The Art of Ekphrasis Writing

Life changed dramatically from one day to the next last week. One day, hand washing was of utmost importance, and the next day it was social distancing. One day, the store had toilet paper, and the next day it didn’t. One day, events were happening, and the next day they weren’t.

On the morning of March 12, I headed to the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay for Write On, Door County’s free Art/Speaks ekphrastic-writing program. I was cautious but not scared. I didn’t realize it would be one of the last events I would go to for a while.

Art/Speaks events are held quarterly throughout the year at a rotating selection of venues – most frequently at Edgewood Orchard Galleries, the Kress Pavilion and the Margaret Lockwood Gallery. On March 12, it was held at the Miller Art Museum so writers could use the artwork in its current exhibit – Wade in Water, Into the Field: Paintings by Judi Ekholm – as their inspiration. Ekholm’s paintings are landscapes – sometimes bright and a bit whimsical, at other times serene and mellow. 

Ekphrastic writing is writing in response to art. The Poetry Foundation provides this definition: “A vivid description of a scene, or more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the action of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” It’s an artistic symbiosis in which one artistic form grows from another. 

When I arrived at the museum, the regular facilitator, Francha Barnard, instructed me to look at all the paintings until I found one that spoke to me. She offered this encouragement: “It’s always a surprise what comes out when you sit down and write from a piece.” 

A participant in the Art/Speaks program at the Miller Art Museum on March 12. Photo courtesy of Miller Art Museum.

There were also seasoned local poets at the event – Ethel Mortenson Davis, Thomas Davis and Ralph Murre – and it was well worth attending just to hear what they came up with at the end of the writing time. The group had about 45 minutes to sit down, reflect and write, and the last 15 minutes were for sharing. Barnard is a calming influence at the program. She gives ample encouragement, with little pressure, to have people recite their work. 

After 45 minutