiple solo museum shows in New York City and Germany, including the Berlin Jewish Museum, F.A.C.T. (UK) and are presented in galleries such as Ronald Feldman Gallery (NYC) as well as in museum and public collections throughout the United States and Europe including the Brooklyn Museum, the Jewish Museum Munich, and People for the American Way.

This Polaroid series created during a ritual walk for Thanksgiving Day, along the Jornado del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man) desert of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro: the genocidal road of the Spanish conquistadors, the site of the explosion of Trinity (the plutonium infusion fission nuclear bomb), and the American Indian Wars against the Apache and other Native Nations. The bones depicted in these photographs are of the skulls of cows left chained to fence posts. Thanks to the Creative Capital fellowship and the Theo Westenberger Estate. These images are part of a multidisciplinary collaboration in progress with Matt Contos and Andrea Clearfield.


Mar 072017

Ceramic box Michel_1Ceramic box by Michel Pastore

Michel Pastore and Evelyne PorretMichel Pastore and Evelyne Porret


Long ago I lived in North Africa. I learned that among the Berber peoples, the erotic verses from the Koran are traced on the body of the bride with henna—her hands and feet, belly and breasts. On the night of her wedding, her husband licks her body and swallowing, embodies the sacred erotic.

When in the Loire Valley years later, I saw the ceramics of Michel Pastore and Evelyne Porret, I was stunned by the sight of so many domestic objects that were not only beautiful, but also somehow transcendent. In the deepening shadows the late afternoon, they sparked the air and sizzled—more like amulets and talismans than bowls and plates. I mean to say that if they were destined for domestic pleasure, their emphasis was more on the ecstatic than the domestic. This encounter remains one of the most powerful influences within my creative life. Several of the pieces I saw that day are visible below.

Around the time I returned to the United States, Michel and Evelyne moved to Fayoum, Egypt. There they built a home, a ceramics studio and a kiln of clay brick. Soon after arriving, in 1989, Evelyne opened a studio school for local children which is flourishing to this day.

In 1991, Michel, always protean, and inspired by the weavers of the ancient village of Nagada, became interested in textile and clothes design. With the Lebanese designer, Sylvia Nasralla, he opened a shop in Cairo named Nagada. (If you watch this video of a Nagada fashion show, you will be enchanted.)

— Rikki Ducornet.
Ceramic Evelyne_2Ceramics by Evelyne Porret (above and below)

Ceramic Evelyne_1
ceramic Michel 2Ceramic by Michel Pastore

House in FayoumPastore/Porret house and studio at Fayoum.

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Fayoum photos PDF-19AThe studio in Fayoum

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Pastore and Porret looking at platesPastore and Porret at the studio

First potA pot made of local clay, from the first firing in the Fayoum studio

Fayoum photos PDF-21

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Fayoum photos PDF-47

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Green box 500px

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—Ceramics by Michel Pastore & Evelyne Porret; text by Rikki Ducornet.

Evelyne Porret and Michel PastoreEvelyne Porret and Michel Pastore


Rikki DucornetRikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet is the author of eight novels as well as collections of short stories, essays, and poems. She has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is a two-time honoree of the Lannan Foundation, and the recipient of an Academy Award in Literature. Widely published abroad, she is also a book illustrator and painter who exhibits internationally. Her work is held by the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile, McMaster University Museum in Canada, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Rikki lives in Port Townsend, Washington.


Mar 032017

Hirondelle drawing IMG_0992Aperture 14, 16″ x 16″

Anne Hirondelle in her studio


Hirondelle’s beginnings as an artist were with clay. For over 20 years she was drawn to the vessel as an abstraction and metaphor for containment taking ideas from traditional functional pots and stretching them into architectural and organic sculptural forms. In 2002, to explore more formal ideas she abandoned her signature glazes for unglazed white stoneware and moved the work from the horizontal to the vertical plane. A year later she began painting the surfaces. Simultaneously, her drawings, once ancillary to the sculpture, took on a life of their own. Derived from the ceramic forms, drawn with graphite and colored pencil on multiple layers of tracing paper, they are further explorations of abstraction.

Her latest exhibition, Anne Hirondelle: Small Revolutions, runs February 11-April 30, 2017 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The exhibition, which features ceramic work and drawings, takes its title from the poem, “Still Life with Fire” by David Fenza.

We shift in our naked repose, restless,
because, if we are clay, the fingerprints
of our Maker must be within & upon us;
& after the Potter’s wheel is still, we still turn
with small revolutions of faith & doubt
as we style who & what to leave out
& who & what to hold within.

—David W. Fenza

All images are graphite and prisma color on layered tracing paper.

Hirondelle drawing IMG_0991Aperture 12, 16″ x 16″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_0993Partners 1, 17″ x 23″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_0994Partners 2, 17″ x 23″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_0995Partners 3, 17″ x 23″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1011Partners 4, 17″ x 23″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1002Triptych, overall 16″ x 40″ framed (individual images 10″ x 10″)


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1003Slide 1, 16″ x 16″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1004Slide 2, 16″ x 16″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1005Slide 3, 16″ x 16″


Hirondelle drawing IMG_1006Slide 4, 16″ x 16″

—Anne Hirondelle

Anne Hirondelle working in studio

Anne Hirondelle was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1944 and spent her childhood as a farm girl near Salem, Oregon. She received a BA in English from the University of Puget Sound (1966) and an MA in counseling from Stanford University (1967). Hirondelle moved to Seattle in 1967 and directed the University YWCA until 1972. She attended the School of Law at the University of Washington for a year before discovering and pursuing her true profession, first in the ceramics program at the Factory of Visual Arts in Seattle (1973-74), and later in the BFA program at the University of Washington (1974-76). Anne Hirondelle has lived and worked in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1977.

Hirondelle has exhibited nationally in one-person and group shows including: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Scottsdale and Seattle. Her pieces are in myriad private and public collections including: The White House Collection in the Clinton Library, Little Rock, AR; The Museum of Arts and Design, NY; The L.A. County Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum.

She was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for the Visual Arts in 1988. In 2004, Anne was a finalist for the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award. In 2009 her accomplishments were recognized by the Northwest Arts Community with the Yvonne Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The University of Washington Press published Anne Hirondelle: Ceramic Art, a book about her work in February, 2012. In 2014, she was one of four Washington State artists selected to participate in the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program.


David W. Fenza is a poet and the Executive Director of the Association Of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). “Still Life with Fire” is published at NC with his permission.



Feb 072017

Kate Evans at work.


—Kate Evans


Kate Evans, author, mother, artist and cartoonist, lives in the West of England with her husband, two children and two cats. Her latest book Red Rosa: a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg was released by Verso, November 2015, to general acclaim.

She is also the author of graphic non-fiction books The Food of Love: your formula for successful breastfeeding, Bump: how to make, grow and birth a baby and Funny Weather: everything you didn’t want to know about climate change but probably should find out. The above comic now forms the first chapter of her forthcoming, feature-length graphic novel Threads from the refugee crisis, to be released Spring 2017 from Verso Books. Blog: Twitter: @cartoonkate.




Feb 012017

Jugando con Candela 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxJugando con Candela, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

Ramon Alejandro


A few short months ago, Rikki Ducornet introduced me to the paintings of the Cuban-born artist Ramón Alejandro. Awe and delight. Then she introduced me to the man, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. Awe and delight squared. Ramón Alejandro is an inspiration and an avatar. When he lived in Paris, he was written about but no less than Roland Barthes, who admired his robotic giants and specifically referred to his aimiability  — “son amabilité (ce qui fait qu’on l’aime)”. He’s genuine, wise, prolific and warm. The paintings are gorgeous, outsized, sun-drenched. He makes me think of the line from Don Quixote: “There might giants.” And the giantish “sons of God” in the Old Testament. A world under the sign of the imagination, more alive than life itself.

But to give you the flavour of the man, here is a bit from an email he wrote to me before Christmas. We were talking about the roots of his art, his cheerful and migratory life (he lives in Miami now). This is how all artists should be.

It helped me to be radical in my choice that one of my father’s usual phrases was that when one was no good for anything one could always become an artist. He was also born into a family that raised cattle for milk and cheese and apple trees for cider in Asturias in northern Spain. The mountains did not permit planting many crops in such a hilly landscape and the pieces of land were too small for those who had a whole lot of children to feed. Most young people had to go to America to make a living. He was a real disciple of Diogenes the Great without knowing anything about the Cynic school of philosophers or any other philosophy, but he had managed to make one for himself out of his life experience. I chose the wisdom of Aristippus of Cyrene also before knowing anything about his existence. Generally, all the arts, and pleasure itself by the way, are a real scandal for most of those who were brought up outside city limits. I was kind of lucky that my grandfather on my mother’s side was a marvelous copyist of ancient paintings in the Prado Museum in Madrid. He failed to be a good painter himself, but art and literature was all that counted for him in life. He was my inspiration though — or maybe just because — he was never able to earn his life decently, and when he and his wife became old, by the time I knew him the short time of my first 13 years, had to be materially taken care of by the husbands of his two daughters. I love all mythologies, religions, musics, paintings, poetries and philosophies but do not believe in any of them. I think that deep inside I don’t even believe in Reality or in the different ways of conceiving it. All of them have been my movies and TV since I was a child. And lately I have had the feeling I will be including more and more divinities in my paintings.

The paintings we’re featuring on NC this month are brand new, and they are part of a show of Ramón’s work currently up at the Latin Art Core gallery in Miami.



La Guanabana 2003 oil on canvas 20 x 24 in 500pxLa Guanabana, 2003 — oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.


Aprendiz de Brujo 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 24 in 500pxAprendiz de Brujo, 2015 — oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.


Virgen de Medianoche 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 18 in 500pxVirgen de Medianoche, 2015 —— oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in.


Demonio del Mediodia 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 18 in 500pxDemonio del Mediodia, 2015 — oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in.


Detras de la Cruz esta el demonio 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxDetras de la Cruz esta el demonio, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

xEl universo esta iluminado por las llamas del Infierno 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxEl universo esta iluminado por las llamas del Infierno, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.


Combustion Espontanea 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxCombustion Espontanea, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.


Energy flows in both opposite directions 2016 oil on canvas 24 x 24 in 500pxEnergy flows in both opposite directions, 2016 — oil on canvas. 24 x 24 in.

——Ramón Alejandro

Latin Art Core expoCurrent show at Latin Art Core gallery, Miami.

José Ramón Alejandro is a Cuban painter and writer. Since the late 1960s, his work has appeared in one-man shows in private galleries in Paris, Geneva, and Miami, as part of exhibitions in Israel and cities across Europe, and in exhibits of limited edition books illustrated by artists of note. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Bibliothèque Municipale d’Angers in France, the San Diego Art Museum, and the Miami-Dade Public Library all include his works in their permanent collections.
Alejandro left Havana in the 1960s to live in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Paris, where he stayed for thirty years. In 1995, he moved to Miami. There he founded Editions Deleatur, a publisher focusing on Cuban writers within Cuba and abroad. Alejandro and his work are the subject of the essay collection Ramón Alejandro (L’Atelier des Brisants, 2006).


Jan 012017



Slide film provides an amazing experience. Slides come to life in front of any kind of brightness, creating little lightboxes – readymade, modern stereographs. Their tiny size commands curiosity and an inherent intimacy. They can be handheld, and they glow with brilliance and sharpness. Slides convince you. It’s enough to make you believe they are miniature versions of what happened.

I believe every photograph is a memory, an exact moment of time and space. By combining photographs, I am conflating accounts, adding them together and forming new stories. Domestic interiors are overrun with something unexpected, something other. The incredibly banal shifts into the transcendent, and so on. I’m interested in how the present influences the past, and I’m investigating why we selectively remember or forget. I’m fascinated that our history is constantly changing, that something so seemingly concrete can slip away. I welcome the surreal, psychedelic and uncanny.

I investigate how to construct images and depict pictorial space. I engage the public through the use of multiple slide projectors, kinetic machines, double-sided projection screens, custom-made viewing boxes and lenses. I create a sense of depth that flutters like paintings, in and out, between conceivable and awfully flat. I’m interested in this kind of visual ambling and how it differs from the source material of photographs. Unlike paintings, photographs are captured at once, coming to be immediately – the relic of an instant.   — Mark Reamy




Notes on images: Images 1.–14. Digital photographs of two 35mm slides on a light table, 20″ x 30″. Image 15. Digital photograph of six 35mm slides on light table, 20″ x 30″. Image 16. TOP: Wooden structure housing 3D-printed component, which holds a magnifying glass, two slides, light, diffusing screen and battery. Just hit the switch on the side, the light comes on, and you can see the image inside the cube box. BOTTOM: The view inside. 12″ x 12″ x 8″.


mark-reamy-portfolio-page-001-croppedImage 1. Canada (2014)


mark-reamy-portfolio-page-002-croppedImage 2. State Route (2014)


mark-reamy-portfolio-page-003-croppedImage 3. Wave (2015)


mark-reamy-portfolio-page-004-croppedImage 4. Michigan (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-005-croppedImage 5. Neighbors (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-006-croppedImage 6. Parking Lot (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-007-croppedImage 7. Window (2015)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-008-croppedImage 8. Corner Lot (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-009-croppedImage 9. Development (2015)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-010-croppedImage 10. Thoroughfare (2015)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-011-croppedImage 11. Canal (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-012-croppedImage 12. Strip Mall (2014)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-013-croppedImage 13. Resort (2015)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-014-croppedImage 14. Mountainside (2015)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-015-croppedImage 15. Beach Day (2016)

mark-reamy-portfolio-page-016Image 16. Light Cubes (2016)


Hailing from the Midwest, Mark Reamy received his MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2010. Since graduating, he balances freelance commercial work with his studio practice. Whether it’s rebranding local companies, illustrating a children’s book for Jay-Z and Beyonce Knowles, or exhibiting an eight-foot disco ball, Reamy engages his audience within a collaborative, curious, and contemplative spirit.

After an artist residency tour of the United States throughout 2015, Reamy received the Staff Artist Fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center, where he will reside throughout 2016. He will also be an artist-in-residence at the Youngeun Museum of Contemporary Art in South Korea in 2017.


Dec 022016

hallucineMovement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016


The daughter of glow-worms painting portraits of mysterious females and the reindeer’s ghostly double, all perfectly cracked like glass, like an intrusion, like a flight into the obscurity of uncharted whispering. A slight touch on the shoulder, the movement of an affair between invasion and emanation, the pitch of bone against bone, faces merging in the moisture of a single word chosen among all the others. A vampire word…


Clarity is often a flower burning a table out of a corpse, an immoral sense of having secretive codes, acknowledgements of a tentative gambling, a mere walk in the park. The spores of wild animals, the crawling of your flesh, light growing on water. Words like landmines.


The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords. The catapult of an unfinished sentence, turned to provoke, to stroke and latent in state, the light separates your body from its own darkness.


The ancient horned flower of your psyche attracts the devoted milking machines, the aboriginal veins of a fabric that propels your footsteps as determined as her threads slipping into light, vanishing in the blink of an eye.


navigateAnd still the navigators 38’ x 38” 27.6.2016


Dark and greedy, the always secret and ever vanishing body of torrential mirroring.


Dark gravitational assignations seduced into amulets the color of glass, evolving in sequential chiaroscuro, tempting blood where (in the Manor of Sighs) the barbarian sign language seizes the images of your being in the rich, antiquarian lucidity of your extinction. Your face, or the features of night in the fever of graceful spirits that still come to drink the liquid of life out of your hands, the pendulum… An evening of theater runs ahead…


Trapping belladonna between the lines, between her legs, between phases, to embrace the blindness of your murmuring, pushing out between her lips, the lost hermeticism of albino checkmates.


Black pyramid of erratic nights, sphinx crystal for abnormal motion, language absorbed by light hibernating in darkness, invisible shield, hormones of endless fusion and refusing to chalk the edges of bodily words taking root. On a street corner in another country, where the wheels of dance herald small but irreplaceable transgressing devices, shedding deceptions buzzing with veiled faces. You are sleeping with the enemy, unafraid and glorious.


An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance…


sirensSirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016

Sirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016*

One superb maneuver is the moon under your skin that pivots on the bones of a spider’s web, when it shines in the eyes of the animals that come close to you for light.


Bright calipers of the alloy-laden arch, light-birthing heaviness, a fire between the air and the water, the arc of the dive into disappearance. Desire is not beautiful, but an invisible flame, a knife thrust into the heart, a moment of oblivion. The figure is translated, disfigured and set spinning into the tall and languid codes of light, violent codes, aching darkness of codes deceiving stature… who is dismantled. Words pulled out of lead. Breath of crystal. The rain of deer in the plateau of whispers…


A bright spirit made of wolves, a throat in the fountain of analogies.


Neither life nor death, but the same descent, the same loping, transfiguring, moving across the edges highlighted in ivory as bright as sunlight clutching at animal optics, scavenging, sight-shaping all the female phantoms in a row, crawling with antlers through the moth-memory of an escape hatch bigger than the either and the or… where the bell-veil toys with the heretic and his contraries, introducing a vow worthy of destruction, sealed with a kiss.


Highly unreasonable notations raise pinnacles outside of the hour, narrate plumes, positions of sleep. The air spirals and sudden sparks. Your body of the orchid feast, thief of the mask. Night hood. “Teach me how to kill, and I will teach you how to love…” Only the wail of silence, in acrobat, even yourself hieroglyphing in lunar light.


The slow movement of her hand, the reflections cast by night, travelling by déjà vu.


The visual works I make are photo-based digital collages created in Photoshop, using printed media scanned into the computer, then using many layers, cloning, erasures. This allows taking the essence of collage quite beyond cut and paste. It becomes a much more fluid conjuration of matter, transforming the everyday into a magical space, where anything is possible. The sizes of the images are always approximate. Although, usually larger, depending upon whim. Since these live on the computer, they are subject to change.

—J. Karl Bogartte



J. Karl Bogartte, born September 8, 1944, of Dutch and Irish descent, is both an artist and poet, schooled in anthropology, photography and various esoteric traditions. He has been an active participant in international surrealism for more than 50 years, and cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions.  He presently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bogartte, is both an artist and poet, having published eight books of poetic writings: The Mirror held Up In Darkness, The Wolf House, Secret Games, Luminous Weapons, Primal Numbers, A Curious Night For A Double Eclipse, Auré, The Spindle’s Arc, and Antibodies: A Surrealist Novella.  Long aligned with international surrealism, Bogartte is also a cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions. His work has appeared in the following anthologies:  ANALOGON #65, Melpomene, Hydrolith #1 and #2, La vertèbre et le rossignol #4, Peculiar Mormyrid #2, Paraphilia,  and The Fiend online journal.


Nov 062016




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Studio Stills

img_0924Wave 16-1, 12x13x7″, stoneware and paint

img_0921Wave Cradle 16-1, 13x14x6″, stoneware and paint

img_0922Wave Cradle 16-2, 13x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0917Wave Cradle 16-3, 13.5x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0911Partners 16-1, 18x12x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0913Partners 16-2, 11.5x16x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0915Partners 16-3, 13x20x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0916Partners 16-4, 13.5x22x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0912Partners 16-5, 14x21x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0914Partners 16-6, 15x22x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

—Anne Hirondelle


Anne Hirondelle was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1944 and spent her childhood as a farm girl near Salem, Oregon. She received a BA in English from the University of Puget Sound (1966) and an MA in counseling from Stanford University (1967). Hirondelle moved to Seattle in 1967 and directed the University YWCA until 1972. She attended the School of Law at the University of Washington for a year before discovering and pursuing her true profession, first in the ceramics program at the Factory of Visual Arts in Seattle (1973-74), and later in the BFA program at the University of Washington (1974-76). Anne Hirondelle has lived and worked in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1977.

Hirondelle’s beginnings as an artist were with clay. For over 20 years she was drawn to the vessel as an abstraction and metaphor for containment taking ideas from traditional functional pots and stretching them into architectural and organic sculptural forms. In 2002, to explore more formal ideas she abandoned her signature glazes for unglazed white stoneware and moved the work from the horizontal to the vertical plane. A year later she began painting the surfaces. Simultaneously, her drawings, once ancillary to the sculpture, took on a life of their own. Derived from the ceramic forms, drawn with graphite and colored pencil on multiple layers of tracing paper, they are further explorations of abstraction.

Hirondelle has exhibited nationally in one-person and group shows including: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Scottsdale and Seattle. Her pieces are in myriad private and public collections including: The White House Collection in the Clinton Library, Little Rock, AR; The Museum of Arts and Design, NY; The L.A. County Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum.

She was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for the Visual Arts in 1988. In 2004, Anne was a finalist for the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award. In 2009 her accomplishments were recognized by the Northwest Arts Community with the Yvonne Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The University of Washington Press published Anne Hirondelle: Ceramic Art, a book about her work in February, 2012. In 2014, she was one of four Washington State artists selected to participate in the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program.


Oct 012016

fiveravensFive Ravens



Over the course of recorded history, many profound intellectuals have contemplated the nature of mathematics. Albert Einstein believed that math was nothing more than “a product of human thought,” which caused him to wonder how its principles could seem “so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality.” In contrast, Johan Kepler believed that mathematics was an inherent feature of the Universe, famously stating, “geometry existed before creation.” But regardless of one’s philosophical leanings, it’s obvious that, from the curious perspective of a human mind, Nature seems to be “written in the language of mathematics” (Galileo Galilei).

A few million years before Einstein, Kepler, and Galileo mused about the Universe, the concept of mathematics likely originated from an evolutionary breakthrough that happened before modern humans ever walked the earth. When hominids emerged from their primate ancestors, they gained a powerful ability to recognize patterns in the natural world, which allowed them to comprehend cause-and-effect in a way that had never been achieved by any other species. Their ability to understand and predict patterns of behavior in wildlife allowed hominids to become effective hunters and trappers, despite their relatively weak and slow physiology; their ability to recognize patterns of physical correlation allowed them to manipulate different materials to create novel technologies (e.g. tools, clothing, housing, etc.); and their ability to understand and predict seasonal patterns would eventually lead to the development of agriculture. All of these examples illustrate that hominids’ pattern recognition fostered a myriad of practical evolutionary benefits. But along with these utilitarian advantages, this ability also provided a cognitive foundation for creative expression and this would eventually lead to the earliest known forms of visual art.

In 2014, the Leiden Museum carbon dated a collection of prehistoric cutting utensils found on the Indonesian island of Java. The tools were constructed from mussel shells by Homo Erectus, a primitive species of hominid that is closely related to modern humans. While this technology was relatively typical for the time period, researchers noticed that there was something quite atypical about these tools: some of them were engraved with zigzagging lines and the arrangement of the patterns demonstrated a high degree of intent. With no reasonable inference regarding their practical value, the researchers had to assume that the lines were made for aesthetic purposes. When the tools were tested, the results indicated that the shells were roughly 500 000 years old (300 000 years older than any previously discovered artwork); this suggested that hominids developed conceptual thought much earlier than previously believed. But with regard to mathematics, since these artifacts were made roughly 400 000 years before any known stone figurines or cave paintings, it also suggested that geometry – not figurative images – inspired the first aesthetic creations.

When hominids evolved into modern humans, they developed an ever-growing fascination with Nature. And undoubtedly, as they explored, examined, and experienced their environment, they would have noticed, even before the concept of geometry was developed, that the Universe often structures itself in aesthetically balanced forms. The circle, the pinnacle of balance in geometry, was likely the first shape to capture their attention. The sun and the moon were (and still are) omnipresent features of life on earth, and I imagine that our ancestors would have frequently gazed skyward to appreciate their seemingly perfect form. But Nature’s creations go far beyond the circle: from the radial symmetry of flowers, to the logarithmic spirals of mollusk shells, to the fractal scaling of succulents – geometry pervades the Cosmos. To early humans, these elaborate arrangements must have represented an underlying order, a guiding spiritual force that created and organized the Universe. So unsurprisingly, mathematical arrangements played a significant role in early religious art .

As humans moved out of Africa and spread across the globe, they split into numerous civilizations, all with unique beliefs and practices. But despite their profound diversity, all cultures had some form of visual art, with the vast majority incorporating mathematical arrangements. Some symbols, such as the “flower of life” (a series of overlapping circles arranged to form a floral pattern) and the Pentagram (a five-pointed star made of a continuous line), were found on artifacts from pre-classic Greece (and in all likelihood were developed by earlier tribal civilizations); other symbols are still in use today: Taoism’s “yin yang” (2-fold rotational symmetry), Judaism’s “star of David” (3-fold radial symmetry) and the “Caduceus” (1-fold reflection symmetry) are all ancient geometric forms that have survived through the ages into modernity.

But these techniques were not limited to the “Old World,” and, in the Americas, many indigenous cultures used geometry in their art work – including my Salish ancestors. While Coast Salish culture didn’t create semiotic symbols like many European civilizations, they did create visual art (spindle whorls, rattles, house-posts, etc.) with animal and floral forms that utilized the same geometric techniques found around the world. These design elements have been carried into modern Salish art and have been expanded upon by the contemporary master, Susan Point, and subsequently, by the newest generation of Salish artists, such as lessLie , Maynard Johnny, Chris Paul, and myself.

As I began to study Salish design, I became enamoured with the geometric techniques used by my ancestors. This inspired me to widen my research, and I engaged in an expansive study of traditional geometry in other cultures. In this exploration, I became particularly fond of two styles: the Asian mandala and Islamic tessellations.

Mandalas are geometric images that represent the Cosmos, which are used as a meditation tool in some Buddhist and Hindu cultures. They traditionally consist of a circle that is enclosed in a larger square with four t-shaped gates, all structured using 2-fold reflection symmetry. Some of these designs show characteristics of fractal geometry – meaning shapes that show similarity at every scale (such as a mandala within a mandala within a mandala etc.). Modified versions of these techniques became an integral part of my artistic style – a style that would eventually lead to the works in Sacred Geometry.

Islamic art has had an equally strong influence on my creative development. Unlike Christianity and Judaism – whose worshippers have a long history of producing depictions of religious figures (e.g. Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” or the Tzippori Synagogue Mosiac), idolatry is considered blasphemous in Islam. As a result, their cultural art diverged from the other Abrahamic religions, and Muslim artists created many unique art forms, such as calligraphy and tessellations. Tessellations are infinitely repeatable patterns consisting of a series of identical shapes (called tiles) that fit together to form a larger design. A checker board is one of the simplest forms of tessellation (a series of identical squares), but Muslim artists took the concept to a remarkable level of complexity. From the 7th century through the entire Middle Ages, in South Asia, The Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, Muslim artists decorated rugs, ceramics, architecture and much more with these awe-inspiring patterns. Using little more than straight lines (a detail that would play a significant role in the development of my exhibit), Muslim artists created intricate designs with interlacing and overlapping polygons and circles that often unite to create star and floral forms. The symbolic value of these tessellations adds the sacred element to the geometry: the circular shapes represent the paradoxical unity and diversity of existence, and the pattern’s infinite nature (i.e., its geometric ability to expand forever) represents the boundless possibilities of the divine realm.

The modern master of mathematical art, M.C. Escher, credited Islamic geometry as the inspiration for his renowned woodblock prints. In 1936, he visited a Moorish mosque in southern Spain and was enthralled by its tessellated architecture. Escher (and at his request, his wife) feverishly tried to sketch the various patterns for later imitation. After this visit, Escher engaged in years of study and practice, until eventually he was ready to reveal his unique twist on the tessellation. But he believed that “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” would hold “little meaning” for his audience and that his tessellations would only be appreciated if they were recognized as “clear symbols of people, animals, [and] things…” But this is where my artistic intentions diverge from the master.

Considering the artistic era that Escher lived in, it’s not surprising that he had a deep passion for figurative art, which had been a nearly universal convention for centuries prior. But while Escher was developing his geometric style in the 1930s, Modernists were shouting, “make it new,” and developing an aesthetic world space that would transcend the fetters of artistic tradition. The Modernists would, in time, essentially change the definition of fine art, but at the beginning of Escher’s career, these new creative movements were still quite divisive. Taking into account the divided nature of the zeitgeist, mixed with Escher’s formal training in illustration (an extremely figurative medium), it’s easy to understand why his art took its specific form – a form that I’m forever grateful to have known and studied.

But since the 1930s, artistic culture has traveled through a vast range of movements, which, during Escher’s development, had yet to be imagined – one of which being Minimalism. Following the Modernist currents towards Post-Modernity, some artist drifted further and further from the verisimilitude that had dominated art for most of recorded history. And in the early 1960s, some New York City artists – such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly – were creating abstract paintings with simple geometric forms that lacked any notion of figurative imagery. Since these artists weren’t overly concerned with imitating objective reality or even representing objective reality through a unique perspective, they were able to focus on the subtle aesthetic aspects of their paintings (such as contrast, weight, balance, orientation, etc.), which created works with an understated but powerful effect. Considering the enduring legacy of these artists, I believe that their work has demonstrated that, contrary to Escher’s opinion, “capricious patches of abstract geometric figures” can be meaningful, if they exist in an appropriate artistic atmosphere. And by abandoning the religious, naturalistic, and humanistic meanings of the past, Minimalist art carries a meaning that, in my opinion, is at the pure center of all creative endeavors, a meaning that has slowly become my primary artistic focus – which is to represent that mysterious and elusive quality known as beauty.

As I continue my studies of visual art, it seems as though the more I learn about aesthetics (i.e. the nuanced details create and emphasize beauty), the less I intellectually understand the concept; this is likely because beauty doesn’t operate on the intellect and is, by nature, not rational. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to call beauty irrational either. A far more accurate term, one used by the philosopher Ken Wilber, is trans-rational, because it seems to operate on something much deeper than the intellect, what some might call the heart or soul or spirit. In my experience, beauty only fully manifests when the intellect subsides, when the mind goes quiet and all “hows” and “whys” disappear. There’s no rational value in gazing at a midnight sky punctured with mysterious light from distant worlds or the radiant spread of red hues rising in a twilight fade from the horizon – but, for me, only the trans-rational aspects of life can give meaning to existence. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “We have art so we may not perish by truth.”

My growing devotion to aesthetics helped me set the parameters for this exhibit: I decided to let my intuitions about geometric beauty guide every creative decision. This meant prioritizing aesthetics over the figurative elements (i.e., animal forms) that I was accustomed to using in my traditional Salish art. Although animal images do appear in a few pieces, those specific designs developed organically – meaning they only took a figurative shape if, in the designing process, it seemed to happen on its own. The appearance of figurative art among these images might be due to some quasi-Pavlovian impulse that developed from years of Salish designing – illustrating that artistic habits, like all habits, also die hard. But regardless of their origin, I’m happy with the results.

In the past, I’ve enjoyed the puzzle-like challenge of arranging animals to fit my aesthetic vision and taste. But the designing process for Sacred Geometry was a refreshing change in my practice. I surrendered control to the mathematics, and with nothing more than a little refinement, the designs essentially built themselves based on the geometric processes I applied. This manner of working felt much more natural than any designing I had done previously – so natural that, more often than not, I hardly felt involved. While the idea might seem cliché and is often perceived as pseudo-spiritual hyperbole, I (and numerous people I have talked to) know firsthand that, in those purest moments of expression, art seems to be created through you, not by you. And I can say, without a hint of exaggeration, that these experiences are the sacred aspect of creating art.

The other constraint I set for myself was to design using only straight lines and circles, a style that I serendipitously discovered while sketching. I loved the idea of creating art with such simple structures – so simple, in fact, that they are almost always the first structures that a child learns to draw. Take, for example, a toddler’s stick figure: it generally consists of a circle head, circle eyes, a half circle mouth to form the obligatory smile, with straight lines creating the torso and limbs. But what, I wondered, would be possible if I restricted myself to these fundamental aesthetic tools? When I first started working with the constraint, I thought that the possibilities would be limited; at most, I hoped to get a small series of designs from the concept. But to my surprise (and ecstatic delight), I found that the potential was much greater than I anticipated. As I experimented, more and more avenues for creation presented themselves, with a surprising range of diversity. Within a month or so, I knew that I had the concept. And, more importantly, I knew that I had discovered a new creative world space that I could return to for the rest of my life.

Some might consider the art in Sacred Geometry more contemporary than my other work, and, in a way, it certainly is. But in another sense, this work is more traditional than anything I have done before – because it draws on a tradition that started before my Salish ancestors ever carved a spindle whorl on the Pacific Coast, a tradition that started before the first human crafted a symbol to honor the earliest conception of God, a tradition that even started before Homo Erectus carved that first pattern into a mussel shell. It’s a tradition that started in the big bang (and according to Kepler, even before), that first moment of creation when, in a mysterious Cosmic exhalation, Spirit took a three-dimensional form and started building the Universe according to timeless laws of geometry.

—Dylan Thomas

brave-new-whorlBrave New Whorl






tipping-pointTipping Point




Born in Victoria, in 1986, Qwul`thilum (Dylan Thomas) is a Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation, originally from Valdes Island. Dylan was exposed to the art at a young age because his family continues to participate in their culture and tradition. He has trained in jewelery with Seletze (Delmar Johnnie) and has apprenticed under Rande Cook in all mediums of the art. Rande has also been a major help in the development of Dylan`s design. His other artistic influences have been late Art Thompson, Susan Point and Robert Davidson.

The images reproduced here were originally produced for Thomas’s first solo show at the Alcheringa Gallery in Victoria, British Columbia, which opened in August.


Sep 062016

Dave Kennedy A view to a passageway_working_Dave Kennedy

Anamorphosis is showing at Bridge Productions in Seattle, September 7 – October 1. The opening is Wednesday, September 7, 6-9 pm, Bridge Productions, Hamilton Work Studios, 2nd Floor, 6007 12th Ave S, Seattle.


Anamorphosis is an ancient representational technique; you deform the image of the object so that from a certain angle it looks like one thing and from another angle a different image appears (sort of). A classic example is Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting The Ambassadors, with its anamorphic skull. In that instance, the technique is allegorical, a reminder that we will all die. For Dave Kennedy, the technique is also allegorical, but in this case it’s a reminder that things are not what they seem, identity is unstable, even untrustworthy. He uses photos, photocopies, bits of cast off material, explodes and reconstructs images of what conventionally are not aesthetic objects, dingy street scenes, junk lumber. So not only is Kennedy calling identity into question, he is also subverting the idea of a conventional aesthetic and the relative value of objects in our society, a subversion that, yes, extends to our identities as people (think: race, ethnicity, social class).

In his artist’s statement, he writes:

He [Kennedy] creates an augmented reality based on his surroundings, documenting various street scenes, walls, fences, detritus, and everyday objects; shooting nearly hundreds of images of the subject matter. They are recreated by tiling the image, printing them out on 8 x 11 or 11 x 17 copy paper, and stitching the individual ‘pixels’ together to form a large-scale print with jagged borders, or an assemblage of an exploded view much like a photographic blueprint. He then opts to affix an actual or facsimile object from the scene to the printed piece, further thwarting our ability to gauge what is ‘real’ versus ‘image’.

One that lends significance to places, objects, and things, elevating them through a process of familiarity. The details noticed become representations of reality. They represent both what they are and something else, at the same time. Such symbols allow for a different way of seeing the self, not as a mirror but as an access point. They act as elements that allow the viewer to explore and possibly complicate the narratives that are firmly affixed in normative presumptions.

This special manner of viewing, human subjectivities and more individualized identifications are seen as something that can become knowable. Anamorphosis is a metaphor for reimagining and expanding on appearances, as well as, overcoming “Otherness”— more in the sense that when someone is seen as less than, or as an object, this perspective can then be appropriated and re-loaded with more poignant meanings that point towards agency and autonomy.

As happens now and then on NC, Kennedy’s statement provoked a conversation (via email), which is really worth reprinting here.

DG: Let me ask you a couple of questions. When you say “less regarded spaces and objects”, what do you mean? And what drew you to such spaces and objects. As I see them, they are the objects and spaces that we pass over in life as unartistic, not aesthetic subjects. It’s kind of a rebellion against an unconsciously accepted conventional aesthetic, to render the “unaesthetic” aesthetic with your art and thus in an extended sense to reshape identity.

One of the guiding stars at NC is the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky who said that the purpose of art was to take the ordinary, the things we pass over in the process of conventional seeing, and process them (make the “strange”) by representing them inside aesthetic form (techniques and structure). His idea was to slow down perception, which has become too conventional. We don’t actually see things anymore.

Dave Kennedy: On “less regarded spaces and objects”: Douglas, what you wrote about objects, spaces, aesthetics and rebellion.. rendering the “unaesthetic” aesthetic to reshape identity is both beautiful, concise, and exactly what I’m pointing to. I would love it if you included this. In addition, here’s how I got to this…

I grew up in a WWII housing project in the Pacific Northwest. Due to a lack of government funding various parts of my neighborhood were left in a constant state of disrepair. “Under Construction” each street block seemed to have many ethnicities represented which was accompanied by a lot of racism bred of misunderstanding.  Personally, my mother is Italian and Eritrean, and my father Native American. So I didn’t look like one ethnic group or another and I would walk these multicultural city blocks alone, looking for someone else like me. It was common for people to make assumptions of what I was: Mexican, Samoan, Black. “What are you?!” My response to these objectifying guesses and questions is embedded in my practice and my exploration of an expanded view into unseen subjectivities.

Growing up in these spaces where other people did not want me to be. Places in various states of repair and ruin, provided me with a playground where I could escape this bias and bigotry. Lately I’ve been returning to these memories and attempting to reveal the marvelous that is often hidden in the aspects of life that we find quite ordinary while extending the availability of alternate roles to the subjects, places and objects I am finding.

On “reshaping identity”: First, thank you. It’s quite a distinction to be “fitting in” with Viktor Shklovsky…  Andrei Tarkovsky once wrote: “The goal for all art – is to explain to the artist himself and to those around him what [a human] lives for, what is the meaning of [their] existence. To explain to people the reason for their appearance on this planet; or if not to explain, at least to pose the question.”

The action of deconstructing spaces and objects — these images, with my camera and then adhering the tiled photo copy sections back together feels like a performance of investigation that culminates in a space for meditation. The photocopy allows me to physically take apart the image and put it back together. I do this in part because I believe that social constructs are stories that can be taken apart and told differently.

We need an alternative definition of reality. One that allows us to reconsider the beliefs that we bring to what we see.

The details that I notice become representations of my reality. They represent both what they are and something else, at the same time. Such symbols, in my opinion, allow for a different way of seeing the self, not as a mirror but as an access point. They act as elements that allow the viewer to explore and possibly complicate the narratives that are firmly affixed in normative presumptions.

Within my process — this special manner of viewing, human subjectivities and more individualized identifications are seen as something that can become knowable. Anamorphosis is a metaphor for reimagining and expanding on appearances and overcoming “Otherness”— more in the sense that when someone is seen as less than, or as an object, this perspective can then be appropriated and re-loaded with more poignant meanings that point towards agency and autonomy.

—dg & Dave Kennedy

Kennedy Something fully itselfSomething fully itself
(photocopies, yellow stick, orange straw, wood scrap, pencil, brick, adhesive mound and blue cap. 108″ x 81″)

Something fully itself_detail_1Something fully itself (detail 1)

Something fully itself_detail_2Something fully itself (detail 2)


Dusty teal stick and trapezoid paper objectsDusty teal stick and Trapezoid (constructed photocopies of various dimensions)

Dusty teal stick and Trapezoid_detail_1Dusty teal stick and Trapezoid (detail 1)

Dusty teal stick and Trapezoid_detail_2Dusty teal stick and Trapezoid (detail 2)


Framed between two othersFramed between two others
(photocopies, wood scraps, duct tape, tape, light grey tube, blue cap and rusty clip. 113″ x 73″)

Framed between two others_detail_1Framed between two others (detail 1)

Framed between two others_detail_2Framed between two others (detail 2)


Burgandy and White stripe paper objectBurgundy and White stripe (Constructed photocopies of various dimensions)

Burgundy and White stripe_detail_1Burgundy and White stripe (detail)


Almond Fudge SupremeAlmond Fudge Supreme (Constructed photocopies. 28″ x 40″)

06.Almond Fudge Supreme_detail_1 500pxAlmond Fudge Supreme (detail)


Crescent moon and white circle on rectangleCrescent moon and white circle on rectangle
(Constructed photocopies of various dimensions)

Crescent moon and white circle on rectangle_detail_1Crescent moon and white circle on rectangle (detail)


Black Raspberry delightBlack Raspberry delight (Constructed photocopies. 28″ x 40″)

Black Raspberry delight_detail_1Black Raspberry delight (detail 1)

Black Raspberry delight_detail_2Black Raspberry delight (detail 2)

—Dave Kennedy
September 7th – October 1st
6007 12th Ave S
Seattle WA 98108



Dave Kennedy_likeliness of an appearanceDave Kennedy at Kinnear Space (The likeliness of an appearance)

Photos: Courtesy of Joe Freeman

Dave Kennedy has recently worked as Co-Director and Visiting Lecturer for the University of Washington’s Art in Spain program. He is a recipient of the 4Culture Individual Project Award, as well as Artist Trust’s Grants for Artists Projects, the Joanne Bailey Wilson Endowed Scholarship, and the Vermont Studio Center Fellowship. Kennedy has recently served on Seattle Art Museum’s Blueprint Roundtable panel and has participated as a guest lecturer at the Henry as an intro to their “Out [O] Fashion” Show curated by Deb Willis. He has prepared multimedia presentations for the Society of Photographic Educators, Cornish College of the Arts, and the University of Washington on topics of marginalization and objectification. He received his MFA from the University of Washington in Interdisciplinary Arts and an undergraduate degree from Western Washington University in Visual Communication. Kennedy is currently working as the Visual Arts Coordinator at the Vermont Studio Center while continuing to be an active member of Photo Center Northwest and COCA in Seattle, WA. His works have exhibited both locally and internationally at such venues as the GGibson Gallery, Photo Center Northwest, Zhou B Art Center, Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center, Escuela de Belle Arte in Spain, and the Seattle Art Museum’s Gallery.

Artist site:



Jul 052016

IMG_7893_2Rikki Ducornet scroll detail.

IMG_7601Rikki Ducornet scroll detail.

McDonald inspired by Ducornet 2 (1)Margie McDonald sculpture inspired by Ducornet’s scrolls.


DucornetRikki Ducornet & Margie McDonald

The magical Margie McDonald and I have only just begun working on an installation that as yet has no name — but that I think of as CRAZY HAPPY because that’s the way I feel around Margie. She works with copper wire and other sumptuous and often eccentric refuse from the Port Townsend boatyard, creating whimsical, erotic and even hilarious sculptures that this time around are intended to inform an entire forest of my paper scrolls (the ones you see here are 25′ long) with their shadows as well as their forms. In other words, CRAZY HAPPY owes something to choreography and something to an ongoing and animated conversation between her work and mine.

The show opens at Port Townsend’s spacious Northwind Arts Center in July of 2017 and, in March of 2018, travels to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to occupy Carmen Gutierrez’s surrealist gallery Casa Diana, its marvelous spaces designed by the artist Pedro Friedeberg. The scrolls glimpsed here were painted during a month’s residency at The Vermont Studio Center this past March. Other images include Margie’s early responses to my scrolls, her piles of great stuff, my own photos of junk and such things that spark the process.

—Rikki Ducornet

The Scrolls


The Inspirations (from Margie McDonald’s studio material)

Margie McDonald Work Inspired by the Scrolls

Margie McDonald Sculptures


The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

Deeply informed by the traditional crafts from her native Newfoundland, Margie McDonald received a BFA in Textile Arts from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Margie was an art teacher in Newfoundland for 6 years before setting off on adventures including living on rickety old sailboat in the Caribbean, sailing across the Atlantic and commercial fishing and running a grizzly viewing camp in Alaska. While apprenticing to a yacht rigger in Port Townsend beginning in 1998, she learned to splice steel wire and added newly mastered techniques to her textile education to begin creating her inimitable sculpture. She prefers to work with recycled materials often found at scrap yards where interesting metal objects and various wire will inspire her organic sculptures that evolve through construction rather than a preconceived plan. She has been the Artist in Residence for the Port Townsend High School since 2008 and is the Artistic Director for the Port Townsend Wearable Art Show. Margie’s many solo and juried shows include the Britannia Copper Museum in British Columbia, (2012) and the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (2013). Twice a finalist in the coveted New Zealand Museum of Wearable Art’s yearly international show (2013, 2014), her piece ‘Wired” was retained for museum display and on view throughout the following year. Her work can be found at Simon Mace Gallery in Port Townsend and at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.


Jul 042016

photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016Eric More, photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2016

The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime. — Eric Moe


Eric Moe (1954) is a contemporary American composer and pianist whose work rests quite comfortably upon the traditional classical concert stage. It’s also work which is filled with a lively post-modern intelligence that dazzles and surprises. His musical compositions teem with lyric moments, never far from laughter, or bright-eyed despair. Consider, for example, On the Tip of My Tongue, his sonata for bass clarinet and synthesizer, which invites the listener both to feel the pulsing rhythm of the performer’s tongue against the reed of the instrument, as well as the stammer implied by the title idiom; or listen to some of his percussion works, such as Danger: Giant Frogs, or Gong Tormented with their evocative titles (the first from a sign Moe spotted, and remembered; the second a fragment from Yeats’ Byzantium) and their thrillingly intimate clamor. He’s alert to the textures and timbres he skillfully skeins through the framework he’s created, as well as the implied context of the listeners’ own association with the instrument; see, for instance, I Have Only One Itching Desire, which draws from drummer Mitch Mitchell’s work with Jimi Hendrix. Like a practiced storyteller, Moe can launch a series of subtle echoing patterns before surprising the listener with abruptly garish amusements, or follow a line of jazz-inspired riffs to a sudden, wrenchingly vulnerable, conclusion.

Eric Moe’s OBEY YOUR THIRST, excerpt — Mari Kimura, violin

From Harmonic Constellations: Works for Violin and Electronics

Moe is a skilled pianist and performer as well as a composer. His music conveys a physical awareness that the piano is both a string and a percussion instrument. He’s also an avid hiker, at home in the outdoors; like many of his Romantic predecessors, much of his inspiration comes from the natural world. Edmund Burke famously distinguished between the Sublime and the Beautiful. Of these two, Beauty has garnered the most praise, but it’s the Sublime that sustains Moe’s interest. Of course, as has been famously observed, it’s but a short step from the Sublime to the Ridiculous, a hazard which, Moe might suggest, could enhance the experience. There’s often a playful sense of danger about his work, nothing of the sartorial remove that’s so often the case with postmodern work.

It’s not surprising that Moe should be linked with another postmodernist, the masterful David Foster Wallace, whose short story, “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko,” Moe used as a libretto in his sit-trag one-woman opera TRI-STAN. Like Wallace, Moe seeks for new ways in, to write music that will both express and convey the depth of emotional experience in a way that’s genuinely meaningful to audiences today. Like Wallace, Moe’s music is always reminding us, “Alas, we no longer get to say ‘Alas’ with a straight face…”

I met Eric and his wife, the artist Barbara Weissberger, in residence at the Ragdale Foundation, where this interview was conducted as we strode across a muddy prairie at dusk.

Carolyn Ogburn: When we talked about doing this interview together, you suggested the Sublime. That might seem like an oddly dated word to use for your music, which I find anything but dated: it’s intense, fresh, consistently surprising, smart and frequently funny as hell. Can you tell me more about what you mean by Sublime?

Eric Moe: The thing that’s always interested me in music as an art form, and what it delivers reliably that I don’t get from other art forms is: when you hear something and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or a shiver runs down your spine or you forget to breathe for a while, and you feel chills…that’s what I’m talking about. That experience, that’s what I mean by Sublime.

As a performer you want to induce that, to bring an audience to that, and as a composer trying to make that happen – well, it’s quite a nifty trick, when you can pull it off. And so, I was interested in that.

CO: Well, how do you do that? That nifty trick…?

EM: I think the reason why music is so much better at inducing the Sublime is that it’s so much better (than other art forms) at organizing time, in a very controlled flow. I mean, sure, when you’re reading a novel, things happen in a sequence, but the exact timing of the words: that’s determined by the reader, whether it’s being read aloud or silently…. In the visual arts you’re scanning a 2-D work or a sculpture, it’s very dispersed, you can’t really control how events unfold. And you really can do that with music.

And as a result I think you can tap into that experience of the Sublime more readily because it has a lot to do with surprise –

CO: Ah! See, I did not expect you to say that! (laughter) And that can provoke laughter out of – well, is it humor? is it surprise? I really found myself laughing out loud when I was listening to your music earlier today. But why was I laughing? Why do we laugh at musical devices: Is it because I know that there IS a joke? To signal that “I’m in on this” – or is a laughter that’s a burst of surprise? But it is funny!

EM: Well, I think humor is also dependent on surprise. When you said, “The ridiculous and the sublime” – I mean, those are pretty closely related actually. Because, you know, for a joke, you expect one thing to be the outcome and the punchline reveals that there’s a twist –

CO: –something outsized, something out of proportion. How do you do that?

EM: Oh, we have our ways…(laughs) I like to set up rhythmic landscapes, where you expect things to roll along a certain way. And then I like to pull the rug out from underneath. That moment of “Ooooh…!”

CO: But, when you talk about surprise – as a composer, that has got to be planned, but as an experiential…you can’t set out to encounter the sublime. You can prepare yourself, but – it’s not a contrivance. That’s part of it, right – it’s out of your control?

Well, yes, there are a couple of definitions – well, historically, there are various definitions, but two of them imply the surprise element.

Longinus, or Pseudo-Longinus, was the first to write about it. His treatise, in the first century CE, something like that, his writing was lost and rediscovered by Boileau in the 17th century. He talks about the sublime as being like a thunderbolt. And his examples tend to be jarring metaphors that verge on the ridiculous. And in fact, if you just push them a little more, they DO become ridiculous.

CO: The Sublime as extreme? That was a big Romantic obsession, for sure. Ideas, being pushed kind of…over the edge…So, when you are talking about humor and surprise, is that a covert way of disclosing the mouse marimba behind the scenes?

EM: (laughing) No, no…I didn’t think expectation, or suspense…I mean I always knew that you toy with feelings of expectation, and you either satisfy or you frustrate, and you can produce a lot of tension or power that way. I didn’t know why that was so, why that could produce Sublime effects, until I started reading the works of this musicologist/cognitive psychologist named David Huron who dissected the whole apparatus of expectation and anticipation. He makes a very compelling argument that any organism, evolutionarily, has a huge advantage of survival if it can predict the future, and how well it predicts the future. So we’re evolved to anticipate outcomes. And then, when something’s coming up, we feel a rise in the tension. As we reach that moment, the moment when something happens, we have an instinctive response as we know whether our prediction was accurate or not. And after all that is done, much more slowly, we have a conscious appraisal of what just happened.

For example, a snake crossing the path, like it did when I was hiking in Yellowstone with Barbara one year, and I – well, I just jumped. I didn’t think about it; no thinking involved there. But then I looked at the snake: it didn’t have rattles, it wasn’t poisonous, and then I wanted to look at it. So – it’s unexpected. I had an immediate response: I’d failed to anticipate (the snake) so I had a negative feeling about that. I had a bolt of adrenaline, and so I jumped. Then, after I jumped and I could see that the snake wasn’t a poisonous variety, this initial response was followed by “Oooh, that’s pretty cool. What kind of snake was that?”

CO: And was that interest sort of proportional to your level of surprise, do you think?

EM: Yes, yes, I probably enjoyed the snake more having gone through that business ahead of time. it’s kind of a complex stew of …whatever kind of neurotransmitters are flooding your system. That’s how surprise parties are supposed to work, right? They’ve actually videotaped people – the victims! – at surprise parties, and at the moment of the surprise there’s this look of terror (unless, of course, they knew it all along and they have anticipated it) and then after that, it’s supposed to be very pleasurable. For people with a strong startle reflex like me, it would – I would never get over being pissed off – but most people, I think, get over that surprise and then enjoy the party much more. So I think you can exploit something like this in art music because it has complexity built into it…

For most people, utter predictability is also very pleasurable. Tension is built up but we really know exactly what’s going to happen, and we get it, and it’s fine, no surprises, that’s good, and we can feel good about that.

CO: You do a good job of establishing a language that’s accessible from the start; it sets up expectations for the listener from the start, which is good, right, because if you don’t then…there’s less context for surprise.

EM: There’s a couple of kinds of expectations. There’s what they call schematic expectations, which is based on all the pieces of music you know about or have heard and you have a set of expectations based on that. And then you have expectations built on the specific piece you’re listening to, which are called veridical expectations. I think both of those work in a piece of art music.

But it’s more powerful when you can engage the schematic expectation. So if you’re evoking a Latin beat or a rock and roll riff, then you’ve got a certain set of expectations tied in with that.

For instance, in TRI-STAN, my big one-woman opera, a setting of a story by David Foster Wallace, there’s a cool moment where a skewed but very recognizable quotation of Isolde’s Liebestod is nearing its grand climax. I pile on a quotation of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. theme (this is all implicit in DFW’s text, by the way). And then, just as you’ve absorbed that’s going on, I throw on top a progression from the intro to the last movement of Mahler’s 6th. Big, big tension. And what happens next? The drum set rips into a boogaloo beat, and the piece goes careening toward the gruesome/funny climax of the sit-trag. So I’m messing with schematic expectations, but at the same time, this spot of time is foreshadowed by smaller things earlier in the piece. So veridical expectation is involved as well, and is in happy conflict with the schematic.

Eric Moe Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

Eric Moe
Photo: Barbara Weissberger, 2015

CO: You use such intensity of rhythm in your music. But at the same time, there’s an emotional content that’s kind of overwhelming at times. That one piece, Gong Tormented. The loneliness. I mean, I could have easily been projecting – but you don’t know, without words –

EM: I think we access (emotions) most directly without words. In that case I wasn’t setting out to write about loneliness, but it’s a serious piece…there are the sounds of the instruments themselves; the rhythm doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is always lots of pitch information in the various instruments. I notated that (pitch information) with some degree of precision.

CO: When you feel that shiver down your spine – who are some of the people who make you feel that way?

EM: Oh, well, Beethoven. He didn’t invent it, but he was certainly pursuing it. All of the great composers have their moments. Mahler, or Wagner, for instance, do it with pure volume of sound; with huge volume one minute and a solo instrument the next. Bud Powell does it through sheer velocity and rhythmic exuberance. Judith Weir, with grim pitiless humor and flawless timing. David Del Tredici, by casting longing glances back at 19th century evocations of the Sublime. Igor Stravinsky, not afraid to have the goofy, surreal, and exalted in the same piece (see Oedipus Rex). And so on.

CO: Like a shift in the landscape?

EM: Yes. And I would say, you know, nature plays a large role in my thoughts of the Sublime. I’ve got a lot of titles that are inspired by the natural world. I spend a lot of time outside…it’s a source of Sublime moments. I like to think about the difference – what’s the correspondence between looking down a 3000-foot vertical drop and one of those great moments in music that I like. The physical response is actually quite similar. “Holy shit!” (laughs)

There’s an anticipation as you’re getting to the top of a mountain. You have a sense of what it’s going to be. But it’s always really surprising. It’s never exactly as you imagined. And it’s always more than your brain can cope with. A panoramic vista, or when you can’t process the depth of field that you’re looking down through.

CO: Because of scale?

EM: Yeah. In mountains, yes. In music, sometimes it’s scale – like in Mahler, or Wagner. You’ve got a 5-hour piece, and suddenly you find the moment that the whole piece has been leading up to, and it’s literally a huge moment. It’s all been orchestrated. Literally and figuratively…

CO: Mahler was a big hiker wasn’t he?

EM: Yes, he spent the summer in the mountains. But what we’re really talking about, getting into the Burkean Sublime, where he (Edmund Burke) was talking about associating it with this feeling of terror at the immensity…

Wait, let me get this. I always travel with this.

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror.”

I just love that quote. And people these days are very critical of that, that idea of the sublime, they prefer Kant’s which is just the inability of the imagination to wrap itself around anything, and that’s certainly part of it. But the experience in music and a mountain landscape that I get is certainly more akin to that (quote).

CO: All the predictabilities are suspended – inertia. having been in motion suddenly not. Astonishment, and with some degree of horror…I think both the word horror, and the word astonishment – they meant something at that time, don’t you think? Different than they do now…

EM: Looking it up, I find that the Latin meaning of horror is “a bristling, a shaking, trembling as with cold or fear, terror,” which corresponds nicely with the kind of frisson that the Sublime evokes in many people. The psychologist/musicologist Huron that I was talking about goes further and actually connects surprise and astonishment with the flight or fight response, saying that with the interesting claim that laughter as a reaction to the unexpected is based on the flight response, that laughter is based on panting. Supercharging your oxygen capacity so that you can outrun your competitor, and that laughter is the aestheticized version of that. And that the sense of the sublime and chills is like a cat fluffing itself up, making itself larger, as a means of defending itself against an unexpected source of danger.

CO: What do you think?

And to me, neither of those definitions goes anywhere near explaining why we have the degree of auditory acuity that we have, the fine pitch differentiation. We have ridiculously more than we would need for language, much more than we would ever need for survival skills.

CO: Really? I’m surprised at that.

EM: Like for survival skills, it would be useful to hear much higher pitches, and lower pitches, than we actually can. but within the narrow range that we can hear. we can make out very fine difference in pitch. You can split a half-step into at least 12 parts and still make out the difference in pitch.

Rousseau thought we were singing before language was developed. And you hear children talking that way. They’ll sing the language.

CO: Your undergraduate degree was in music composition, as well as your graduate work. You must have known for a long time that you wanted to be a composer. What drew you to composition?

EM: I didn’t start writing music until I was in college. Before then, I sort of sight-read my way through Western music literature – not just piano music; I was also reading scores, hacking through best I could; songs, opera to some extent – and I started with Bach. Bach was my first love. Then I moved up, pretty much in chronological order: Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Schoenberg…and then at some point I was running out, and I was hungry for more. And I wasn’t entirely satisfied with what there was, so, at that point, I figured it was time to write it myself.

CO: It sounds like you’re talking about playing your way through – like a voracious reader – but as a pianist, that’s not what one did. One would get the next piece one wanted to play and you would perfect it….

EM: That’s why I didn’t go to a conservatory… (laughs)

CO: But reading your way through, that must be how you got a sense of the composer’s language, of the composer himself as a person, rather than just the magnificence of any given piece…

EM: I like context. I do that when I’m reading writers too. If I find something that I’m reading that I like, I’ll read everything that person has published everything I can get my hands on…

It’s important to have context. I hate anthologies for that reason. The best whatever of 1997…it’s like, who cares? It’s hard for me to get excited about reading (things like that…) Unless you know the writers that are being excerpted, it’s far less interesting for me than getting the whole picture of the creator’s work, so as to have more to relate it to.

CO: Like establishing expectations in order to cultivate room for surprise?

EM: Yeah, that’s true. There’s sort of the grand schematic thing of the culture at large, then the ones specific to that story, and this sort of fills the gap between those.

CO: You’re clearly an avid reader. But it was music that you were called to tinker around with.

EM: That’s because writing is really hard. I don’t know how anybody does that. It’s just …tortuous…Words. Words! You write them and then everyone knows what they mean. They’re so hard. And also, then they mean something. Then you’re just…(laughs) You can’t just create a grand emotional effect and leave it to the listener to puzzle over the “why”. It’s interesting to read late Romantic writers on music and see how much range of semantic meaning they’ll ascribe to the same piece. I’ve had wildly divergent responses to pieces of mine – I remember one piece that was “so violent and tragic” to one listener and equally “energetic and joyful” to another.

CO: I want to get back to land. I just talked to two composers, both of them immersed in thoughts about climate collapse. Do you find yourself responding to that in your work?

EM: Well, yeah. I’m actually working on a piece with the tentative title of Buffalo Jump. Based on what the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes would do before the Spanish introduced horses to the New World: they would drive a herd of buffalo off a cliff, counting on the terrified herd to blindly follow the spooked lead animals; and it seems that as a species we’re – out of fear and being herded out of our interests and short-sightedness…

CO: When we talk about surprise in your pieces, so far there’s been a sense of thrill about it. But when we’re talking about buffalo riding off a cliff…

EM: Well, there’s one thing I should mention about the Sublime. The terror? It involves surviving. (laughs) It’s that appraisal stage, which is: I’m okay, this is a piece of music. 

CO: Then what do you do when you’re facing this – giant thing coming? For example, we were talking earlier about your hikes in Glacier National Park, and the glaciers there, and everywhere, well, they’re disappearing. They’re melting, because of climate collapse.

EM: I go there every summer. Every summer, the glaciers are a little smaller. And it’s very sad. I mean, it’s really sad. And a lot of my music is very sad. or has a deep sadness. Even the funny pieces, a melancholy, an elegiac moment…

CO: The history of sublime – well, there’s the horror. And there are plenty of things we can look at today that involve that sense of horror…

EM: Yeah, yeah…(laughing) well, so far, it’s been…well, the opera I just finished, The Artwork of the Future, is a comic opera about extinction. The human race has become extinct and our two heroes find that they’ve traveled 300 years into the future, and they want to see if their art has survived and yes, it has, but there are no people left. There are just robots. So then, is this a good thing or a bad thing? They eventually decide that it’s a bad thing. They want to know how this has happened, so they ask the robots, how it happened. and the robots were like…(shrugs) “They were busy looking at their phones…”

CO: “Adult coloring books came out, so…” (laughing) Here’s another question that’s been on my mind recently. Do you find yourself in conversation with other composers who are also thinking about the condition of culture…

EM: You know, I Have Only One Itching Desire – that’s based on Hendrix’s drummer, from the Experience. There are a bunch of licks from his – I mean, not all of it, but there are some moments where I’m evoking him, in particular. Mitch Mitchell. He’s a great drummer.

So all of that’s fair game. And then for those people who know what you’re referencing, it’s great to have that to bounce off of in terms of creating expectations, then you have a lot more material to play around with in terms of comic effect.

CO: I was struck by the piece you wrote for violinist Mari Kimura who developed a method of playing subharmonics. How did you incorporate that particular trick into the writing? Was it different than other commissioned works?

EM: She commissioned a piece that would make use of that. I was happy to do it. I finally figured out what was going on acoustically with the subharmonics, but before I did I had the idea of carefully setting up the listener’s first encounter with the sound – the first time you’ve heard anything that low-pitched or growly in the piece – or from a violin, ever. It’s an octave below the lowest note of the instrument and it comes a good ways into the piece. It’s like the jaws of Hell opening up when it’s combined with a pitch-shifted springdrum roar.

CO: It’s a really intense piece, one which pairs the violist with a recorded sound, and the two constantly interact…

EM: The idea of the piece was the Sprite (soft drink) slogan, Obey your thirst, which this ecopoeticist (Timothy Morton) whose work I was looking at pointed out that this was making a bottle of pop into a bottle of thirst. So the idea was that the violinist would be running after the tape part –

CO: Oh, like the ad! So if you’re literally ‘obeying your thirst’ and your thirst is a bottle of pop, and a pop is a bottle of thirst…it’s very koan-esque.

EM: Yes, well and then there is another Sublime moment been a very furious piece, it keeps getting more and more intense, and then everything turns into this very very sad closing section…Which took me by surprise, when I was writing it. I like that too. Because it’s a lot more fun, to not know what’s going to happen in a piece even as its creator.

CO: That’s why we do it, right? At some point in the process, you start to think about the way another person might experience it, their possible response. You put little messages, right? Little jokes to the reader, the listener, the performer – and that level of communication adds another level of tension, or intellectual engagement. Or would you call it an emotional engagement?

EM: Well, yeah – I mean, Stravinsky famously said, “I write for myself not for the hypothetical other.” When I read that, that seemed to resonate.

I have to imagine that others will have a response similar to my own – if it thrills me, there’s at least a fighting chance that another person will be thrilled as well. Commercial hackwork, on the other hand…

CO: Right. Relies on predictability, easy to hear, easy to understand. Keeping within a pretty defined set of parameters, based on whatever’s popular at the moment. But to be really unpredictable, as well as popular…

EM: Your unpredictable moments would have to be totally predictable. I mean, if you look at a horror movies, for example, which have a lot of what you might think of as Sublime effects, they mitigate the actual feeling of terror because you know exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, like in Psycho, Janet Leigh takes a shower, someone’s going to stab her.

CO: I don’t watch a lot of horror films but when I do, I’m always struck by the amount of jokes in them. Like there is a need, somehow, to affirm the viewer that they are “in” on the joke, somehow.

EM: I don’t watch them. The terror gets to me. But you’re right.

CO: There’s something uniquely human about that sense of the Sublime, is what it feels like you’re saying. Something that places you very squarely within the place of human. In your place in the world, and that place is small. And it gives you an interpretation of the rest of the world from your size, which is astonishing and mixed with fear.

EM: You’re small but you have eyes and you have ears and they are open. So you know that there’s more out there, and you’re trying to cram it all in to your small brain…

CO: Being both more and less confined to the space you think of yourself as taking up…that’s the laughter, isn’t it?

EM: Yes. The Sublime is more life-affirming. Ultimately, Citizen’s United gets overturned, that balance of power can be restored, then things will improve. But that’s going to take a lot of collective effort.

But creating instances of the Sublime: that is something we can do as individuals.

Eric Moe and Carolyn Ogburn


Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory. UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, and recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

Jun 032016

LMB-11Dilasa is ten years old. She was born in a Nepali refugee camp and came to the United States when she was five. Her parents are Bhutanese refugees.

The white gray rubble light blinds me, wait, I just thought—what if this is not visible, what if all this is not visible.
—Juan Felipe Herrera, United States Poetry Laureate
I Am Merely Posing for a Photograph

Lynne Browne is a workaholic. She is the web coordinator at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She has a straightforward manner of speaking and a brilliant wit. People like her. People like her instantly. Largely because they know they can trust her. They can trust her because she does not bullshit them. She does not have time in her fast-paced world for such nonsense. She thrives in this fast-paced world. She is a leader and a go-getter. When she does something, she does it to the N-th degree. And her passion is photography.

The combination of Lynne’s approachability and her amazing technical skill with the camera and computer results in portraiture of unequalled intensity. In hectic settings, she is able to capture the lyric moment. Intimacy is achieved quickly, even in situations where there is a language barrier. I find this quite magical. The seduction of her candid friendliness and competence leave little room for even the thought of a “no.” And in response to Herrera’s poem, yes, one can certainly see the wound — coupled with hope — in the eyes of the children and youths Lynne photographs. In the worn faces of the aged, where one would expect only the “rubble,” Lynne is able to find also the underlying joy and pride.

I’ve asked Lynne to speak of the evolution of her personal ongoing project photographing refugees in her hometown region, Utica, NY (“The Town That Loves Refugees”), where she is making a difference with the images she creates. Herrera recently encouraged an audience at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs to “use their own natural and sincere voice to become who they fully are,” and just so, both the artist and the muse reveal themselves in these stunning photographs.

Lynne M. Browne at two.

LMB: It was by chance that I began a long-term project of photographing international refugees who live in the Mohawk Valley. In 2012 my anthropologist colleague, Dr. Kathryn Stam asked me to take photographs of her refugee friends who were performing at a local music festival. I’m so glad I agreed; I didn’t realize that event would lead to many more exciting experiences.

LMB-2Guman is Bhutanese-Nepali

I have loved images since I was a child, as seen in attached snapshot of me at the tender age of two. The twinkle in my eye and the big grin foretell my future as an image-maker. On my 13th birthday I received my very own camera – a Kodak Trimlite Instamatic. I could see what it was through the wrapping paper and couldn’t contain my excitement. There was an attempt to limit the number of photos I could take based on the roll of film, but that didn’t stop me. I babysat until I saved enough money to buy in bulk and then mailed multiple rolls away for developing.

I progressed to a 35mm camera in my senior year of high school as one of the yearbook photographers, documenting all the critically important activities of student life. In college I took my required photography class with a Pentax K1000 borrowed from my grandfather. I now shoot digital: DSLRs; mirrorless; point and shoot; and phone; and have a love/hate relationship with the limitless number of photos I can take!

My images tend toward photojournalism with elements of portraiture. In most cases, I’m shooting photographs at events where many, many things are happening at once. Dr. Stam and friends from the Midtown Utica Community Center (MUCC) showcase their different cultures through performances at Fort Stanwix, the Utica Zoo, Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC), SUNY Polytechnic Institute and other venues. I think the largest event that I’ve attended was the Karen New Year celebration at MVCC this past January where the Utica Don Dancers performed as one of several groups from across New York State. They practice many hours at the MUCC to get their routine as close to perfect as possible.

LMB500-3Members of the Utica Don Dancers go to many cultural events in the area and perform the traditional Karen New Year dance. KuSay (pictured) is Karen, from Burma.

LMB-4More from the traditional Karen New Year dance.
Tun Tun Win (pictured) is Karen, from Burma.

At these events, there are various groups of performers, some on stage, those who are waiting in the wings, and those who have just finished their performances. With so many performers and audience members present, I wander around the venue to see who might be willing to let me take their photograph. I feel that I am recognized as a friend now, and I have a unique opportunity, even when there is a language barrier. I love it when a younger person interprets for an elder.

In most cases we are right near all the action of the festivities, including dancers whirling around and musicians playing. By cropping in-camera, I’m able to capture what I think is an intimate moment between my subject and me. I don’t have a lot of time with each person, just a couple of minutes at most. Because my background is in public relations, I feel the portrait should remain as close to reality as possible, and believe in making minimal edits.

People wonder what I do with the many photographs that I take, and for the most part, I share them with the group I’ve photographedon social media for example, so they in turn can share them with their friends and families. There have also been a few public projects where we have used the photos. One major undertaking recently completed was a group of large banners featuring my photos along with information about refugees as part of Dr. Stam’s Refugees Starting Over project.

The banners were created to be easily transported to various functions and to help foster relationships between the refugees and local communities. One of their first appearances was at an event held at the Utica Zoo. Everyone from the refugee community was so excited to search the banners for images of themselves and their friends! The banners include text from the United Nations, defining a refugee: “Any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Born in the U.S., Shayal is Bhutanese-Nepali.
He has a tikka on his forehead, which is a Hindu blessing in Nepal.

LMB500-7Monisha came to the United States in 2014 from a refugee camp in Jhapa, Nepal. Her family occupied one of the lower social groups in the Hindu caste system, but converting to Christianity and coming to the U.S. freed her family from the discrimination of their former position. Monisha is a high school student and loves traditional Nepali and contemporary Hindi-style dance. This photograph was taken only a few days after her arrival.

The most significant exhibition of my work, titled Portraits of Hope: The faces of refugee resettlement in CNY, will take place in June 2016 at Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute in Utica, NY. This exhibit is a collaboration with Dr. Stam, using my photos along with her narrative about those featured in the portraits. The combination of the two will help viewers better understand each person’s story, and hopefully appreciate what some refugees endure before coming to the US.

While I am extremely excited about this opportunity, it really is a companion piece to the main attraction at MWAPI, featuring the work by internationally renowned National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry.

When I was growing up I loved to look at all of the exotic places featured in National Geographic, and thought it would be such an amazing job to travel the world taking photos of the things I encountered. Imagine my joy when I was introduced to people from around the world who now live in my own backyard and are willing to let me photograph them. And to top it all off, have my photographs tell this local story in one of my favorite places!

This ongoing project has opened my eyes to the Mohawk Valley’s refugee population. Approximately one in five people living in Utica today is a refugee. And, more than 15,000 refugees have come through the Refugee Center since 1982. Utica is a true melting pot with the fourth largest concentration of refugees in the United States and close to 40 languages spoken in the Utica school district.

LMB500-8Layla is a teenager from Somali-Bantu who has a quick wit and wants to be a model some day; she commands a room when she is present.

LMB-9Amina (L) and Zeinabu (R) are Somali-Bantu refugees who were resettled to Utica from one of the largest and most dangerous refugee camps in the world, Daadab in Kenya. They have been in the U.S. for approximately 14 years and are now high school students and fans of Korean drama and K-pop, Korean popular music.

I realize that I have only scratched the surface, and I look forward to future opportunities to photograph people who have found a home where they can feel safe enough to share their cultures with others. This is such a timely subject, seen almost daily in national and international news stories, including this one from the PBS NewsHour featuring Utica, How refugee resettlement became a revival strategy for this struggling town, and I am thrilled that I have had the opportunity to share their stories.

LMB-10This portrait was taken while three generations of women were enjoying cultural performances and visiting exhibits at the Utica Zoo.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski & Lynne M. Browne



Lynne Browne is the web coordinator and a photographer at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, NY. She has an AAS degree in Advertising Design from Cazenovia College, a BS degree in Professional and Technical Communication and an MS degree in Information Design and Technology, from SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lynne Browne Designs website


A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Apr 022016

Circling Raven Prophecy, Kay O’Rourke


This writing project began as a flash of an idea when I first saw artist Kay O’Rourke’s series of thirty paintings, The River Remembers, in Spokane’s Marmot Gallery. I thought how great it might be to have a collection of written somethings to go with these artworks that depict the history of the Spokane River Gorge. My sense was the somethings shouldn’t detract or distract from Kay’s gorgeous paintings. If the writings somehow paid homage to the paintings, I mused—perhaps by taking the same shape (Ah, yes, that magical, sometimes mystical SQUARE!), and if they weren’t too prissy-looking (as regular lineated poems can often appear)—then maybe just maybe the literary enterprise might indeed complement the visual art.

Of course we were talking about an ekphrastic endeavor, and obviously the writings needed to be prose. As in prose poems. Friends at Spark Center, a tutoring center in my neighborhood, helped bring this crazy idea to life. And of course so did the fabulous area writers who threw themselves into this project with such passion. Some of these were novice writers; some were graduates of or students enrolled in Eastern Washington University’s M.F.A. Program. Several were high school students in the Salish Language School, a school that fosters education in traditional tribal language and culture for local Native American young people. This amazing group of area poets and lovers of our river came together, each taking on a painting or two, and “living in it” creatively, roaming imaginatively among its details and history.

Presented here are eight excerpts from the series of twenty paintings and their accompanying prose companions. So many surprising sources of joy fed into this project: the contemplative moments we all spent with the paintings, the intimate engagement of the writers, the stories that poured forth, the prose poems taking shape before us with such gusto, and the history we all learned together of our town and our river. We are grateful to Kay O’Rourke for these marvels of inspiration. I never dreamed all these unexpected sources of delight would, like small feeder streams, enter the great river.

—Nance Van Winckel


About the Contributors

Kay O'RourkeKay O’Rourke.
Photo Credit: Jon Lepper, Tim Halloran Spokane Creative Life

Artist Kay O’Rourke

I work in oil and mixed media large scale drawings. I also play with found objects, creating artistic narratives. My work is narrative in nature, celebrating moments and memorializing them. The images can be about joy, humour, anger and even sometimes fear. I follow all the rules of good art making but let my inner person take me where I must go.

This last year was spent doing a commission of 30 paintings on the History of the Spokane River Gorge from the beginning of time up to Expo 74. I was commissioned by Jim Frank for Kendall Yards in Spokane these works now hang permanently in the Spark Centre at Kendall Yards. These works still represent my way of using “Majic Realism.” I believe Myth and Folk tales give a better sense of history beyond facts.

I’m drawn to naturalism, lyricism and myth. I consider my work to be “Paw Prints” of my life journey, the creation of myth from the ordinary.

The Writers

Megan Cuilla received her MFA from Eastern Washington University. She lives in Spokane, WA, with her husband and pet rats. Her work has been published in Rock and Sling and Knockout.

Once in a moon Jeffrey Dodd emerges from his bungalow in the foothills of North Spokane, shakes his fist, and returns to prune his shopping list.

Brooke Matson’s first full-length collection of poetry, The Moons, was published by Blue Begonia Press in 2012 and was also included in the 2015 Blue Begonia Press boxed set titled Tell Tall Women. Matson’s poems have appeared in Floating Bridge Review, CALYX, and various issues of RiverLitfor which she was the 2014 Poet in Residence.

Kathryn Smith’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Mid-American Review, Florida Review, Bluestem, Cleaver Magazine, and Ruminate. She was a 2013 artist resident at Holden Village, and her work has been nominated for Best American Poetry and the Pushcart Prize. She has an MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University and lives in Spokane, WA.

These students from Spokane’s Salish School contributed prose pieces: Ryem Abrahamson, Sierra Bates, Danny Boyd, and Shana Ellingburg.


Raven Watching

After the painting Circling Raven Prophecy (#4)

#4Circling Raven Prophecy

See the reflection in my eye? That is you. It is sunset, or is it sunrise? Sometime before now, a tree branch snapped. The teal-tinted feather that covers my ear moves gently as you move. Everything cries out:  the scent of the river. My murder in the sky.  The man at the river’s edge. The men who are coming.

We flew from where we rested and now we circle the water, waiting. I used to believe things would be like this, circling and timeless, the banks of the river lush, alive. Things will change, sometimes in an instant, and sometimes forever. My beak is open as I breathe in. Tomorrow, I must remember today. One of my brothers carries a vine.

—Megan Cuilla


The Flowing Clock

After the painting Spokan Chief Garry (#7)

#7Spokan Chief Garry

As I look down the stream, I see in it the generosity and unconditional love it sheds on my people. As I listen, it whispers along the shore all the uncanny secrets of life. We learn from the river; our way of life is like the river. We appreciate that every deed pours into the vast ocean of unknown; yet we stay as composed as the river floating through the luminous meadow. Giving back to our relations, we exist as the river, the people of this land. But as I look at the clock, I see they’re just like the clock, always ticking, running around in circles, running out of time. I begin to question, what happens to the clock as it drowns into the river? Will it keep ticking? Or muddle in the grasp of the water? The ticking stops, and the water talks. Listen.

*Translation notes: Spokan is Salish spelling of the anglicized Spokane.

— Sierra Bates



After the painting The Indian Wars (#8)

#8The Indian Wars

I am a spirit, who was once a little girl. I thought after death would mean that I would be with the spirits, but when the spirit of death chose me, I was in the clouds, watching over my tribe and my family, until I do something good for my tribe. Then the syapé came, killing our horses and our people, and the spirit of death picked the horses’ spirits one by one.

I looked at the sky, which was red from the blood of the horses. I looked at my grandparents, my grandmother, crying, holding onto my grandfather as tight as she could, my grandfather, crying on my grandmother’s shoulder, wishing that hope could be as big as the sun. But at that time, it seemed that hope was smaller than the palm of his hand.

I promise that the next day, I will make hope bigger than the sun, bigger than anything. Not so that I could be with the spirits, but so there will be happiness in my tribe once again.

—Danny Boyd



After the painting Indian Canyon Falls (#9)

Indian Canyon Falls

Heron watches the Falls

The secret to stillness is to tell yourself a story. Once upon a time there was a face in the falls. I tilt my head to feel the spray. Once upon a time he saw me. I tilt my tilted head, turn a widened eye. I am wondering, a wonder. Once upon a time he wandered. My face faces its own direction, something to do with motionlessness. Something in the water. In the light. Once upon a time a creature ceased flight. It’s something to do with flying forever. I will not disturb the water.

The Falls watch Heron

I am almost not here—cascade of my arms, the way I wear water and water wears me. One heron tilts its head, one leg raised toward…. The men broke camp; the new camp came. Only the horse gave notice. I thought death would be like floating on the water’s face forever. Then the herons came, their blue-gray feathers like a cloak tipped with light, and now I think it’s something to do with perpetual motion. They embody stillness, my opposite (I am ever moving, never constant, ever present). Part of me is water, part is air. I never grow cold.

—Kathryn Smith


Only Lies Remain

After the painting The Hanging of Qualchan (#11)

#11The Hanging of Qualchan

Qualchan is my name. I am strong.

I was surrounded, but I was not defeated.

My wife Whistalks, my brother Lotout, and I were trapped by the white man. They didn’t expect me to go in with my head held high. Nor did I expect them to break our treaty. We were supposed to bring the white flags, but instead they brought rope and deceit. Twenty-seven already gone, and the three of us stand strong while they hold my father hostage. They tricked us. They’re liars! My throat may be snaked with the string of the wrong, but the fire in my heart will never die out. Hi čn yoyot. I am strong.

Tomorrow I must warn my people! Tomorrow I must tell them of the “Indian Land For Sale” and the “Have a Home of Your Own” that will appear on paper directed towards the foreigners of this land.


—Ryem Abrahamson


The Empire Builder’s Lament

After the painting James Jerome Hill (#18)

#18James Jerome Hill

This idle leaves room for the goats to wander and taunt the wiry little dogs whose herding days are short. Not good. And giving the lean-about boys time to relax is not good for their industry or their understanding of provision. Even when we’re still, I’m to keep working out my fear and trembling. This land will never claim its own bounty.

When we move, all dominion moves with us and those boys are lumping coal into the box quicker than my little Lindell runs to fetch his pigs when they get a slop of liberty. We cut through Minnesota and Dakota so fast you could see Providence. Hear His voice calling out from the drive wheels: ta-lith-a cu-mi, ta-lith-a cu-mi, ta-lith-a cu-mi. And the prairie did rise.

Whatever future’s far shore we wash up on, this work multiplies in us like the bunched buffalo grass on the plains. Like Lindell’s little cutlets squeeing all over creation, and the voices boiling up from the steam. The other night, big harvest moon calling us home, I wondered if I’d see them again on this side. Even here, elbows deep in this valve chest, a voice calls cu-mi, and I am yet complete.

—Jeffrey G. Dodd


Four Faces

After the painting Union Depot Demolished (# 28)

#28Union Depot Demolished

I am the silent observer. The beauty of repetition, a stem of possibilities. I am time. I cannot fall. I have to stay strong even though the walls surrounding me are my prison. Keeping me locked away from the outside world. Allowed to look but not touch. That is my punishment.

As the world around me collapses, I remember the very beginning. The people. The plants. The life. The peace. I remember years later, a happy couple boldly dancing on the dirt, sharing their joy with the world. I remember the freedom, back before I was put in my tower, trapped. Now all I see is broken pavement. I don’t know or understand why the world around me collapses. Beneath my numbers, I see destruction. A crashed train, broken cords, a light holding on to all it has left: its color. Red.

I wish I could leave my prison and bravely help the world pick itself back up. I strive to help but no one opens the door to my eternal cage where I am confined.

Tomorrow I will continue to focus on the beautiful repetition and on the way the wind feels on my 365 stones. But today I mourn and put on four faces: strong, bold, brave and fierce. I will prove to the world that not everything can be demolished.

—Shana Ellingburg


The New Season

The Herbert H. Hamblin Conservation Area (# 30)

#30The Herbert H. Hamblin Conservation Area

To live in rivers is to live among mirrors. My family—we are grafted from one another, sprouting along the river rock like lichen. I have mistaken their wings for mine, recog­nized their coal-black beaks dipping among the yarrow and felt my own hunger raise its neck. Once I looked into my own eyes and saw a raging falls, a red stream of salmon twisting like a muscle across the land, a fire running with yellow feet across the bodies of trees.

A moment ago, I floated among the sedges—the ones with roots that taste like the caps of mushrooms—the water smelling of rusted steel. Goslings pushed their tiny bodies across the current, following their mother’s wake like beads of dew running across a spider’s thread. Then I tasted the delicate, warm dust, bitter with the sap of unfamiliar trees. It fell around us like a new season.

Maybe it is the sun pausing like a hot ember in the clouds, or maybe it’s the scent of burnt feathers mingled with pine, but my sister says the word first. My call follows hers—like the goslings following their mother—and then we are all calling with our blackened mouths, the memory lifting us like a many-winged river from the earth. I glide higher among the flock, heart pounding, and as I do, the sun itself flies down to rest on the water—fanning its red wings.

—Brooke Matson


author pic

Nance Van Winckel’s newest book is Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrapbook (Twisted Road, 2014). Book of No Ledge, an altered encyclopedia, will appear with Pleiades Press’s Visual Poetry Series in November 2016. Nance teaches in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in Writing Program and lives in Spokane, WA.


Mar 012016

self-portrait through a keyholeSelf-portrait through a Keyhole: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 7.5″ x 10″



LateafternoonhawkLateafternoonhawk: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 18″ x 12″


nude with 3-urinal chastity beltNude with 3-urinal Chastity Belt: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 5″ x 17″


§Medium walking the Sea of SerenityMedium Walking the Sea of Serenity: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper,11″ x 11″
(Kind of an homage to Chagall)


Succubus Dragging a Shitstorm into the Rear View Mirror FinaleSuccubus Dragging a Shitstorm into the Rear View Mirror:
Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 7.5″ x 10″ (1 of 2 versions)


Museum of Victorian and Ancient ArcheologyWelcome to the Weingarten Museum of Victorian and Ancient Archeology:
Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 12″ x 18″


PasodoblePasodoble: Digital, Pearl Metallic Paper, 4″ x 7.5″

—Roger Weingarten

Roger Weingarten and another NC poet/artist Kate Fetherston are having a two-person show opening this Friday, March 4. The event kicks off at 6pm with reading at Bridgeside Books, 29 Stowe Street, Waterbury, VT, then moves downstreet to Axel’s Gallery, 5 Stowe Street, for art opening—Friday March 4.

See Weingarten’s poems on NC here.

See Kate Fetherston’s poem  & paintings here.


Roger Weingarten, author of ten collections of poetry, and co-editor of eight poetry and prose anthologies, has lectured, taught and read at writers’ conferences, poetry festivals, and universities nationally and internationally. He founded and taught in the MFA in Writing and the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a Louisville Review Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and an Ingram Merrill Foundation Award in Literature. Stranger at Home: American Poetry with an Accent: co-edited with Andrey Gritsman, Interpoezia Press, was published in 2008, Premature Elegy by Firelight by Longleaf Press in 2007, and Open Book: Essays from the Postgraduate Writers’ Conference, co-edited with Kate Fetherston by Cambridge Scholars’ Press in 2007.


Mar 012016

Ivan Seng


Ivan Seng is an astonishingly gifted classical pianist and composer based in Asheville, North Carolina. His concert recitals reflect his wide-ranging interests: Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelsohn, Prokofiev; as well as contemporaries such as composer Kenneth Frazelle, with whom Seng has partnered in concert many times.

He’s a North Carolina native, traveling from his home in Boone to study with Clifton Matthews at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as a boy, then attending the school’s prestigious residential high school program. He left NC to attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where he worked with Joseph Schwartz and Sanford Margolis, and returned to Winston-Salem for graduate study, where he studied composition with Michael Rothkopf in addition to his continued study with Matthews. Seng has won numerous regional awards in both solo and chamber performance, including the College Chamber Music Competition, and was selected to perform in the Asheville Rising Stars concert series. He frequently collaborates with the ensemble Pan Harmonia and other chamber ensembles. When he talks, he bears an air of slight preoccupation, paired with a laser-sharp attention. He’s got a youthful appearance, but speaks as a old-fashioned professor: not in powerpoint bullets but in penciled phrases that are frequently, beautifully, revised mid-clause.

Seng’s compositional interests are deeply immersed in mathematics, in which he finds description of the natural patterns of the universe. Like one of his major influences, the post-World War II composer Iannis Xenakis, who was among the first to use computer programs to compose music, Seng draws his compositional forms not from classical constraints, but through mathematical formulas. As Seng says, “I think it is important to have an emotional relation to these concepts, because it is the universe that we live in. We do live in a universe that’s not ordered. It’s not planetary spheres that orbit each other, in these very harmonious patterns. The heavens are not ordered.”

Xenakis was composing during a time ruptured by two world wars and the rise of totalitarianism in his own country, as well as the hugely influential compositional development that was serialism. Today’s rupture is both social and environmental, and Seng is one of the composers addressing climate collapse in his compositions.

Seng doesn’t talk about himself easily or often, but he graciously agreed to spend several afternoons discussing his compositional process with me following a concert performance of his work, part of a series of house concerts together with other electronic music composers in Asheville. The room had been dimly lit when Ivan took the stage. He explained that he would be premiering five works done using the SuperCollider programming language, gestured to the laptop whose screen was turned to the wall.  He inclined his head, as if taking the pulse of the room, and pressed a button on the computer.


Sounds fell from the screen, single tones, stretched, extended. Clusters, then, a barrage, then – silence. Despite no apparent sense of structure – there was no sign of a theme, no underlying motif to hold these sounds together – there was, nevertheless, a sense of unity to his music. Someone commented, after it was finished, “It was if it were raining, on a tin roof, and the roof receives the rain in a different way, every drop.”

Changes in the musical texture occur in sudden bursts and at a fairly rapid pace. Each burst affects only one musical feature at a time, such as speed, density, tone color, shape, or movement of sound. These happen in fairly rapid succession, and at unpredictable intervals of time.

Carolyn Ogburn:
 It seems to me that being a composer must be in some way like being an architect – well, I was thinking Xenakis, and of course that was his background. He didn’t even study traditional counterpoint and harmony, right? Because he was about 30 when he came to Paris, started working with Le Courbousier as an engineer and draftsman.  Then he tried to find a composition teacher – He tried to study with Nadia Boulanger, and she was like, Nah, I got no time for you – here you are, a 30-year-old beginner, and I’m Nadia Boulanger… so then he finally found Messiaen.

Ivan Seng: I think it was incredibly insightful of Messiaen [not to make Xenakis learn counterpoint.] Xenakis had a lot of mathematical training and a lot of drafting skills. His graphic abilities were incredible. So I think that Messiaen realized that he [Xenakis] could use all the skills he already knew – they were unique, not many musicians had these skills, why force everyone into the traditional mode?

CO: Would you call that modernism?

IS: Yeah! Well, maybe. A late stage of it. We had Schoenberg and Webern and Stravinsky; that was the high point of modernism. Then you’ve got the post-World War II serialism, and (those composers) all studied counterpoint. Boulez was brilliant at counterpoint, traditional tonal counterpoint. You can definitely see influences of contrapuntal thinking in his music. How these out-of-control multiple voices can be moving at the same time. It’s very similar to how they would do it in the Renaissance. I mean the intervals – were maybe not the same [laughing]… He doesn’t choose the consonant intervals as often as he does the dissonant intervals.

Xenakis doesn’t approach it that way. He  actually was very critical of the serialist composers and the kind of complete – the total serialist, and serialism in general. He bases his music on very different principles. Sometimes it sounds similar, but what he realized, basically, is that when you take music to that level of complexity we just can’t hear those tone rows anyway. Basically, his criticism was if you have, if it’s that dissonant, that complex, our ability to follow voices – we hear scattered voices, chaotic and kind of random – we don’t connect it.

CO: Because it’s too complex for us to process?

IS: I think they took complexity to such an extreme… I mean, in Bach, everything is controlled in such a way that you can hear the top voice responding to a bass voice; there’s many things you can pick up with your ear, and with your mind. With Boulez, maybe the low voice will be doing this [waving hand above his head] and the top voice will be doing this [waving the other hand about his waist], and so how can you actually process the differences?

So what ends up happening is that you don’t hear two voices; you hear the combined texture, or mass, of notes. I think Xenakis liked the sound of that but he realized that there’s really no point in having all [those] complex structures behind the scenes that you can’t – they’re not audible at all – so why bother creating those structures? Why not just deal immediately with surfaces. So he uses mathematics to do that. So now rather than using 12-tone rows in patterns, becoming so complex you can’t hear them anymore, he just uses mathematical formulas,  and creates the same kinds of structures. But there’s nothing to listen FOR in them.

See, you always feel like, in Schoenberg, you’re supposed to be hearing something, but you just can’t quite… get it. Unless you study the score, you can’t really hear it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and listened to Schoenberg, and been like, “Oh I heard The Row!” Except if it’s completely isolated…

CO: Otherwise you’ve got to find it through visual interpretation of the score?

IS: Yes. I mean, sometimes Schoenberg will make a row into an obvious theme and maybe, after one or two listenings, you can recognize the theme. It’s not easy, and maybe you can hear one or two variations… but most of the time you don’t really. You hear shapes and patterns emerging, but you don’t hear that background structure of the row.

But with Xenakis, it’s not even there.  You don’t even bother trying to hear those patterns. You listen to the overall texture, and globally where it’s going.  Like, is this texture gradually becoming more dense? Like maybe it starts sparsely, and then you can hear this building of density, it gradually starts to collect notes and becomes more dense. You can hear [everything you need to].

Random Walk X Winter Solstice: The changes have become smoother. Instead of sudden bursts, each musical parameter undergoes nearly continuous transition from one state to another.

CO: What you’re describing feels very visual, very textural, like a sweater pattern or something. Like, not all that auditory? Or, am I missing something?

IS: It’s actually completely auditory. It’s based on all kinds of mathematical principles and formulas. But I think what [Xenakis] really wanted to do was emulate the laws of nature. Like say you go out on a hike and you see a geological formation that’s been sculpted by many forces over time, and it creates this overall impression of complexity –

CO: And unity?

IS: Perhaps… but I don’t know if these kinds of formulas create unity. That has to come from a sort of intuitive sense of the entire shape of the piece. It’s not formulaic. He uses formulas to create local texture – he wants to keep human patterns out of the immediate surface.  Humans tend to create a certain kind of order. You can look at this room, and see there’s certain kinds of shapes that humans prefer. He wants to keep that out. He wants it to be like – in the natural world there’s a certain complexity – we don’t naturally produce that.

CO: I want to ask you more about the pieces at the concert the other night. The Random Walk pieces. Like, I really want to know about that name, for instance. But also, you said they were composed using a SuperCollider software program?

IS: Yes, but it’s not a software program. It’s actually a programming language, designed for sound synthesis. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the other [the large particle accelerator] or not.

CO: So, basically, the composer sets parameters for what sounds the computer will produce, and then presses ‘play’. And, if he ever wants to hear that same piece a second time, he simultaneously presses ‘record’; for if he does not, neither he nor anyone else will ever hear that piece again. It’s completely ephemeral, not unlike a live performance of any other improvised piece of music.

IS:  Pressing the ‘record’ button also will slightly alter the parameters as well in ways that are unpredictable.

CO: And then there’s the title of these pieces – Random Walk. I was really surprised by that. It’s unpredictable, but can you really say it’s random? Because, it seems to me that these compositions are anything but random. You – as the composer – put in the parameters, you decide each element, and if you don’t like the result, you can immediately delete it. It’s almost like you have total control at the very beginning and at the end, while in the middle, the computer runs through the patterns in ways that only math can interpret.

IS:  Well, random walk is a mathematical term. It comes from Brownian motion. Do you remember the story of the guy [botanist Robert Brown] who was looking though his microscope at tiny particles in water. He saw these particles and he saw them bouncing around – he saw that these particles were following this completely random motion, Brownian motion – and I think it’s how they realized that there were atoms, because it ended up being that these atoms were bouncing off of these small little particles and it was pushing the particles around… So if we took a very basic motion… say you have a 3-sided die, marked 0-1-2, and each number correlates to a particular movement.  And [your particle, or sound, in its own placement is affected by the dictates of the die] and you start at a certain number, 0, and you can go up a step or down a step. But it’s unpredictable.

CO: But you cannot predict which direction the die will dictate. And that’s only one example, right? One aspect of the piece, like pitch or duration?

IS:  Right.

CO: So, the title is supposed to evoke…?

IS:  It’s a random walk through a parameter space. By parameter space, I mean it’s multidimensional – each parameter you add, adds a dimension. So pitch, duration are 2 dimensions. And you could move through that space in this random walk – but it’s really like 28–29 dimensional space at this point. So imagine this random walk not just going through 2-dimensional space, but 28–29 dimensions. That’s where the title comes from. I mean, really what these pieces are, they’re sketches. Then my intention is to go on to develop pieces where I have chosen [more definitively]…

CO: But these sketches, they’re wonderful. What do you like better?

IS:  That’s  a complicated question. I sometimes think that the complete – the computer doesn’t have any kind of preconceptions, about what should happen next. So sometimes things will happen that I would never have thought of, or I would not have thought would be interesting. and I really like it. It sounds fresh, and new.

I think that’s why I do it. It lets me know what can happen in this sound world that I’ve created without any of my own preconceptions – although they always seep in. For instance, before I press that play button, if I choose a scale – well, that’s already decided something. The scale has already altered the sound of the piece. And so that’s one thing. I can give it certain… I can choose specific [how would you put it?] states. Let’s take volume, for instance. I can say choose between this volume and this volume, and so now it has two choices.  Then I can say, well, there’s a 75 percent probability that it will choose this volume and a 25 percent it will choose this one and so now I’ve made another decision.

But another example is, for instance, let’s take density – I could say, let’s start the whole piece very low density and gradually, toward the end, climax at maximum density, but it creates a shape that you can see already.

In some sense I’m letting the computer pick them but of course I’m telling the computer what to do – basically, I give it boundaries to work in and then I kind of let it go. I also tell it the rate of change – so it might change, on average, once every 40 seconds. So one parameter is volume. So I give it a center volume, for a certain amount of time, and then it changes. It could change in exactly one second [but that’s not likely] or it could change in – well, there’s a very small probability that it would sustain for one year, but the probability is so small that it never happens.

CO: I was struck by the way you just pressed “play” on your computer the other night, and sat down. If you listen to the pieces online, you know that there are five pieces, because they’re visually separated on the website. But you didn’t want to separate them?

IS:  Well, I did put in pauses. It might not have been obvious enough. I think it was kind of obvious when a piece ended, but maybe not. I guess it’s a little like chapters in a book.

I could have talked in between but I would have had to get up in time to stop it and I didn’t want to do that… I didn’t want anyone looking at the computer. I turned that away.

CO: Because when you see the “playlist” you can definitely tell when it’s changing from one piece to the next, and absent that, you – or, I, at any rate, found myself inserting my own structure. Like, oh, there’s this sustained note, or this consonance. That must be a punctuation of some sort. But, you know, maybe not?

IS:  Yes, but really, I was thinking more about the – the visual. For instance, in terms of visual, you know [the pianist] Sviatoslav Richter? Later in life, he became more eccentric – and he performed in the dark, with a lamp, and there was no other light in the auditorium. There was more focus on the listening. We’re so visually oriented that we tend to watch performers rather than listen to music.  So, I think one of the things I didn’t want was for the computer screen to be a distraction. Maybe to become more aware of sounds and less dependent on visual cues. I’ve been less and less interested in the visual aspects of musical performance, in general.

Ivan Seng in concert

I think we can if we hone in on auditory information, I want people to start having the kinds of sensitivity that a blind person might have to sound. I want that kind of attention to the sound rather than gesticulations. When a person is up there – you’re always trying to find some kind of correspondence between the visual and the auditory information. It’s interesting to see what happens when you let go of that a little bit.

CO: Density is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations here, and it’s not – well, that’s not a word often used in talking about music, in general. But it’s, you know, it’s exactly the right word for this, I think.

From dense masses of notes emerge structures that soon unravel again into chaos.

IS:  And with electronic music, it can get pretty dense! Hundreds of sounds per second.

CO: There’s no way to actually hear each sound, not in any way that you can actually interpret. So, there’s density, and there’s sound. I couldn’t help but feel like I was hearing articulation of instruments at times. There were some sounds that were less articulated, almost flute-like, and then others that sounded almost plucked. Did you do that on purpose?

IS:  When it sounds like an instrument, that’s a byproduct of the process I’m using. It’s not intentional. What was intentional was I wanted to take whatever sounds I had and through manipulating the envelope create lots of variety, and also distinct groups of sound – I mean, with huge masses of sound – I wanted some to – like if you see a flock of birds in the air, and they’re all the same kind of bird, there’s a kind of similarity. I wanted to create similarities that would create flocks of notes.

And also transitions, mutations, where you hear these dense masses of notes that gradually they change sound into something else.

CO: The envelope? Did you just say, manipulating the envelope? That’s a great phrase.

IS:  [laughs] Yes, well, it refers to setting certain parameters of sound, attack, sustain, decay… I wanted to manipulate the envelope – or, rather, the program was manipulating the envelope – to create as much variety as I could.

CO: So like when you program your algorithm, it’s possible that a note could sustain for over a year, but it’s just not likely.

IS:  Right.

CO: Because of the laws of probability?

IS:  Let me give you an example. The other night, there was a geologist talking about history of the earth, about huge climatic extinctions and meteors hitting the earth – that’s a perfect example, meteors. There’s hundreds or thousands of tiny objects that hit the earth every year. It’s something very frequent. Something not so significant happens a lot at a high frequency. And then larger, maybe 100-foot, objects hit much less frequently, only every decade or so. And then there’s objects the size of Mount Everest. And those hit like every 65 million years or so. But you never know – it’s possible that two could happen very close together. It’s just not likely.

Giant meteorites could hit us and we have these formulas that could tell us when these giant meteors could hit us but they can’t tell us with any certainty. They can tell us one every 60 million years but we don’t really know…. We live in a very dangerous universe. We can make all these predictions, but we can’t have certainty.  So that I think that informs the music. Especially with the issues we have in climate change.

We’re living in a giant exponential curve at the moment. Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere are growing exponentially. We feel it. Population is exploding exponentially. We do have an emotional connection with these things.  We are living in these forms as we speak. We can pretend that we’re living in a static form all we want, but we’re not.

—Ivan Seng & Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Ivan Seng photographs by stephen houseworth photography


Feb 062016

Sean Riley Sean Riley in Morocco

One eye sees, the other feels. – Paul Klee

I first saw the work of artist Sean Riley at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY. His exhibition “Everyday Will Be Sunday” included paintings, sculptures and a series of quilts made solely from his father’s clothing (ordinary blue jeans and sweatshirts, etc.), which he inherited upon his father’s death. These garments were painstakingly dismantled and reconstructed into incredibly moving art objects, one quilt featuring hand-embroidered words from a traditional gospel hymn, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down, Everyday will be Sunday.” There are some mysteries about these works I would like to leave intact; others that have become obsessions, which have stayed with me since 2012.

Indeed, many poets have written about the clothing of the dead. There’s Anne Carson’s “Father’s Old Blue Cardigan,” and “The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos, but I have found no art with the impact of Riley’s. And so, I have repeatedly watched the few video interviews of him, one with artist Michael Oatman, one with Tracy Baker-White, and caught a few of the phrases, a few of the subjects that interest him, as if trying to find loose threads upon which to pull when engaging this thoughtful, sometimes reticent young man.

Exhibition View EDWBSEveryday Will Be Sunday, 2012
[Exhibition view, Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy, NY]

MKJ: You speak about collecting objects of utility and having an interest in simple objects that have an honesty or truth inherent in them. What do you think elevates ordinary things to the realm of “sacred” (if this is the correct word)?

SR: I certainly don’t find all utilitarian objects sacred, and that’s kind of why I like them, because they can be so ordinary. And I think their ordinariness comes from the fact that they are created to perform a specific task, and in that, their form becomes very unique in order to perform that task. I have a particular interest in kitchen objects, because they can be so strange. Sometimes I don’t even know what they are made for, but can tell they are very specific to a certain task.

I like to leave room in my own practice so that the function of the work or purpose of the work dictates the form. I try to allow any type of media to be possible or available to me when I’m working, so whether it be quilting, embroidery, painting, or sculpture, it’s all there to serve a greater purpose, whatever I’m following, or whatever I’m seeking.

MKJ: You also talk about the connection between “the eye, the hand, and the picture plane.” Is it the original investment of the maker’s eye, hand and time that elevates objects? Is the special quality inherent in the object?

SR: What makes something sacred is what I’m exploring in this body of work. To me, the fabric that I’m using, the fabric that I’ve inherited from my father has become sacred to me. It cannot be replaced. The denim I have of his, there’s a finite amount of it. It can’t be regenerated, and so, to me, that’s sacred. The challenge is in trying to make it into art and trying to do justice to the material without exploiting it.

No More Wednesday - detailNo More Wednesday (detail), 2012
[hand-embroidered inherited denim segment]

(de) Weave I - detail(de)Weave l, 2014
[inherited denim segment weft removed by hand, 12 x 36″]

So, if you were just to look at denim jeans and I told you that they were my father’s and that my father had passed away, they probably wouldn’t mean anything to you. But if I could do something to alter the fabric in a certain way, put something of myself into that fabric, then I think that it has the potential to be sacred (or appear sacred) to many more people than just myself.

I’m trying to figure out how to do that and I approached it in the quilts that you saw on exhibit at the Arts Center, and since then I’ve been trying other means to do it as well: like deconstructing the denim jeans into fragments. I am now taking the denim down to individual threads, removing the individual weft strands (all done by hand), in a very labor-intensive process.

MKJ: Your quilts are certainly of a different essence than many so-called “memory quilts” or craft quilts, in my view. This is not to devalue the work of others, but yours are certainly elevated to “high-art.” I’m trying to get at what made this happen. There was certainly the presence of your father in the clothes, his hard work, day in and day out, and your care in dismantling them, pressing them and re-working them, adding commitment, dedication, ritual, and devotion. But I think it could have to do with the way the quilts evolved from your paintings in some organic way as well. Certainly the quilts could not have happened without the paintings.

SR: Right. I think it’s important to remember that when I decided to make the quilts I had never sewn anything in my life. The idea of memory quilts has been around for a long time, but to use the inherited clothing to make quilts, to me was a radical idea, because it meant learning a whole new craft to carry this out. So I didn’t have the skill and/or the baggage of a quilter going into the project. All I could really offer was my knowledge as a painter.

Gearing up for the quilting project, before I started cutting the clothes or sewing the fabric, I started making paintings and collages that mimicked quilt-making procedures. I was researching how to do that and then doing it in my paintings, making strips on paintings or with collage and joining those strips together to make a full rectangular image. When I finally came to the quilts, I had a general idea of how to do it, at least in two-dimensions, and I brought to it my color sensibilities and my compositional sensibilities as a painter and the first couple of quilts were quite rudimentary, simple in their construction. But the visual experience with them is very rich, as I knew how to manipulate color, space and form.

HurricaneHurricane, 2009
[gouache on canvas, 20 x 16″]

Triangles CrazyTriangles Crazy, 2009
[gouache on unstretched canvas, 88 x 66″]

MKJ: And I understand that you sew on your grandmother’s sewing machine.

SR: Right, so there’s that connection to ancestry that I never really considered before.

When I think of what my goals were with the quilts, I knew I wanted to keep them anonymous, so that there are no real signs of my father in them. There are no logos, no images, and no “text” in the fabrics themselves. There’s nothing you could really point to and identify with my father. I did that intentionally because I wanted the viewer to approach the works and hopefully be moved by them just because of their visual qualities, and if it stopped there for the viewer, that was fine for me. But if they wanted to go further and read the text on the wall or read the exhibition label and find out that they were made entirely from my father’s clothing, that would add another layer of meaning to the quilts.

MKJ: I would argue that it had an additional effect (which I have also heard from other viewers): it tapped into a collective consciousness. I believe this relates to a narrative or memory embedded in the artworks, embedded in the body, in the fabric, which is what I was trying to get at earlier, a shared memory, or “collective loss.” And I think this generalization on your part facilitated that effect.

EulogyEulogy, 2011
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced,
hand-tied, hand-embroidered, buttons, 94 x 72″]

Clearly we are not the lone authors of our narratives; rather, our self emerges from our interactions with others, (as George Herbert Mead and psychologist William James told us). Did you know that this narrative effect, this transference, and collective response would happen?

SR: I think so, simply because for some reason I was drawn to the quilt medium. Looking back, it just seemed to be the natural choice. Like I said, the memory quilt has been around for a long time. There’s an inherent property to fabric that we identify with other human beings, a tactile quality, a softness that relates to the human experience. So I think it was very fitting for me to deal with my experience of loss in an artistic sense by using fabric. It’s not something I would even try to approach in a painting or drawing. It never made sense to me in those mediums, but it does in fabric.

MKJ: It’s so interesting to me that even though those quilts don’t have the specificity you described, they do indeed seem very specific. It’s an enigma!

SR: That’s what I realized. They are very specific because they come from one person’s clothing, and that person had a palette, a style. My dad was a fairly simple person, at least stylistically, so that the clothing has uniformity in many ways, and that becomes very specific to him. And I have a specific visual language, which I’m imposing on the clothing as well. So even though I tried to keep it anonymous and broad, there is an underlying narrative to it.

Broken Dishes VariationBroken Dishes Variation, 2010
[inherited clothing quilt, machine-pieced, hand-tied, 94 x 75″]

MKJ: When I think about our selves emerging from our interactions with others, and the possibility of your work being an exploration of the self, and certainly an exploration of your relationship with your father, as well as a tapping into the collective, I’m also reminded of a performance piece by Marina Abramović , documented on video by the PBS NewsHour in one of their “Brief but Spectacular” moments. She describes how she invited gallery guests to sit across from her in silent presence as she stared into their eyes for an extended period of time. There were some people she knew, some that were strangers.

Your work somehow reminds me of hers, in its meditative quality. Like Abramović, I find you to be fully “present” in your work, and in “Everyday Will Be Sunday,” I found that you did in fact invite someone (your father? the viewer? yourself? all of these individually?) to metaphorically sit across from you in silent presence. Your work and hers, in my view, require the viewer to be fully present as well. Can you elaborate on how your work is an exploration of the self?

SR: I like the idea of a viewer being silently present in front of my work. I hope that they can experience the same joy and wonder that I did when creating the work. My practice is certainly a quest for understanding myself. That is certainly at the root of it, an understanding what I am capable of, what I’m not capable of. I am constantly trying to push my own personal boundaries in an attempt to create something very unique.

I think that working with the inherited clothing has allowed me to explore that. I’ve begun a deeper exploration of myself, my place in the world, my own personal timeline on the planet, and of what objects we leave behind and where they can then go. Working with my father’s clothing has led me to look at my own personal art and artifacts differently and consider how they become evidence of time and our existence.

MKJ: You have also said to me, “And now after seven years, I can’t really make the paintings without the clothing/fabric. It is always in my mind – that what I am doing is ultimately a study for what will happen to the fabric. It has really changed the way I approach painting – I see it completely differently. My understanding of these works and the process is directly related to my other studio work – painting, drawing, collage.”

You are currently working on a series of shield images, which I find fascinating, because after all, isn’t the quilt a form of shield, both protecting us and encasing us? An art object with a protective property? I saw a video of the layered process involved in the making of one of these pieces and it does look very much like a quilt-making process. Is this true?

SR: Yes. I made my last quilts in 2013 and since that time I’ve been using fabric in a lot of other ways. I’ve really been exploring the fabric much more deeply, looking at how it was made, how the fabrics were dyed, and really getting into the process of weaving. At the same time, I’m also looking at the form of the shield throughout many different cultures. It’s a much more open form and can really take just about any shape, from full-body size to something that can easily be held in the hand. But it always has a relationship to the body.

And that’s what I’ve been most interested in. Of course the quilts also have a relationship to the body, because they’re made to cover the body (or two bodies), so they have this certain scale and the shields have that same idea of scale or proportion, but they are much more malleable. And I’ve been really excited about that; I don’t feel as constrained to a rectilinear framework. I can do much more in the shield format.

I’ve also been using a lot of elements in my painting and collage work that I’ve learned from the quilting process: like the binding of the quilt, the tying of the quilt, the different types of marks you can get with thread. I’ve done things like sew on paper or use the sewing machine without thread to mark paper. I’ve embroidered into paper and made marks that resemble embroidery. So, at present in my studio I have fabric out, the sewing machine and embroidery, as well as painting, drawing and collage. And it’s exciting because they’re all speaking to each other.

Shield Study Yellow Blue StripesShield Study with Yellow & Blue Stripes, 2015
[acrylic, gouache, watercolor, colored pencil,
pencil & charcoal on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

Shield Study lShield Study l, 2015
[gouache, acrylic & colored pencil on Arches paper, 40 x 26″]

When I’m approaching a painting, making marks for a painting, I’m thinking about how those marks would translate if they were done with thread or through embroidery or with the sewing machine. How would they translate in a real, tactile sense? But then, because it’s a painting, it has much more freedom in a sense than a fabric work could have. And from that freedom I also learn about how I can push the fabric work in different ways, ways that I might not have gotten to if I hadn’t learned them through the painting process.

MKJ: So they are all interconnected.

SR: Very much so. And when I come up against an obstacle in the painting I usually find the answer through the fabric and vice versa. Answers for the fabric can be found through painting. It’s a great relationship that I think has a lot to give.

Shield Painting lShield Painting I, 2012
[acrylic, gouache on canvas, 18 x 14″]

MKJ: It is so natural for humans to resist uncomfortable emotions that it is touching to find someone courageous enough to move toward grief, reminding us that a quilt is also something upon which we can lie down in surrender, and a shield can be something that empowers us. We reach another enigma, because it seemed you made your loss public, yet you did so in a very reserved, quiet way.

SR: I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear. I made the quilts out of a compulsion. I felt like I had to make them, without really knowing why, but it certainly felt like it had to be done, in retrospect. It was a way to allow myself to talk about my experience of losing my father, and doing it through art was really the only way that I could do it. Because, as you know, as most people know, it’s really a difficult thing to talk about, and many would prefer to avoid the subject. But it’s something you don’t want to forget. You know, I don’t want to forget him. And the experience of losing him was so profound that I think that it deserves the attention that I’m giving it.

Shield StudyShield Study, 2013
[acrylic on paper, collage, 16 x 12″]

—Sean Riley & Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Sean Riley was born 1977 in Wareham, MA. In 1999 he received BFA in Painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. In 2004 he received an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Pennsylvania. Upon receiving his MFA, Riley was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation; given to only 10 graduating MFA students nationwide at that time. From UPenn he was also awarded the Charles Addams Memorial Scholarship given to one graduating MFA student per year. Since that time has held several solo exhibitions and been included in many group shows throughout the Northeast. He has been a resident at Yaddo and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in Providence, RI and works from a studio in Pawtucket, RI.

Sean Riley WEBSITE


A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Dec 122015

1-BurkoArtist Diane Burko photographing at Viedma Glacier



An individual has not started living until he can rise above
the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns
to the broader concerns of all humanity.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Nothing intrigues me more than the act of misremembering. Simultaneous misremembering? For this, I assume there must be a reason. So when I viewed a recent exhibition of Diane Burko’s work, Climate Contemporary: Artists respond to Climate Change, at the Lake George Arts Project, and was overwhelmed by her photographs, hung in a place to be viewed first when entering the gallery, I almost left the exhibit thinking there were none of her paintings in the exhibition. Looking at the list of works one last time before leaving, however, I was surprised to find that I was wrong and carefully turned back to view the show a second time, finding one painting in the mix. When I asked Diane if she had ever shown her photographs alone (without her paintings), she mentioned (in error) this LGAP show, among others.

 Diane’s photographs lift the veil. They remove the distance between the viewer and the subject, as they take your breath away and send a shiver, physically and emotionally. Indeed, for the first moment I saw them, I thought they were printed on the inside of glass instead of paper, so luminous were they. Because of the textures, scale, and richness of these images, one feels as though they are at the site, hanging out of the plane or helicopter, ship, etc, with her. I believe this is crucial to her mission in conveying the urgency of climate change. When trying to convey a subject such as global warming to a generation accustomed to communicating with abbreviations while texting & tweeting, or with snapshots via Instagram & Pinterest, you need to drive home the point in a way no report, summit, or documentary can. It was immediate. It was accessible. It was high-impact. The seductive beauty of the images is a motivating factor for the viewer, the sugar with the medicine. To me, it seems no surprise that Diane’s life and work as an exhibiting fine art photographer evolved simultaneously alongside her life and work as an environmental advocate.

2-BurkoSpert Island, January 17, Archival Pigment Print, 30 x 30 inches, 2013, ©Diane Burko

By the visual eloquence of her photographs (not to mention the fact that she has gone to such painstaking lengths to obtain thousands of these shots for her various projects and exhibitions: on site, as well as from agencies and individual scientists) she conveys great passion, which is also a definition of art.

To those who know me, it must seem natural that I’d have a preference for Diane’s photographs as a means of communication. While this essay is surely about Diane Burko, I feel it’s only fair to briefly offer full disclosure. I am a printmaker (mostly of monotypes) and a lyric poet. It is no surprise then, that I favor a medium that captures a moment in time. Moreover, part of what I do for a living involves work with mindfulness meditation, the practice of being in the present moment. However, in my history as a gallerist, I’ve never favored photographs, and as an art-lover, I never recall singling out an exhibition of photographs as must-see. Rather, I tend to respond strongly to drawing, abstract painting and of course, printmaking. Having said this, there are, indeed, many photographs and photographers that I have deeply respected and admired. I only learned after this interview that Diane considers her photographs a hybrid somewhere between printmaking and photography. It seems to me that she is a painterly photographer, which to me makes all the difference.

It is also notable that there are many art critics, and I’ll mention a few, who hold opinions in direct opposition to mine expressed above. Rebecca Smith, sculptor David Smith’s daughter, curated the Lake George Arts Project exhibit, interestingly including four of Diane’s large-scale photographs and only one painting. She then made this curious comment in the Albany Times Union newspaper:

Burko, who began as a landscape painter, has a single painting in the show, which depicts frozen topographies threaded with variously colored lines. As the work’s title reveals, the lines mark the freak recession of the Columbia Glacier, located on Alaska’s southern coast, between 1980 and 2005. “I like to point out that this is how painting can tell you more than photography,” said Smith. “It is truer than a photograph, because you can put time into a painting. A photograph only captures a moment.”

Diane’s landscape paintings have been widely acclaimed and written about since the early 1970s. But things changed for her in 1977 when artist James Turrell (LINK — flew her over the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell in a refurbished Helio Courier airplane. Burko says the aerial views enabled her to abstract the landscape in new ways and that flying itself was thrilling. She began taking her own photographs to reference as source material for her paintings (often of monumental geologic phenomena) and to record her experiences. By 2000, her photography practice became another art form all its own.

3-BurkoNotes from Politics of Snow. (Click for larger image.)

In her series Politics of Snow, shown in 2010 at the Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, Diane has drawn on the surface of a series of photographs, documenting, in plain visual language, environmental change. Not only does Diane document changes in the environment, she makes the viewer care. And when we care, we want to act.

A trip to Glacier National Park in 2011 became a turning point for Diane. The fact that at the turn of the century there were 150 glaciers there and fewer than 25 remain profoundly affected Diane. She’s quoted as saying she could no longer make beautiful paintings that did not have another purpose and needed to exchange ideas with and collaborate with glacial geologists throughout the world. Diane became witness to a cause.

By 2013, opportunity allowed her to begin recording and reporting the unprecedented ice melt on our planet. In 2013 she sailed around Svalbard with 26 other artists, sponsored by an Arctic Circle Residency, and spent four days in Ny-Alesund with scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute. In 2014, she returned North to Greenland’s Ilulissat and Eqi Sermia glaciers. In 2015 she made her second expedition to Antarctica and witnessed the Patagonian Ice Field of Argentina. Her current work reflects these Polar Antarctic and Arctic expeditions.

Most of us who have passed through the rigors of art school have had it drilled into us that painting from projected slides or source photographs can arguably “deaden” an image or at the very least take a scene “one-generation removed” for the viewer. In my opinion, skilled photography does not. There are gallerists and curators who prefer abstract art or paintings made en plein air for this reason, and given the luxury of time, such as her residencies at Giverny and Bellagio, Diane has made many plein air paintings as well. It is also important to mention that while many of Diane’s paintings begin from photographs, they soon depart in abstraction.

4-BurkoReflets I and II (shown as diptych), Oil on Canvas, 84 x 60 inches each, 1990, ©Diane Burko

In an eloquent essay titled, Glaciers and climate change: narratives of ruined futures, (WIREs Clim Change 2015. doi: 10.1002/wcc.351), Geologist M. Jackson investigates various narratives in artistic, performative, cinematic, and other humanities-based representations of glacier-climate discourse. The author compares the metaphor of Diane’s melding of painting and photography to the merging of science and art that the work exemplifies. Furthermore, the article uses the same painting that Rebecca Smith described (Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005) and speaks of its usefulness in terms of a “fulfillment of prediction.” Jackson states, “By creating lines of current and estimated loss, Burko invites viewers to contemplate not the ice in current existence, but rather, where the ice not only once was, but also where the ice will not be.”

Jackson provides a solid argument worthy of consideration. And reconsidering Rebecca Smith’s curatorial viewpoint, perhaps she displayed Diane’s four photographs in a high-impact location, where they were viewed first in the gallery, and followed them with the one painting in the show to accomplish a “one-two punch” in the Lake George Arts Project exhibition. Playing devil’s advocate, would I have minded, however, if the painting were omitted from the exhibition? No. Would I love to have seen more of Diane’s photographs included in the exhibition? Definitely.

5-Burko-Columbia Glacier Lines of Recession 1980-2005, Oil on Canvas, 51 x 60 inches, 2011, ©Diane Burko

I also took a look at a recent article by Sue Spaid titled, Moving Viewers to Pay Attention, who set out to discuss how paintings, however mediated and/or distorted, complement ordinary perception in ways that photographs do not. While her thesis seemed to hold water, her discussion, for me, did not. I found myself readily able to substitute the word photograph for painting in many of her arguments. Here’s an example: By contrast, photographers who purposely direct spectators’ attentions risk undermining photography’s believability-advantage. Now re-read her remark instead with the word PAINTING substituted for photography. This was the case for me throughout her essay.

What bothered me most, however, and should have made me put down the Spaid article immediately, was when she accused anyone preferring photographs to be filled with “wishful thinking.” She went on to say: The plethora of die-hard photography fans and movie buffs undermines the notion of the human hand as necessarily commanding greater attention. “Photography fans” happily visit photography exhibitions and photo-fairs. A photographer surely uses a human hand. And a filmmaker? Hmmmm, last I checked Stieglitz & Spielberg were pretty human, and very commanding!

I believe by its very nature, painting is a lens through which the artist translates the viewed scene or object, this being part of its intrigue. In a documentary context, however, does “intrigue” seems less of a requirement? Is this is in part why the photographs play such an important role in Diane’s mission as an activist? Summarily, Diane has made sure by the quality of their “voice” that both her photographs and paintings be “heard.” I caught up with her recently to ask these and other important questions about her work.

MKJ: Your remarkable life thus far has evolved not unlike a Jenga Puzzle, no one piece being able to be removed at its exact time in your career. Your painter’s eye clearly informs your photographs, begging the question, how much so?

DB: I find that often people, when first confronting my 40 x 60” images, mistake them for paintings. I think my photography actually is located somewhere between photography and printmaking. The images are so not like Gursky, Ruff or Struth, and they are not a typical National Geographic highly detailed shot either. Rather there is a play between sharp and soft focus, distance and detail, atmosphere and color. The same issues I consider in my paintings.

MKJ: Are you a self-taught photographer?

DB: Yes. I think anyone out of art school learns to handle a camera. I first did with a Pentax to take slides of my work and, of course, then the world around me.

MKJ: Amongst other subjects, you’ve chosen two of the most difficult to photograph, ice and snow (because of the blinding whiteness and lack of contrast), in the most difficult of circumstances, frigid cold. Talk a bit about technique, how you’ve learned to obtain the gorgeous contrast, colors and textures in your images of glaciers, and the obstacles you’ve had to overcome technically.

DB: Getting there is the real challenge. As far as actual technique I am really a low-tech woman. I shoot with a Canon EOS 5 Mark II and Mark III, both with a 24-105 lens, as well as a Sony NEX VII – as simply as possible. No particular tricks. I try to stay at 100-ISO usually on Program and then adjust for aperture intermittently. Of course I am taking thousands of images. The process of editing is key to success. The challenge of the Polar Regions is of course keeping your batteries charged and your fingers warm.

MKJ: Do you manipulate your own photographic images on the computer in Photoshop or work with a designer to do this?

DB: I use Photoshop to crop. I prefer a square format or full frame. Basically I use Levels in Photoshop to adjust images. I try to keep the color as true to the experience as possible – no fancy manipulations.

MKJ: Remind us here about the paper, and printing process you employ.

DB: All prints prior to 2010 were printed on German Etching Hahnemuhle. Since 2010 I use Canson 100% Rag. The prints are made from an Epson 98 at a local facility, Silicon Graphics.

MKJ: I found an old quote of yours about your early photographic work describing the photos as “…trying to capture something I could never capture with painting… where the brush is not invited.” I believe that at the time you were referring to focal point or spatial concerns. However, does this statement still ring true for you?

DB: When a photograph says it all I don’t want to just copy it. I am not a super-realist. Rather it’s the bad photograph that captures an experience, a memory that then stimulates a painting idea. I am usually painting wet on wet, thus I welcome evidence of the brush mark. I value creating multiple distances for viewing a painting. When far from the canvas, one takes in the landscape, the total image. Yet as you get closer, the surface reveals many abstracted areas of paint, color, and surface texture.

MKJ: Have you ever shown your photographs alone, without your paintings, and/or would you consider this if you have not yet?

DB: Yes, I first did at the Locks Gallery in 2006, 2010 & 2011; the Philadelphia International Airport in 2007; and most recently in September 2014 at the LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The show was titled, Diane Burko: Investigations of the Environment.  A digital catalog of this show is available. 

Also at this moment I have a number photographs on exhibit at the Noyes Museum in an exhibit titled, Frozen Earth: Images from the Arctic CircleAnd I will be showing photographs exclusively at Kean University in an upcoming 2016 exhibition titled, Glacial Dimensions: Art and the Global Ice Melt Diane Burko and Paula Winokur.

And of course there were those four photographs that you saw at the Lake George Arts Project this summer in Climate Contemporary: Artists respond to Climate Change.

MKJ: Do you see your paintings as playing a secondary role and the photographs becoming stronger players as you become more and more active in speaking out to educate the world about climate change? Do you foresee a time when painting will become obsolete as a means of communication for you; or rather, is painting a passion that you will never abandon regardless of the role it does or doesn’t play in your life as an activist?

DB: Painting is such a compelling medium, so charged with emotional power in our virtual/digital worlds. Personally, I need to use both mediums. Sometimes one medium takes priority over the other. At other times I go back and forth. I have diptychs and quadtych paintings about climate change that I know are truly compelling. Right now I am experimenting in my painting studio with some abstractions based on Landsat images while also developing a major photo project. So both impulses are being satisfied alternatively.

6-BurkoDiane Burko’s Studio, Summer 2015

MKJ: Your photographs document the passage of time and so can be used as a demonstrative tool, crucial to your mission. They also have a time stamp, leaving a record for scientists of the future. Can you speak about this legacy?

DB: Actually my photographs only document the time I am witnessing the glacier. But I am providing that record for other glaciologists to reference in the future, which makes me feel like I am making a contribution. This practice of visual comparison is called “repeat photography” and has been utilized ever since the invention of photography. Geologists rely on these visual records of change in the environment. They return to the same sites year after year (at the same time) to gather evidence of change. When I first began my Politics of Snow project, my paintings were based on their chronological repeats, sourced from USGS, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

MKJ: Looking ahead, tell us about your upcoming agenda, including future travel plans and how these include your artwork, particularly your photography. Do you see any inventions or changes on the horizon involving your creativity?

DB: For the foreseeable future, that is the rest of 2015, I have no Polar plans. After so many trips over the past few years I need uninterrupted time to process all the information gathered in a deeper way. In my painting studio I am experimenting with new formats integrating maps as well as new painting techniques and materials. With my photographs I intend to create more grids of multiple images from the same locations, implying the passage of time. I am also exploring other conceptual strategies to create other metaphors about issues of climate change like my Deep Time pairings. Video is another avenue of exploration. I have footage from all of my expeditions that still needs to be reviewed and edited.

MKJ: What makes you most discouraged in regards to climate change?

DB: The fact that so many politicians engage in willful ignorance. The fact that doubt has been injected into the public discourse just as it was years ago with the harmful scientific proof about cigarettes and the ozone layer. How profit and greed seem to dominate everything is truly disheartening.

MKJ: What makes you most encouraged in regards to climate change?

DB: The fact that we are talking about it here; that more and more artists like me in multiple creative fields are dealing with this issue in their work; that the amount of coverage on climate change, droughts, forest fires, and extinctions are increasing in the press. And then there are politics. There are actually candidates running for the 2016 Office of President who are speaking to this issue. The fact that President Obama, along with the Pope, are calling attention to the perils of climate change – gives me hope.

MKJ: How can we get involved in affecting positive change at the local level vis-à-vis climate change?

DB: Each of us, aside from being mindful of our fossil fuel consumption, local food consumption and recycling, must be vocal. The personal is political. If each of us actually petitioned our representatives with our concern – often – it would make a difference. This issue impacts us all, and our grandchildren and their grandchildren as well. The time to act is now.

—Diane Burko & Mary Kathryn Jablonski



A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.


Oct 142015

Chasing Dragons
What I liked, reading Chasing Dragons at first, was the anticipation, the call to adventure that is in the author’s own answer to the call to adventure. —Douglas Glover

Bill Hayward 1Bill Hayward

Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs
Bill Hayward
Glitterati Incorporated
240 pages, hardcover
346 original four-color photographs
$60; ISBN 978-0-9891704-9-9


AT THE AGE OF SIX, Bill Hayward was already blessed with magic and metaphor. He was born into an itinerant family, lived in or visited 17 states before he was in grade school. His older sister Janet, sitting with him in the back seat of the family’s 1940 Chevy, used to encourage him on long rides with stories of magic and adventure. Janet was Bill Hayward’s muse, his Yoda, the one who taught him to think there might be wisps of dragon smoke beyond the next hill. She made the world wondrous, which is something like religion, only under a different name.

Hayward has been hunting the dragon smoke ever since, hence the title of his magnificent new book Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs; only now he also associates it intellectually with the dragon smoke of Chinese legend, dragon smoke equated with the imagination itself, with the ability to travel between worlds, which in Hayward’s universe becomes the ability to travel between and beyond forms, to hybridize, to traffic in aesthetic accident and unconscious inspiration, to transcend the torrent of conventional commercial dreck that is our contemporary fate.

Hayward is a photographer, also a writer, a filmmaker, and painter. He is a very good photographer, one of those A-list commercial photographers who shoot for glossy magazines in New York and are on call to do author photos for major publishers, the epitome of class. But at a certain point he rebelled against the conventional (even the very best conventional), the photograph that is already recognizably good as a photograph (“…at some point I realized that dragon smoke was somehow missing from the horizon…”), and as he says himself, went into the darkroom (this was when they still had darkrooms) fierce with experiment.

I commenced “bushwhacking” in the darkroom (this is way before digital) and experimenting with print, paint, paper and scissors and following real “brush strokes” of accident—disrupting what I knew of visual technique and tradition.

The result was wave after wave of startling, mysterious images. Like many great artists, Hayward seems to work in obsessional spurts, mulling over the same gestural form or experimental technique in image after image, but altering, nudging, scaling, colorizing, destroying.

Chasing Dragons is organized into five so-called acts, the acts subdivided into subtitled sections, each with an obsessional focus (some are called projects). For example, there are 17 collaborative bedrooms (“17 Bedrooms, A Spaghetti Western”), 17 black and white images of collaborator Joanne Baldinger standing in front of or even within a black on white painting of a room, door to a room, or windows looking out of a room. There are pages of paintings of a single torso with an arm bent at right angles, placed across the belly like an reversed L, sad, clownish faces, zombie figures. Or the floating, falling nudes suspended as if in a luminous vitreous humour of the “Broken Odalisque” series. Or the amazing set of photographs called “Consider the Flesh”: grainy images, nudes prancing/posing before a backdrop, camera pulled back to reveal backdrop against the studio wall, and lamps of various sorts held or disposed behind or in front of the subject, casting a mysterious glow.

I mention only a few of the sequences; this is a thick, beautiful book.

The repetitions inscribe motion from frame to frame, almost as in one of those old flip books, motion being one of the major fracturing devices Hayward uses, both inside and outside the image, his subjects caught over and over in ecstatic gesture, stillness infused with movement (gesture is a word Hayward uses frequently), so that the image sequences are a dance, not repetitious, but mysteriously rhythmic (like tides or the motions of sex) in their insistence on a particular motif (gesture, again), situation or subject, motifs that take on the numinous quality of dream signs.

One of Hayward’s most easily grasped innovations (invention) is the result of a rebellion against the conventional studio portrait: subject in front of camera, subject become object for the photographer, become something frozen, captured, pinned to the board. Hayward’s brilliant inversion, analogous to breaking down the fourth wall in the theatre, was to engage the subject as a collaborator in the photograph. Instead of sitting the subject in front of a backdrop, he set up a continuous roll of white paper, gave the subject (of the photo) a bucket of black paint and a brush and told him or her to make a backdrop for themselves, a scene, a place to pose, a place in which to act or even act out.

The result was/is an ongoing series of brilliant, witty, mischievous, punning, self-revelatory (in the sense of self-discovery) collaborative portraits. Many appeared in Hayward’s 2001 book Bad Behavior, and there are a few of those in Chasing Dragons, but he has extended the project into what he calls The Human Bible, traveling the country with his paper rolls and paint (near the end of the book there is a gorgeous photograph of Hayward clad in black, walking a dusty railway track somewhere in the west, with a paper roll over his shoulder).

Hayward seems to function along three basic vectors or principles, at least this seems to be the case when he talks about what he is doing. The first is the one already dealt with, the iconoclasm, the adventurous breaker of form, on a quest to find the rigid structure, the accepted mode, in what he is doing and break it. Little things, to begin with, like the incorporation of accident or imperfection, a studied black and white landscape with a road disappearing into distant hills and a purple crayon streak in the top corner. Which seems to lead to drawing and painting on photographs, to incorporating photos into paintings and then paintings that remind you of the photographs. Iconoclasm, breaking the image, the holy image, making it more holy in so doing. There is much more of this, pages of faces, strangely symmetrical as if the one side mirrors the other (not the way normal faces work), streaked, over-exposed, magnified, colorized, staring.

The second vector is a restless search for the feminine, a self-conscious desire to rebalance a universe that has tilted wildly toward the patriarchal. One source for this is Robert Graves book The White Goddess, which Hayward absorbed at just the right moment. But beyond that, and not to psychologize, it does seem as if his sister Janet, six years older and a leader of adventures, gave Hayward the perfect template for the White Goddess before he actually met her in a book. Chasing Dragons is full of female images, many nudes, many combining the ecstasies of dance gesture (there are naked men, too, but not nearly so many). Women lead Hayward, they are his psychopomps, his oneiric guides into the realm of abandonment, experiment, and revolt. Of this is he enthusiastically conscious, inserting throughout Chasing Dragons quotations and snippets from his favorites: Mary Ruefle, Clarice Lispector, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf.

And, finally, the third principle, the unresolved struggle, something Hayward recognizes within himself, the tension between the discipline of art (call it professionalism, craftsmanship, guild knowledge) and the free spirit of play, the foregoing of knowledge, the abandonment of certainty necessary to create the kind of art Hayward wants to create. There’s a great interview (with Geoff Gehman in Psychology Tomorrow) where Hayward catches himself in the contradiction. “I’m telling people they can do anything while at the same time my head is saying: You’ve got to know what you’re doing. I just tell myself to follow the gesture rather than the idea.”

The self-irony is all: the moment that catches a whisper of Hayward’s depth.

What I liked, reading Chasing Dragons at first, was the anticipation, the call to adventure that is in the author’s own answer to the call to adventure.

Throughout this read, I call out the shout and song of artists who have had, and who continue to have,  a significant influence on the gaze of my heart and eye…My compositions are foremost a transcription of my response to their call.

Painters I have known are rarely good at talking about their own art (Hayward is an exception in a high degree) because their art is in the manipulation of media with brush or pencil or camera. They think non-verbally, through their fingers and hands more than eye and mind. And no matter what they plan or expect there are always minute accidents of material at the finger tip. One of the beauties of Chasing Dragons (hunting the dragon smoke of the imagination) is (going back to the patterning, grouping, repetitiveness of the images) that you can see Hayward, the artist, thinking without words, thinking with the images themselves, making and remaking, with slight variation, the same gesture, scene, idea. The effect is mesmerizing; rarely do you get to see so many materializations of the same artistic thought.

As I say, Chasing Dragons is organized into acts. The first act contains the beautiful conventional studio portraits. The second act, the rebellion, is the crisis of risk, experiment, adventure. The third act enters the territory of collaborative art (the human other becomes the next frontier to be transgressed). The fourth is all dance and gesture. And the fifth is devoted to images from Hayward’s film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone. The first act establishes the credentials of mastery, but the second, third, fourth and fifth acts are where you will dwell, entranced by the incantatory and playful density of artistic thought and variation, flipping back and forth between the pages, one section at a time.

Reading this book underscores the difference between an art book and a gallery show. A gallery show will always be an abstraction (contradictory, yes, because, of course, there are particular works on show), representative of the total work; whereas in a book, while you only have images of images, you get a far better idea of the totality of the artistic output and the motions of the artist’s thought processes as they develop over time.

The book’s text, the word-memoir, is terse, elliptical, carved out of the silence of the page, but also beautifully written, as you might expect; everything Hayward touches, even the accidents, or apparent accidents, have an air of being self-consciously finished; the man possesses an epic cool that is reflected in the work. And for all its terseness, the text seems to tell you everything you need to know: the family road trips and the Delphic Janet (some lovely snaps of the two of them as kids), the dragons, the first camera, and (the same day in 1956) Hayward’s first exposure to photographic/cinematic art (Janet took him to see Fellini’s La Strada), the iconic moments that led him to yesterday and whatever comes tomorrow, after the book.

One section especially, the “Mise-en-Scène,” is heavily patterned, recursive like a Bach fugue, words and phrases repeating, accumulating nuance and incantation — Janet, dragons (morph into drag’n sticks juxtaposed with an image of a weathered stick in the shape of a dragon), beads, fire ants, smoke, and the phrase reportless places, a phrase from Emily Dickinson (and after the section ends, there is a postscript that is the Emily Dickinson poem where the phrase comes from). This “Mise-en-Scène” is like a poem itself or is a poem, but also seems influenced by Gordon Lish (who does a walk-on guest appearance in Chasing Dragons with a three-line preface) and his creative concept of consecution, moving forward in a composition by picking up elements already introduced, so the pattern is forward, back and bring forward, and back and bring forward. And those fire ants become the image of the artist: “obsessive, certain, incessant; their immortal process of building in mud and blood.”

That phrase — “obsessive, certain, incessant” — is the DNA of the book or Bill Hayward himself. In spirit, it is stamped on every page. It is the essence of the artist.

But dragon smoke has other meanings, all connected with trans-words, transcendence, transgression, changing states of consciousness. Chasing the dragon is/was slang for getting high, for seeking other worlds or dream in the arms of Nepenthe, forgetfulness, escape, illusion, Death.

I do not think this reference escapes Bill Hayward. Life is the attainment of form; the dissolution of form is a kind of death; that’s a paradox, of course, because rigidity of form also seems like a kind of death. So that art must always be this dance between breaking and making, breaking and making.

The fire ants are re-animating anonymous relics of lives already lived, ceremony of the persistent creative process, mud and blood, life and death, death and life.

—Douglas Glover

14 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardBob Dylan


17 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardFragment A (from the film Asphalt, Muscle & Bone)

09 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardBroken Odalisque

BH2Al Pacile (from The Human Bible)

11 Chasing Dragons by Bill HaywardDragon Smoke Behind Tree

Images from Chasing Dragons: An Uncommon Memoir in Photographs by Bill Hayward, © 2015, published by Glitterati Incorporated



May 082015

Gunilla JosephsonGunilla Josephson


AN OLD WOMAN in a hospital bed leaks crystal tears.

Behind the windows of stalwart Stockholm houses we spot glimpses of chaos, fragments of high emotion pitching back and forth.

A woman is intently at work, seen only from the shoulders-up, her hair flying, and after a time her head distorts. What is she doing? Playing piano? Maybe. But we worry that she is falling apart or exploding.

“Everything I make is connected with the fibre of my life,” says Swedish-Canadian video artist, Gunilla Josephson. “But I point towards other artists. I’m interested in family– and death, more and more as time goes on.”

After receiving a degree in Sociology, Josephson attended the Stockholm College of Art and Design back in the 1970’s. She recalls a fine arts department dominated by modernist painters and when she declared an interest in experimenting with the then-clunky video equipment, her instructors were appalled: “What do you think you are – American?”

Josephson calls her work “anti-film.” For starters, she rarely uses dialogue. “I hate dialogue, even in books.” We laugh, bearing in mind that her spouse is the novelist, Lewis de Soto. “Dialogue is almost always banal,’ she goes on, being a bit take-no-prisoners in this regard. I flinch, mentally counting up dialogue sections in my own work. ‘Reading is very intense for me,” Josephson says. “I read books that you put down because they are so intense. Lewis in an ex-tensive reader and I’m in-tensive. Very different.”

I’m curious about how they live as artists together. Lewis paints as well as writes and he’s written a biography of painter, Emily Carr. “We talk about film, art and books all the time,” Gunilla says. “And grandchildren.”

Does she offer feedback on her husband’s work in progress?

“Not so much now,” she says, and adds, “to his detriment, if you want to know. I can be a little harsh at times.”

Josephson’s videos evoke feelings of fragility and tenderness in the viewer, yet also, at times, show a playful spirit. One feels an ongoing investigation of  inside/outside;private/public;seen/unseen.

The old woman leaking crystal tears is oblivious to her inside self falling from her eyes. We want to protect her, yet at the same time the viewer might think – “What is there to hide, ever?”

In Josephson’s world, the artist peels back layers to expose what may be alarming or cryptic, or even funny. Can emotions ever be fully contained, or is there always leakage, and if so, why are we so drawn to these moments?

—Ann Ireland


Ann Ireland (AI): Can you tell us something about your background and education?

Gunilla Josephson (GJ): I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, except some high school time in Caracas, Venezuela where my father, taught at the university. My mother and grandmother were both Red Cross nurses who when they married, in both generations had to stop practicing their profession. When I understood this fully I took on their indignation which made me a budding feminist.

clip_image004My parents in Stockholm, early 1950s

My dad was a civil engineer/ researcher and also taught at Stockholm University. He worked hard at two jobs, yet when he was with the family he was caring and kind, and never shunned a chore. One day he suddenly quit both his jobs, landed employment at UNESCO and took my mom, my sister and me into the world. We lived in Caracas, Venezuela, but hanging out with ‘radical’ art students after school scared my parents, probably for good reasons, and I was sent back to Sweden to finish High School. Directly after High School followed a year of studying printing techniques at Aquinas University in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where my dad worked at that time. I returned to Stockholm to complete a BA in Social Sciences at Stockholm University. After a few years raising my three children in England in my first marriage and continuing with art studies, we moved back to Sweden and I completed my education with an MFA at [Konstfackskolan] Stockholm College of Art and Design.

AI: Early influences?

GJ: I have an early memory of a yellowed booklet tied with a red ribbon on my Jewish grandfather’s ‘smoking table. It smelled of cigar smoke like everything else in that little room, but I didn’t mind. I opened the booklet and in it were colour prints of paintings, faces, that all seemed alike but and yet different. It said Rembrandts självporträtt. Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Under it I read a dedication Vi tu äro ett [We two are one] written in my grandmother Esther’s beautiful handwriting in blue ink. It touched me deeply and in my young mind my grandparents and Rembrandt van Rijn became one to me that day. I still connect with my paternal grand-parents when I look through the leaflet, now in my book shelf, or when I see one of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a museum.

As a teenager I developed a fascination with Surrealism (not uncommon for teenagers). Perhaps simply because Salvador Dali’s Enigma of Wilhelm Tell and Meret Oppenheim’s Fur tea cup and spoon were in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and thus were accessible to me. There were no reproductions of art in my family. Art was ‘real’, still held a mystery as the original. If you wanted to see art or know about it you visited museums. Like wine, art must aged to be ‘real art’. Hopelessly Eurocentric, and eccentric.

Later came early feminist artists, Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Table, and Eva Hesse’s skin-like ‘transparencies’. I admired and loved Swedish artists Hilma af Klint and Vera Nilsson, both brave women and pioneers in painting who shaped their own destinies against the consensus of ‘woman as well behaved’ in the mid 20th century.

I took an early interest in films but never dared take the leap, not even in my mind, to apply to Film School. Bunuel and Dali’s Surrealist film Un chien andalou was probably the first art film I saw. It was the tail end of French Nouvelle Vague, and I went to see the films of seminal Belgian auteur Agnes Varda. In1967 Jean Luc Godard’s film La Chinoise hit the cinemas, at least in Northern Europe. It hit me right in the solar plexus and I came out from the cinema a new self, a budding Maoist and completely in love with the film and the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. I acquired Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and started ‘my real life’.

It was impossible to avoid Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman, whose looming presence made it almost impossible to get support to make a film in Sweden between 1950 – 1990. I was an extra at SF [Swedish Film Industry], hoping I would either be discovered as a new Bergman actress (I was 15) or somehow become involved in movie making. All in vain.

In 2001 I made a video, HELLO INGMAR, a short 7 minute cultural patricide in which I rearranged certain Bergman films and inserted myself as a character.

Hello Ingmar

It got the Festival Prize at Oberhausen Short Film Festival. Up until Bergman died in 2009 I was hoping the film would catch his attention, at least enough to irritate him, particularly when it showed in a program at Moderna Museet in Stockholm – but this never happened.

AI: What makes video such a compelling medium?

GJ: There are several aspects to why video can be captivating and gripping, both for artists and viewers.I fell in love with my first Digital video camera [1998] and slept with it beside me. I found the tool compelling, generous in its clarity and crispness of image.

I had not wanted to use video as an artistic tool until then, finding the cameras heavy and the striped image dull. Maybe it worked for the political, but not for the aesthetic and poetic aspects of art. It was in the late 1990s when the light-weight and more affordable digital minicams (handycams) appeared on the market. They prompted a new wave of video art, and to my mind there is a ‘before and after’ in the history of video art. This user friendly yet highly developed tool eliminated the need for heavy equipment. The means of production were now in the hands of the artists, significant for female artists who no longer depended on muscular strength. The MiniDV camera became an explorative instrument; ‘it could roam around, shift focus very quickly and go very close to an object and focus in less than a second. Artists could edit at home on their own computer systems.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an overall project that pulls together individual art projects?

GJ: The overall project is to investigate my encounter with the world. All my work is produced under the umbrella of my production company AHEDDA Films. What holds my productions together are the people I have worked with for many years. Most important to me is Swedish artist/painter, friend and comrade-in-arms Anna-Lena Johansson, who runs a farm with her husband in Normandie, and exhibits her paintings regularly at Gallery Hera in Stockholm. She is a frequent solo performer in my productions since 1999. Canadian, Berlin-based artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay performed in several works with Anna-Lena e.g. The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke and ART THIEVES.

HAPPY HOUSE. The Id, the Kid and the Little Red Fireman

The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke


For sound in my videos I have collaborated with Toronto musician Eve Egoyan since 2003 . She was the performer in E.V.E Absolute Matrixa 48-minute Floor-to-Ceiling Projection that premiered at Trinity Square Video for The Toronto International Images Festival in 2009. (Read about it in the Globe and Mail here.)

E.V.E Absolute Matrix

I have also worked with Canadian visual artist and editor Aleesa Cohene since 2002 and with Toronto – based sound editor Konrad Skreta at Charles Street Video.

Last but not least, my life partner, writer Lewis DeSoto, has worked with me in many different ways: script writing, cameraman, computer wizard and as an excellent cook.

AI: You said to me that you are interested in exploring how NOT to be a well behaved woman. What does this mean to you?

GJ: In hindsight that was a general statement that needs to be developed: Today we are able to deal with feminist subject matter with a more analytical eye. Rebellion as a theme throughout any feminist discourse is an intrinsic part of my work. From the actions of the characters (or performers) to my own use of the video camera and later in the editing process I disrupt the norms, constructing resistances to the tyranny of orthodoxy, or, as in Twinning series Wall Flowers from the Twinning series

and How to be a Woman to be a Woman

commenting on them. When shooting video and later in the editing process, I work in a way that exploits unbridled emotion and marries it to abstraction. I challenge the accepted conventions of art as an entertainment that is well behaved.

AI: Is there a Swedish sensibility that you share? What might it be?

GJ: There is an intrinsic sensibility that is connected to that land of intense polarities between the extreme summer light and the winter darkness that I share. It manifests as a worship of nature in the warm season and as the cult of the lit candle in the dark and cold season. Swedes celebrate the solstices intensely. There are many pagan rituals in Swedish culture and seasonal shifts are ritualized since Prehistoric time in that forbidding place. This is just a nostalgia for the infinite. The Swedish model is long dead. Sweden is now a European country politically divided by the rise of a small but ultra conservative party whose priority is to stop immigration. The pagan rituals have been usurped by the Neo-Nazis.

I would also say that ingenuity/inventiveness is a Scandinavian trait. Perhaps a people so long in isolation develops ways of surviving which become methods, then inventions. Hundreds if not thousands of hours huddling by the fireplace seem to be conducive to inventiveness. I would also say that Swedes have a social conscience extending far beyond one’s neighbour.

AI: Do you see yourself as fitting into any school or niche in the Canadian or North American art scene?

GJ: I might not be aware of the niches but what struck me soon after my arrival in 1986 was the powerful position of female artists, and writers, in Canada. I experienced a huge artistic thaw shortly after I left the North European tyranny of Modernism. I soon found the world of moving image art and felt at home and welcome there. That might be my niche..

AI:  Which video artists do you pay attention to and why?

GJ: The art market and the art star system bore me, but I pay attention to my contemporaries with whom I move through the world. Probably the most important image of profound humanity and intensity in expression is Mother and Son, a film portrait of a dying mother and her son by Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov.

Finnish artist Eila-Liisa Ahtila is known for her psychological videos. Her work is highly intellectual and at the same time has a certain stark beauty. Abel Gance’s film Napoléon from 1927 was intended for more than one screen, which was unheard of at that time, and it ran for more than twice the standard feature length. I think of it as the first Art video. That kind of product was relegated to a category called the Third Cinema and was often feared in Sweden as a possible Communist propaganda tool. My films belong to that category too.

I pay attention to Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, in particular a work called The Sandman where the mise en scene is a German allotment on a partitioned sound stage rotating in two directions. The title comes from a found letter about two children and the Sandman. This is a kind of art piece that can only be experienced and is too complex and mysterious to fully remember. Very interesting and inspiring to me.

AI:  Video artists don’t have ‘objects’, exactly, to exhibit. How do you go about installing your work in a gallery or museum setting?

GJ: I work in two veins. I make a moving image that is placed on the wall, playing on a monitor like a sort of painting, as in Nothing is True, a video diptych exhibited at Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, from January 21 to April 5, 2015.

Or, I envelop the viewer in a totality of images and sounds, usually a more epic video, large format video projection, video installation. Occasionally I exhibit film props from the production in the gallery to animate the space.

AI: In the past you made sculptural objects and paintings. How did the transition to video come about?

GJ: It was a love affair between a first generation digital video camera and me. We met at Vistek in Toronto in 1989. Love at first sight. I shot my first video and I edited it using two VCR players. I was invited to participate in a couple of independent Toronto group shows in 1998-99 and simply showed my video playing on a stripped airplane TV monitor with a large pillar balancing on top. I joined Vtape, an excellent international distributor of art videos in Toronto learned computer editing at Charles Street Video and haven’t stopped since. I have changed camera a couple of times as they develop but I’ll never forget the first love, the Panasonic Digital Mini Camcorder.

AI: How much do you map out a video?

GJ: Most of the mapping out happens in my head during a lengthy gestation period. I make a simple drawing for an idea, a concept, and pin it up on the wall. Occasionally I draw a storyboard, I research. I trust my intellect and my life experience to steer me. We scout for places and spaces as shooting locations. A mise en scène gradually comes to life, working with the same people. I am not interested in control. I don’t have a Director’s chair. I do guerrilla filming. I want to destroy the One Man’s perspective dominating the history of film. For instance if you take the camera into the Catacombs in Paris along with your character in WW2 Resistante costume, you cannot be sure what will happen. The story line/narrative is created, in part, depending upon the material we come away with, but always following the loose narrative, even for my ongoing series of video portraits. There is always some kind of story told. I then go home and write the next scene, often together with my husband, Lewis de Soto. He thinks linearly, which can be useful when you assemble a video for a rough cut. Later you can destroy it. A good example is The Blood-Red Heart of Johanna Darke produced during a four months Canada Council Residency at Cité International des Arts in Paris in 2003.

JD is an anti-narrative feature -length video about a Quebecoise nun who thinks she works as a courier for the Resistance in WW2 Paris, roaming in tourist spots like the Louvre, Père Lachaise Cemetery, the Catacombes, Notre Dame Cathedral, les Quais, etc. The cast were Adrienne Le Coutour as J.Darke, Anna-Lena Johansson as Evil Gestapo Nun and Berlin based Canadian artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay as Jean MalreuxResistant.

We collaborated and improvised, discussed, wrote and shot. In the end we did not make a movie, which was my concept, but a strange meandering document where the camera had its own will, sabotaging the story and ultimately turning into itself. It is the story of a video that refuses to become a movie. With this film I am commenting on and parodying the clichés and tropes of the WW2 Resistance Movie genre while consistently pointing to paintings, music, books, and all kinds of histories, as the more important, and fun task. In the last scene when Johanna is in jail I use the text of the last two pages of Albert Camus’ L’étranger. I have always wanted to press those lines into art.

AI: Some of your work is narrative in structure, other pieces focus solely on image and sound. These are two distinct ways of working. Care to comment?

GJ: Every image suggests a narrative, even a still. As much as I would hate to confuse anyone I don’t really see a distinction between a narrative and a slowly moving portrait. The only difference is that the narrative in the portrait is that of the viewer.

AI: There is always an element of mystery in your work, something hidden or half-hidden, or seeking to be exposed. Comment?

GJ: I am seeking. Truths are always hidden or suppressed in our society. A mystery revealed loses its allure. Questions are more interesting than answers.

AI: Role of sound?

GJ: It is good to start with the proposition that sound tracks are the enemy of the moving image. Soundscapes are the antidote to an illustrative sound track. I use sound as a psychological dimension that operates in parallel with the image. Sound in an art video is the opposite of multiple sound tracks in commercial movies. Sound does not illustrate, it comments on and makes a work more intimate, more accessible. Often I create a kind of silence. Silence is quietly noisy. Complete silence hurts the ear. Sound should nor be heard but felt.

AI: The work often evokes a feeling of tenderness in the viewer, a desire to protect the fragility of what is  being looked-at, whether it be a person or an object. Why are these feelings/sensations interesting to explore?

GJ: These feelings are yours. Humanity evokes tenderness.. Both happiness and suffering evokes tenderness. I love life, its cruelty, fragility and beauty.

AI: You said to me, “Everything I make is connected to the fibre of my life.” Can you expand?

GJ: I don’t see a separation between art and life. The art work is the manifestation and the residue of living. It is not interesting to produce art for the sake of producing art.

AI: What are you working on these days? And what shows/exhibitions do you have coming up in the next year or two?

GJ: Dinner in my new kitchen which I will be exhibiting to all my friends. You can come too.

Ok seriously, I have a work in an exhibition at Ryerson Image Centre ANTI GLAMOUR, running until the end of April. I am currently working toward “Ways of Something”; a commission for a one minute video interpreting a segment from John Berger’s 1972 BBC Television series Ways of Seeing”, curated by Toronto artist and curator Lorna Mills. Simultaneously I am producing a commissioned short film with Canadian writer Russell Smith. As well, a lot of thought and research goes toward a solo exhibition in September 2016 at Rodman Hall Art Centre, St. Catharines, Ontario, curated by Stuart Reid.

In process and closest to my heart is a film Pieta, of my mother’s last hours. A difficult but ultimately beautiful process.

—Gunilla Josephson & Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.


Apr 032015

Maura Kennedy and B. D. LoveMaura Kennedy & B. D. Love



“I Cried to Dream Again” Lyrics by B.D. Love, Bonificence Music, ASCAP/Music by Maura Kennedy, Parade of Echoes Publishing, BMI. The song will be included in the album, Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love by Maura Kennedy on the Varese Sarabande label (4/28/15).


I RECENTLY VISITED THE NOTTINGHAM, an assisted-living facility in Syracuse, to see a dear friend and former Le Moyne colleague, Gordon Boudreau, the author of a splendid book on Thoreau. Gordon’s daughter, Maura, and her husband, Pete (professionally, “The Kennedys”) happened to be there. They had just performed in Syracuse, and were now putting on, for a large and enthusiastic audience of residents, a concert that turned out to be quite wonderful. I liked everything on their playlist, all their own music, except for two pieces: Willy Nelson’s “Crazy,” on which Maura sounded every bit as good as Patsy Cline, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Pete, a terrific guitarist, played beautifully—on a tiny ukelele!

But the highlight for me was a song titled “I Cried to Dream Again.” Maura wrote the music, to accompany lyrics by a poet-friend, B. D. Love. As the title indicates, Mr. Love is playing off one of the most beautiful, and utterly unexpected, passages in Shakespeare: lines spoken by Caliban in Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. When the fools Stefano and Trinculo are frightened by the music created by the invisible Ariel, Caliban responds:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

Those last lines, the ones that supplied the song’s title, are an exquisite conclusion to a beautiful set-piece. What makes the lines even more extraordinary is that they are spoken by the half-human, half-bestial Caliban, whose normal vocabulary consists of brutish gabble and cursing. Even the illogical sequence of tenses in this passage is intentional on the part of Shakespeare, who retains all the beauty of the speech, while suggesting that Caliban is not quite a master of grammar. More intriguingly, the shifts back and forth among past, present, and future tenses create what Robert Graves praised in The White Goddess as “a perfect suspension of time.”

I didn’t go into all this in talking with Maura after the performance. Nor did I babble on about the lyrics alluding to the Brunhilde-Sigurd myth. But I did tell her, honestly, that I thought the song “worthy” of this astonishing passage:  even higher praise than saying that her performance of “Crazy” was as good as the great Patsy Cline’s.

I liked “I Cried to Dream Again” so much that Maura was gracious enough to send me an MP3 of the song prior to its release on their upcoming CD. In writing to thank her, I told her I liked it even more after playing it a couple of times.

The lovely imagery of moonlight, starlight, and mist may or may not be consciously Shelleyan, but the lines, “I dreamed/ I was circumscribed by flame/ when I heard you call my name,” seemed a clear allusion to the Valkyrie Brunhilde, punished by being put in a spell and surrounded by fire. That ring of fire is, of course, penetrated by the hero Sigurd, who rides through the flames, kisses and awakens her…and then leaves her.

That trajectory suits a song about love and loss, ecstasy and abandonment: “I never cried/ until you walked on by/ without one word, a nod, or sigh.” Whether it was a fully conscious allusion or not doesn’t matter; as D. H. Lawrence insisted, “trust the tale, and not the teller.” Whatever Mr. Love’s intention, this mythic imagery is there, in the song. So now, that Brunhilde-Sigurd myth joins the haunting final line of Caliban’s speech on the island’s music, becoming, at least for me, an integral part of the song.

The music Maura wrote for it verges on the magical, and the poignant word “bittersweet,” crucially placed and held beautifully by Maura in a long and rising note, evoked for me the love poems written by W. B. Yeats for his enchantress and muse, Maud Gonne. Spectacularly beautiful and never fully attainable, Maud fascinated the poet, broke his heart, and inspired some of the most beautiful and (a favorite Yeats adjective) “bittersweet” poetry in the English language.

Coincidentally or not, Maura had included in her email recent photos she and her husband had taken of themselves at the gravestone in Drumcliff churchyard in Sligo, where Yeats is buried “under bare Ben Bulben’s head,” and beneath one of the most famously cryptic epitaphs in history. This year is the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth. On April 9, in the Le Moyne Library, I’ll be reciting a selection of Yeats’s poems of unrequited love, many of which I have by heart (a wonderful phrase, when one thinks about it). When I do, it will be with “I Cried to Dream Again” playing, perhaps as background music, certainly in my imagination.

—Patrick J. Keane


B.D. Love grew up in a small town in Southeastern Michigan, along the banks of a murky and probably toxic body of water called — presumably for its color — the River Raisin. His first poem, a prayer to the Virgin Mary composed when he was in the third grade, inspired his homeroom nun to accuse him of plagiarism. He did not write again for many years, until the death of his grandmother prompted his return to verse. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals, and he’s had several books published. His lyric writing and collaboration with musician Maura Kennedy has resulted in a full-length album titled, “Villanelle: The Songs Of Maura Kennedy And B.D. Love” due to be released April 28, 2015 on the Varèse Sarabande record label. An avid dog-lover, he now resides along the banks of the murky and occasionally toxic Los Angeles River.

Read more about him


Maura Kennedy The daughter of a professor of English, and the ”musical one” of seven children, Maura Kennedy carved out her moments of teenage creative solitude sequestered in a closet, blasting Queen and Kate Bush on headphones, while she read C.S. Lewis and Stephen R. Donaldson. Not given to the hermitic life, she made nocturnal escapes, crawling out of her bedroom window and across the roof of her family’s suburban split-level home, to hit the streets of post-industrial Syracuse, New York, in search of crunching power chords and soaring pop hooks.

She found them—and was always the first on the dance floor—in small clubs where R.E.M. and Squeeze were scrounging gas money for the road, and especially at a dusty used record shop, where she got a job just to spin vinyl all day. She soaked up the Kinks, the Hollies, the Raspberries, and leavened the sweetness with a strong dose of Thompson/Denny era Fairport Convention. In the stainless steel splendor of the Little Gem Diner, the Ramones autographed her Social Security Card. At college, she pawned her meal tickets to buy an amp and lived off of her bandmate’s doggie bags. She cracked a couple of ribs in the mosh pit at a Clash show and finally got the music degree. After spending the night in an upstate Greyhound station when she missed the last bus following a Cheap Trick concert, she and some like-minded friends formed a combo and blazed a trail through the Syracuse club scene. And with the breeze off Onondaga Lake at her back, she took off for Austin.

It was there that she hooked up with Nanci Griffith, and toured the US and the British Isles behind Nanci’s Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms. Working the road in the acoustic format of roots-pop mavens The Kennedys, her songwriting blossomed, as she began drawing from novels, poetry, and especially from her own dreams.

Maura’s love of both music and literature was the basis for her most recent collaboration with writer B.D. Love, and the resulting album, “Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love,” Maura’s second solo album, is slated for an April 2015 release on Varèse Sarabande records.

Read more about her


Patrick J Keane smaller

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).



Mar 312015

Jen Bervin



EN BERVIN IS AN ARTIST and maker of poems without boundary or limit. Her poetry is a poetry of connections, threads, weaving, words born of sound and image, of history, text from textile, textile from text. Her poetry emerges in art venues, artists’ books, public performance, silk film, and it is fabricated with typewriters, sequins, thread, ink and, soon, nanotechnology.

I will not forget the first time I saw her Dickinson Fascicles, large-scale, wall-size embroideries of the punctuation and markings found in the hand-stitched booklets that Emily Dickinson made for her poems. I leaned in close to the fabric on the wall, my eyes riding the twitching rhythm of the marks across the batting, but also the minuscule rising and diving within each mark, stitch by stitch. I raised my hand instinctively, perhaps as a conductor would before a score, and paused, imagining the texture of the text on the tips of my fingers. Then I traced in the air those gaps and spans where there was nothing at all.

Jen Bervin

But there’s always something. Even white space, Bervin has said, citing John Cage, is musically scored. In Nets, her book of erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she wrote, “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.” Her work—at the intersection of writing and weaving, text and textile, song and silence—makes luminous that which we hadn’t noticed or, until she showed us, been able to see.

Her current—and most ambitious—project, the Silk Poems, is an experimental book (if “book” is defined loosely) that takes silk, in Bervin’s words, “as its subject and form, exploring the cultural, scientific, and linguistic complexities of silk, mending, and the body through text and images nanoimprinted on transparent silk film.” If you were to hold up a piece of this translucent material, what would it look like? What might you see? Very little at all—until you shine fiber-optic light through it. Then the words and pictures would jump up, projected into bloom. Here too, embedded within the high technology, history pulses: 5000 years of culture, art, and writing, of poets, traders, emperors, laborers. The history and the silk itself almost invisible, until illuminated.

While most of us think of silk as something we might wear, scientists regard it as much more than that. They’ve recently begun unlocking its remarkable properties, some of which could eventually have widespread high-tech and biomedical uses. Bervin believes that poetry has work to do in the world. With silk film, that work travels beyond the library or classroom, beyond books and academia, and into laboratories—even, potentially, into our own bodies. Bervin’s work shows us that every trace, every thread matters, every mark, every last letter, everything we hide and everything we reveal, that art and poetry are made of our intentions, and that we are too.

In Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe describes how, two hundred and fifty years ago, the theologian, pastor, and writer Jonathan Edwards traveled between parishes in Western Massachusetts by horseback, writing as he rode and pinning those notes— scraps of paper fashioned from silk or other some other salvaged fabric—to his clothing, “fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and a particular insight.” He would arrive at his destination dressed in words. Today words needn’t only clothe us; they may quite literally enter and become a part of us. With the right light, poetry rises through and from the page, rises to the walls, and signals and shines beneath our skin.

* * * *

Although her Silk Poems research has her traveling widely and often, Jen Bervin and I were able to talk at length on the phone in early January 2015, which is where the bulk of the interview below has its origins. We continued editing, revising, and refining over a series of follow-up emails. I have known her for about four years now, and no matter the medium—online, on the phone, or in person—Jen is unfailingly generous, kind, engaging, and gracious. She laughed often throughout our conversation and conveyed an infectious enthusiasm about her work and writing/making art in general.

Jen Bervin (JB): Earlier you asked me about where I was and whether I was writing poems for the Silk Poems project already.

Darren Higgins (DH): Yes.

JB: Right now I am thinking more about content and forms—really the overall structure. But one of the things that I have been doing as I research is trying to realize when components of the research get too big and should be diverted into their own thing. That has amounted to some very exciting thinking.

I knew that the research would lead me in some wild directions, but one of the treasures that I came across in Suzhou, China, was a woven replica of a poem composed in the fourth century B.C.E. by a Chinese woman poet, Su Hui. It is written in a reversible form she invented—a 29 x 29 character grid that can be read in any direction, yielding thousands of possible poems. Moreover, she wrote it in five colors and embroidered the poem in silk.

Jen Bervin Su Hui Suzhou
There is very little written about the poem in English. David Hinton translated one quadrant of it under the title “Star Gauge” and has a useful essay on it, “Welling Out of Silence.” The best work on this poem I’ve been able to find is by the French poet, Michèle Métail, who wrote a whole book on it: Le vol des oies sauvages. So I was trying to read about the poem in French, which is pretty slow going.

Jen Bervin
When I was in Italy on the Bogliasco Fellowship this past fall, I started hashing out a rough translation of it with substantial help from the dancer in residence, Mei-yin Ng. I was spending a lot of time looking up definitions of words but, seriously, you come across single characters that have up to 70 meanings.

DH: How many?

JB: Seventy, seven-zero.

DH: My god.

JB: You can imagine, as a non-native speaker of Chinese, the translation problems it starts to pose. To add to the mess, the poem was written in complex Chinese characters and now it’s typically presented in simplified Chinese characters, which are slightly different, so that’s when I lost it in Italy. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m translating it from the simplified Chinese. I’m not even translating from the right alphabet yet.”

DH: Must have been incredibly frustrating…

JB: I’d been at it for quite a while. Not to mention the fact that a Chinese character can act as any part of speech, depending on context, and the meaning of the character changes according to the character next to it. If you’re coming to that character from all different directions, the meanings are very much in flux. It’s an infinite poem, essentially. I felt both so thrilled and daunted by it and also somewhat appalled that there was just so little written about it. That there was this treasure written by a woman so early on, the complexity of which we really haven’t matched today, and it’s not a well-known thing!? That was shocking to me.

DH: Hard to believe.

JB: Like with any big, delicious problem I started to think about what could be done. And like with any big, delicious problem in art I took a lot of wrong tacks looking for something that works, but what it has come down to now is really beyond thrilling—some real progress. I think that Jody Gladding is going to translate the Michèle Métail book, so that whole book could, in some form, be available in English to English-speaking audiences. The book goes into not only the complexity of the reading patterns and how you might structurally read it but also the celestial maps that influence the structure of the poem, and it talks about a lot of poems that came out of Su Hui’s work and were influenced by it.

Now we’re just figuring out where it might go publication-wise. Hopefully we can lure David Hinton back into trying to translate the rest of the poem. You can imagine that it’s quite a task—a task that could be done thousands of times over with different results!

DH: Unending possibilities.

JB: Right. But the thing that seemed most exciting to me was to have the experience of time in that poem, and to keep the textile aspect of it in the foreground. I can’t read Chinese, so I thought, well, for me to embroider it would be a craft, not a reading experience. This is when something very special that I encountered on my research trip, in the same city where I encountered the facsimile of that poem for the first time, came back to me—the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute.

This is a place where highly, highly trained embroiderers make these double-sided works that can be viewed from either side, so it’s essentially a reversible image. These embroideries take a couple of years to make and I thought that it would be really exciting for me to commission embroideries of this poem, after first building a relationship with a few embroiderers at the institute who have an interest in reading poetry. And then, through conversations, writing, and film, we would track the experience of the embroiderers—of their relationship to the poem—and let that be its translation too.

DH: Adding another layer of translation (and meaning). In this case, a translation of experience as well.

JB: Yes. The important part of that work is the experience of the embroiderers’ journey with that poem. That’s what is exciting to me.

DH: You’ve been working on this Silk Poems project for a while now. When did this new plan start to come together?

JB: Well, none of it would have happened without the Creative Capital Grant in 2013—I’ll never cease being thankful for that one. We visited China around the beginning of November 2013, and I’ve been talking about that Su Hui poem non-stop ever since. The whole solution came slowly, first with begging Jody to translate the Métail book. I was just trying to read the book in French for awhile. I soon realized that it was becoming a question of what I need for my research vs. what I would hope would be available to a lot of other people.

DH: That seems like a crucial distinction. Can you talk more about that last point?

JB: I think that’s where a lot of these decisions were coming from—I could spend a lot of time in this Su Hui poem trying to translate it, but I don’t feel confident (given that I’m not a Chinese translator and this is one of the most difficult translation projects imaginable) that I could bring that experience to other people in a way that’s as meaningful as the idea to collaborate with an embroider at the research institute. I could point to that collaboration as a kind of solution to get other people interested in working on it again.

I’m a big fan of the joyful solution and that really feels like one…so that happened within the last month or two.

DH: This poem has an interesting back story: Su Hui’s husband, a government official, took a concubine, which infuriated Su Hui. He soon after left for a distant post with this mistress. Su Hui refused to go, but it’s said that she grew to miss him and composed the poem to win him back and call him home. According to the story, it worked. He dismissed the concubine and rejoined Su Hui.

JB: The story is quite compelling, and it is mostly what gets discussed—the story of the poem. That she sent this poem as a letter obviously has a lot of resonance for me with the Dickinson envelope poems. Su Hui’s intended audience for the poem, and her intended purpose as well, is quite singular and yet the poem everything but—it’s infinite. It’s easy to fall into the trap of speculating about a writer’s life instead of focusing on her work, and this is too often the case with women artists and writers. When a lot of translations of the poem exist and Su Hui’s work is getting tons of attention, I won’t need to have this redirecting bent. I look forward to that.

DH: There is so much here. It’s the kind of project you could play with for the rest of your life, essentially.

JB: Yes. But I think that for the sake of the Silk Poems, the nano-imprinted silk film, to simply reproduce the Su Hui poem is enough. You lose the five colors because it’s not a color format. But simply to have it present and to allow its structure of reading to help me think about how other things appear or inform how they are read—that idea of reversibility, which was already in the silk poem, coming out of the DNA structures and writing forms related to the structures—has already done its work.

DH: Hearing you talk about reversibility makes me think of how you’ve always paid attention not merely to the front of a piece, the part we might most readily see, but the flipside as well, as in The Desert. That play between the seen and unseen, the possible and the revealed… it comes up again and again, now that I think about it. In Nets, your words float to the surface in pools of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the Dickinson Fascicles, you highlight markings, symbols, twitches. In the Gorgeous Nothings, you and Marta Werner bring scraps and torn envelopes and variations to the fore. Do you see this interest playing out in the Silk Poems? Perhaps in how you want to record the experience of the embroiderer as another form of translation?

Jen Bervin Desert_1open

JB: Absolutely. Just as you said.

DH: So, what has all this new thinking done to your original concept for the project?

JB: If anything it’s just a huge relief. I feel like in our practice one of the most difficult things is coming to the right framing of something that’s really exciting to everyone, and once that’s in place, the work becomes very easy and fluid. It’s when you’re stuck in that purgatory I was in with that poem that things are complicated.

I think of myself as a giant digesting machine for all of this, and I’m just so relieved when something becomes that clear.

DH: You don’t seem to panic, or at least not outwardly, when you are having doubts or collecting endless amounts of information without a sense of where it’ll lead.

JB: The thing is I panic but I’m talking with everyone about that panic. One of the things that I really wanted with the Silk Poems in particular was exactly that aspect, that I couldn’t figure out almost any of it alone, and that it was something that I was going to have to keep talking about with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of people to get anywhere interesting, both in the research and in the development of the project.

I really love that idea that you can’t make a work alone. I question the idea of single authorship in general, but especially in a work that has and draws from such a complex history and such a complex presence in a sense.

With all the scientific development in this work, the historic wealth of information about silk, and art and literature that draw from silk, the too-muchness of it was a known problem to begin with.

DH: So it was built in from the start that you’d interact and collaborate with people from different disciplines, different industries even, across the world?

JB: Yes. I think also I wanted to get much more comfortable feeling out of my element in every way.

DH: How so?

JB: If you walk into a bioengineering lab where they are developing new uses for silk, you pretty much don’t know anything. You just have to enjoy the place of asking a ton of questions about it and continuing to ask those, and not being embarrassed about having to race up to speed every time you enter.

DH: What’s appealing or exciting about that to you?

JB: I’ve always felt like it’s a trap in the arts to get comfortable in your work. I think naturally we revert to ways of thinking pretty readily. I’m guilty of that, but I think if you choose things that make doing that pretty impossible, then it puts you in some good spaces to learn and explore. I am excited about making something that doesn’t look like anything else I have made and has a process that doesn’t resemble any other process I have worked with before.

DH: When did you first realize that this is the way that you enjoyed working?

JB: I didn’t say I enjoyed it! I said that I wanted to work that way. I think by nature I am very shy and I’m also very curious, so that’s something I have to live with in the world. It’s not necessarily comfortable to go about things this way, but it certainly is interesting. Does that make sense to you?

DH: It does. I know, from being an inherently shy person myself, that there’s a certain jolt in saying yes to an idea or proposal that makes me uncomfortable. It’s frightening but thrilling. There’s productive energy in that discomfort.

JB: I would say I’ve been super-lucky in that Charlotte Lagarde, my partner, was willing to work and travel with me and to photograph and film places we went for research—not with the aim to make a film about the Silk Poems but to give me a way to keep growing from the research after the fact, because you can’t re-do a lab visit on the other side of the world. You might only get that access once, so to have a record of what people are saying and how they are saying it and what they are showing you in real time is indispensable. That was a huge shift. I had never thought about working on a poem that way. I’ve never needed photo and video, for years throughout a process, to research something. It’s been humbling to try to communicate what you need to someone else when you’re generally very private about it.

Jen Bervin Soochow UniversityHuang Haisu and Dr. Tieling Xing with Jen Bervin at Soochow University

DH: How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed by all the information and everything you’re taking in?

JB: I think I try not to have too many expectations about what I’m going to experience or understand. I guess I could compare it to going to a library in search for a particular book and then finding one in that same row that you needed far more and wouldn’t have found on your own. It’s often that thing to the side of the thing that I’m actually looking for that turns out to be meaningful. Getting too fixated on coming away with a particular thing or looking for a particular thing doesn’t help me be aware of what the potentials are in the moment.

It’s important to be able to admit defeat and keep looking around, do you know what I mean?

DH: That’s true of writing itself, isn’t it? Seems like whenever I start a poem or essay with an idea of what I think I mean or want to say, I wind up, by the time I’m done, in a completely unexpected place, with completely unexpected words on the page. I love that. Discovery and surprise. What a rush—it’s almost magical. The poem finds and determines itself.

Part of it must be opening yourself up, exposing yourself. You let go of intention, which leads to things you wouldn’t have figured out had you held strictly to your plan…and leads to these discoveries that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

JB: Absolutely. I think your essays read that way.

DH: I certainly experience them that way. I find out a lot of what I actually think by going through the process of writing.

JB: I think that’s why it’s so enjoyable to read them.

DH: That’s kind of you to say…

JB: I also love that this work is leading to collaboration with people that I deeply, deeply admire. This matters to me—and has for a long time. It’s just becoming more and more overt.

DH: Did Charlotte’s recording of your travels, your research, play at all into your idea of documenting the embroiderers’ experience with the poem?

JB: Yeah, absolutely, because I have been looking at the videos she made at the embroidery institute in Suzhou for two years now. It’s just so exciting to watch the technique—and the environment in which people are embroidering is quite special. The workshop itself is beautiful and full of light. I love how layered the work sites are. You have a skull-and-crossbones cloth where someone might put their elbow and a cell phone a little farther down and then particular ways each embroiderer organizes their thread color palette and their work area, you have tea on the window sill. It’s a joy to be in that space. I was taken through it on a tour during which I was rushed along and still I have that sense of the richness of slow time there.

DH: That’s beautiful: “the richness of slow time.” Has that sense always been with you? Maybe you can talk about how you came to work with textiles in the first place, and how that intersects with your poetry.

JB: I grew up in a family of women who sew. My mother sewed clothes for us, my grandmother sewed clothes for her family, and I learned pretty early on. My mom was great about teaching me how to do a lot of different things, how to do some basic sewing and how to work with pattern and that kind of thing. Before I even really got underway in the visual arts I was already involved in sewing and the culinary arts for sure. Those things developed in step with reading. I don’t think I really would have considered myself a writer until I was pretty far along in my 20s even, late 20s to early 30s.

I came to writing from the visual arts. I was feeling uncertain about what art could do and how it could do it in the art world, along with a desire to really learn how to articulate complex thoughts in the medium of language, which is what I think poetry does best. I didn’t know how to do that yet. As I was finishing up my degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago it became really important to me to slow down and make work that I wanted to live with.

It’s a lot like this translation tangle I got myself into. A lot of great things in the arts come out of a sense of discontent or disgust or failure or inadequacy, so it’s a such useful feeling in the arts, if you let it be useful.

DH: That could take some practice though, letting it be useful.
JB: Yeah. I think that I was really lucky to have a family that left me alone. It gives you privacy about your failures. Because you have time to just be comfortable with them.

DH: There’s a bumper sticker: “More parents should just leave their kids alone…”!

JB: Yeah, that’s not a popular parenting recommendation…

DH: No.

JB: And I’m in no position to recommend, but I really appreciated that.

DH: To have your own space to work through what you needed to work through?

JB: Yeah, and just to…I don’t know. I think it fostered a confidence in myself that early on made me comfortable in discomfort. Maybe too comfortable in discomfort, I don’t know.

DH: I guess that’s a danger. I hadn’t thought of that…

JB: The jury is still out. I’m just so pleased that I’ve become more of a social animal as I’ve aged. I didn’t see that coming. I was a little worried I’d be more of an Agnes Martin loner type, so that’s been a nice surprise.

DH: What do you think is responsible for this evolution?

JB: I guess I had had enough time alone. When I was at that juncture between art and writing, I worked as a fire lookout and that’s pretty isolated work. I think for some people it sounds really awful but to me it was just heaven. I was learning Latin, reading, embroidering, writing, hiking, etc.—with a view to die for and some wonderfully amusing chatter on the Forest Service radio to monitor. As a lookout, you spend all day reading landscape—and I love that landscape: the Sonoran Desert. I kept a keen eye out for fires or “smokes,” as they call them, and had plenty to report, but the work of the lookout is mostly map-based—conveying very precise map work accurately.

I moved to the desert with a real intention to slow down and figure things out, and that willingness to be alone and to be lonely and to be uncertain for a long time gave me a grounding that never left. I just waited. I waited and I read and I wrote and I tried to figure things out.

Then when I came back to graduate school for writing and was combining the two, art and writing, it was with a very different sense.

DH: I said earlier that you never seemed to panic but I realize now that it’s more about what you just mentioned: your patience, your willingness to wait (to be on the lookout, so to speak), and yet with an underlying confidence that the answer will arrive, that you’ll find it, however long it takes.

JB: One thing I encounter a lot in conversations about interdisciplinary work, especially with writers, is the inter-genre question. I guess I’m grateful that for me it was never a hang-up. I never felt that I had to explain to anyone what I was doing. I just had to show them what I meant. I feel like anyone who encounters my work can understand what I’m doing if the work is good—and it’s not always good, but I try. If you give people the opportunity and you show them what you mean by that intersection, anyone can meet you there, but to put the genre ahead of the work often makes that seem more impossible than it actually is.

DH: And what drew you to silk? Why silk?

JB: A friend, Amanda Schaffer, wrote a really wonderful piece for Slate magazine. She was researching many different aspects of this new silk boom that resulted from David Kaplan’s discovery in 2009 of how to liquefy the silk cocoon. Once Amanda finished writing the article she was still so engaged with the ideas that she got in touch to ask if I might want to collaborate on something visual and verbal. She sought me out because she knew I was already working with text and textile and the intersection of the two. Even though the research didn’t look like other things I did, it was the same area of interest.

So it really started in the spirit of collaboration. Amanda got very busy with other projects, including a pregnancy (her second child), and as much as I tried to lure her back into the project, she’s really held her ground. But she is generous with conversations from time to time—asking the right questions, or telling me what to ask, and explaining intensely complex things to me.

I think going into the Silk Lab at Tufts with her to meet Fio Omenetto and David Kaplan in the very beginning was a real gift. Because if you walk into one lab, you get this idea that you can walk into another, so visiting the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility just feels like something I might be able to do after all, or at least like something to propose. I’m a big fan of just letting people say no, but always asking, always asking.

Jen Bervin at Stanford NanolabStanford Nanolab

DH: I’m interested in the relationship of silk to the body. What role does that play in the project?

JB: That aspect of it is really important. Silk is universally biocompatible. Every single body on earth will accept it in any context, which is why the liquefaction discovery was such a big deal. It opens up a huge range of new possibilities. The bioactive silk sensor—the thing I’m working with as an imagined context—is still in the research phase.

I just want to stop the clock for a minute to say, Wow! That’s an amazing context—silk inscribed nanoscale inside the body as a visual sensor, something that would act as a harbinger, something that will alert someone, in a medical way, to a change that has occurred in the body. Obviously, it’s not a neutral thing to have an inscribed piece of silk inside of you that is showing you something potentially very bad or hopefully normal about what is most likely a really precarious health situation. So I have been interested all along in imagining how this sensor affects someone’s conception of their own health—how it affects their imagination, how what is inscribed there is affecting on other levels, deeper levels in the psyche and spirit.

That seemed like a territory that a poem could handle—and has handled—in meaningful ways. I think that in many times and kinds of difficulty we turn to poetry, and yet most of the time we act like it’s superfluous. I really believe that poems have jobs to do. Not set job descriptions, but I think we need them more than we let on.

DH: In what sense do we not admit to that, do you think, or do we fail to see the work of poetry?

JB: I’m not so focused on pointing to failures. I’m more interested in pointing to poetry and saying it’s a wellspring, because I believe that.

The poem (and by “poem” I mean visual and images I’m thinking through right now) probably isn’t going to be inside of a body. It’s going to be a silk film outside the body. Something that you can project and read with fiber-optic light as a projection on a wall. It’s content comes from the assumed context as a bioactive sensor, one that may become real and may not, but I guess the viability, so to speak, of the thing that I make (that is, whether it becomes part of a real sensor inside someone) is really not up to me.

I’ll definitely offer anything I do back to the researchers who inspired it and hope it will open up new possibilities for collaboration. What I can do is offer up a context in which a poem can be an important component of a medical development.

DH: So where do you envision the Silk Poems living, ultimately? Will they be “published” in a traditional sense?

JB: The object was always the easiest part because that’s already a given—to nanoimprint silk film—that’s been fairly straightforward, and to know in advance that it’s something one would read as a projection with light. That’s a lot of knowns for a work of art. I don’t usually start knowing what the thing I’ll make in the end is. I don’t know how many need to exist. Maybe just one. And I’ve been calling it “Poems,” which suggests a book, but I’ve imagined something more like microfiche there. I’m guessing that a reading situation for this is probably a room, not a folio. It will show me, I guess. Or other people will suggest things and show me. That’s most likely what will happen. Or the materials will suggest things.

DH: I was curious about that, how much the material or context determines the content—how much the textile determines the text.

JB: The silk film has to be nanopatterned to work as a sensor, so the scale of the writing, the surface material, the way in which it can be read, and the imagined context were all already there when I started.

DH: Right, but does silk demand a particular kind of poetry? Are there things that shouldn’t be said on the silk or things that should be said?

JB: I think there are things that I feel responsible to in a structural way, like the development of the card loom, for example. The first binary system, the first computer, so to speak. The structure of the silk itself. And the process and the forms that are involved in sericulture. All that seems very fundamental to get in the poem. I feel like there’s a danger of falling into the traps that historical novels can fall into. You can get so overwhelmed by the factual material you want to convey that the book itself suffers. I guess that’s where that sitting and waiting and standing back and seeing what things are indispensable to the work comes in.

In traveling the world to research silk—China, Japan, France, Italy, Turkey, Georgia (and more to come: India, Spain, Egypt, etc.)—what becomes increasingly difficult is how to address that kind of multilingual context well in the finished work. I mean, you can’t just bring it all into English—it’s wrongheaded. I’ve imagined translating at the very least the project description into every language that affects the project. I also hope to return to sites where I researched to share the finished work.

DH: I love that the poem will be read with light.

JB: I’m really happy with that because the way silk reflects light is one of its remarkable properties. I was just reading about how the smoothness of the fiber made it a superior embroidery material and how it really brought the craft of embroidery to Egypt and replaced wool permanently. That the material itself can change the course of what is made in a given culture, it’s quite astounding to me.

DH: We have this ancient fiber, used in so many cultures for thousands of years, and yet even today we’re still discovering its properties and finding new ways to use it. It’s remarkable.

JB: It really is.

—Jen Bervin & Darren Higgins

Based in Brooklyn, poet and visual artist Jen Bervin brings together text and textile in a practice that encompasses poetry, archival research, artist books and visual art. Her works involve strong conceptual elements with a minimalist’s eye for the poetic and essential. Recent books include Draft Notations (Granary Books 2014) and Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings (Christine Burgin/New Directions) co-edited with Marta Werner, a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Pegasus Award for Criticism, and a Best Book of the Year from Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, and The New Yorker. Her works have been shown at the Walker Art Center, The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and elsewhere, and are held in more than thirty collections including the J. Paul Getty Museum. Bervin’s honors include a Creative Capital Grant, a NYFA Fellowship, and residencies from The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, MacDowell Colony, The Camargo Foundation, The Bogliasco Foundation, and the Rauschenberg Foundation. She has taught at Poets House, University of Denver, New York University, Pratt Institute, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Yale University, and will be a Fitt Artist in Residence at Brown University in 2015.

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  


Mar 082015

Pamela PetroPamela Petro (Photo: Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Sometimes we meet people through the strangest of connections. Almost two years ago, a dear friend of mine introduced me to the poetry of John Weiners, a Boston College (high school and university) classmate of his. In researching this lesser-known but no-less-great Beat poet, I came across Pamela Petro’s article on Weiners, “The Hipster of Joy Street,” initially published in the Boston College magazine and reprinted in Jacket 2 soon after Weiners death in 2002. I was so moved by Petro’s writing, I sent her an email. She responded and we’ve been exchanging letters since.

Living in Northampton, Massachusetts, Petro is a writer and an artist, and prefers to be both simultaneously, but that doesn’t happen very often, she says.

She has written a handful of books including “Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey Through the American South” and “The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.” Central to her current work is the concept of hiraeth, a slightly untranslatable Welsh word that means longing or yearning, missing something or someone absent. At the moment, she is working on a memoir called “The Slant Space: A Memoir of Wales and the Presence of Absence,” a book about an idea, using the hiraeth of the foreigner—someone who loves Wales but can never really be Welsh—as the way into the subject.

On the artist side, Petro posted on her blog, The Petrograph Gallery, moved-camera images taken at dusk. The idea behind what she calls “The Dusk Series” is an effort to deconstruct conventional landscapes. And that makes sense as many of the images resemble the aurora borealis although technically the Latin word aurora means sunrise or the Roman goddess of dawn. From this work, she hopes to create a new word-and-image book (read simultaneously artist and writer) called Invisible Landscapes inspired by Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Here, Petro says she will investigate hiraeth as an ecological “keyword” as Raymond Williams used the term. She explains:

“I like the idea of “documenting” nature with an ostensibly objective tool like a camera to create, rather than recognizable landscapes, images in a state of spatial and temporal mutability. The dusk photos aren’t petrographs, but they investigate the same territory: the liminal spaces between seen and intuited, light and dark, day and night. Because they focus on transition instead of stability, they blur the boundaries between what we see and what we expect, hopefully making us reexamine our relationship to landscape and redefine what we call ecology.”

Earlier this year, Petro launched “AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative” at the Lesley Creative Writing Residency in Cambridge. This book came out of her Artist’s Residency at the Canyon in 2011. It looks at the hiraeth of deep time and geology, paired with the loss of both her father and her dog in 2012.

With a B.A. from Brown University (Independent Honors Concentration in Writing and Illustration) and a M.A. from the University of Wales, Petro teaches creative writing at Smith College and in Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

—JC Olsthoorn


JC Olsthoorn (JCO): In your book Sitting Up with the Dead one passage in particular struck me:

“A story’s only half the equation,” he said. “The context you tell it in makes all the difference, twists the meaning. Ignore the context and you’re being irresponsible…. The context,” reiterated Akbar Imhotep, . . . “is everything.”

How important is context for you?

Pamela Petro (PP): I’m in complete agreement with Akbar. The only reason Sitting up with the Dead works—assuming it does work!—is because the Southern storytellers whom I asked to tell me tales didn’t tell them in a vacuum. They told stories to me; I told stories about them. What they looked like, where we met, where they were from, what they did for a living, what generation they belonged to. All of this mattered immensely. It mattered that Orville Hicks told me a centuries-old Jack tale, out of medieval England, at the Blowing Rock Recycling Center, where he holds court, and that Kwame Dawes told me an equally ancient African tale, The Girl and the Fish, in his office at the University of South Carolina.

I find context probably the most important part of any attempt at communication. In fact, I do a warm-up exercise with my writing students where I give them a premise—say, a couple about to kiss—and then flash up different contextual images, from a beach to a bedroom to an office to a gallows. Context tells more than half the story, often contradicting expectations.

JCO: That makes a lot of sense for storytelling. What about with art? Todd Bartel in the comments section of a NC interview addressed a question of context for viewers and an artist’s intentions saying:

“Because I am all too keenly aware that people, myself included, bring whatever they experience with them when looking at art, or experiencing any creative expression for that matter, I tend to select things that have several meanings, that can become springs boards for more than one lineage of thought, association or feeling. … I spend a lot of time looking for things before I ever set out to make something. I search for objects/images that have specific meaning for me on the one hand and general references to larger topics on the other hand. I look for things that can spark double meanings. That way, I am assured of at least a couple of readings I intend, while also allowing for others, I cannot yet imagine.”

PP: Yes, I utterly agree with Bartel that the finest works—words, images, performances, you name it—are those which spark the most multifaceted meanings. In fact, that’s why I’m so drawn to the concept of hiraeth. It is a distinctly Welsh idea, deriving from the historical, linguistic, economic, religious, and cultural experience of Wales. But it truly is, also, a universal experience, and the most useful, memorable ideas are both specific and universal at once.

JCO: What is hiraeth and is a Welsh context important to understand it?

PP: Hiraeth refers to the “presence of absence.” Call it a yearning for something or someone irretrievable, beyond place or time, lost to the wars we can never win: the ones against time, mortality, and injustice. It is what we seek in the past, yearn for in the future, and invent in the present to placate our absences. As to whether a Welsh context is important in understanding it: Yes and no.

As Robin Chapman, a British linguist, says about hiraeth, “…it denotes, paradoxically, both an enduring human feeling and something essentially Welsh.” So it depends on which side of that paradox concerns you. The moment a Welsh person starts to describe hiraeth, the rest of us invariably say, “Oh! Yes! I know what you mean! Is that what it’s called?” So you can say No, a Welsh context isn’t important—it is a universal human experience.

On the other hand, we can’t neglect to ask why Wales and its language made room for this word when all but one other of the world’s 7000+ languages—Portuguese, with its lovely word, saudade—didn’t. So, a knowledge of Wales is indeed critical in understanding hiraeth; or, to put it another way, a knowledge of hiraeth is critical in understanding Wales. But that’s just the first step: it opens up to encompass all human experience.

JCO: It is no accident you hear so many of the Portuguese Fado singers singing about saudade. The word itself is peppered in many of the mournful fado songs.

Saudades de Coimbra | José Afonso ao vivo no Coliseu

Your installation from late 2013 using gravestone carvings is related to your work with petrographs—silver gelatin photographs printed on stone, especially, but also on other natural detritus like leaves, logs, and bark, as well as concrete sidewalks and, in this case, glass windows. It seems that the marks we make on stone, from scratches to engravings to petrographs, are a part of our primordial humanity. You mention on your website that “petrographs exist in the gap between human consciousness and the world around us”. It almost sounds like that is where hiraeth resides.

PP: I’d long been wanting to work with old 18th century New England gravestone carvings—not to mention the hiraeth inherent in cemeteries. That longing turned into the interactive installation you just mentioned, Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, from which I derived the “graphic script” I’m working on right now called Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs.

On my website there’s an explanation of the project, including a video in which I describe it all, how I derived the graphic script, the images are of the cover, and the cast of characters.

Video of the installation Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing with Pamela Petro explaining its context.

List of the cast of characters in Petro’s upcoming “graphic script”
entitled Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs

JCO: Having the context of Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, especially watching the video, helped me better understand what it is you want to do in Under Paradise Valley. Both of them give different, nuanced meanings to hiraeth. You seem to be making personal (for the people involved in the installation) connections between very disconnected things, 18th century gravestone carvings, 21st century living beings, words new and old, and the mix of technology, photography, print, old windows and glass, bringing them all together, using disparate pieces to create a narrative.


PP: The idea is simple enough, in some ways. You know the feeling you get when you walk through very old cemeteries? A kind of frustration that you can’t ever know these people, even though testaments to their lives are right there before you. Truly, a “long field” separates you and your time from them and their time. In old Welsh hiraeth actually means “long field”.

So, I wanted to find a way to connect with them—and that’s the brilliance of hiraeth. Longing for the impossible inspires creative connections rather than simply despair. It’s why, I think, Wales is such a creative place, full of tales and poetry and music and art.

The windows I used in the installation made an ideal metaphor for peering across time. And by virtually “wearing” the gravestone images and borrowing their owner’s epitaphs, we—the contemporary NoHo’ers—added our choices to theirs. It’s a way of communicating across the centuries. All I did was string the images and captions together into a kind of “found” surrealistic narrative.

JCO: You write in the Introduction to Under Paradise Valley that you forced yourself to work within a strict set of limitations in creating the “found” text of the graphic script from the interactive component of the installation. What did those limitations entail, and did you entertain easing the limitations at any point? Or did you feel bound by them?

PP: I loved working within the strict set of limitations—it was like a playful puzzle, stringing those captions together. Because I asked viewers at the installation to have their photos taken through the windows of their choice, with the captions of their choice, I wanted to honor their selections. So for the graphic script, I assigned the characters represented by each window ONLY lines taken from the texts that viewers chose for their windows. For instance, if four viewers selected the phrase “I go cheerfully”—one of the epitaph excerpts—and chose to stand behind Phebe Pomeroy’s window holding that caption, Phebe has to utter the phrase “I go cheerfully” four times in the script.

I had so much fun working this way! And I also felt less pressure than I normally do when I write, I think because it felt so wonderfully collaborative: I was working with the words of 18th century epitaph writers (mostly) and the choices of the gallery-goers. It felt like we were assembling a puzzle together. I’d love to do it again.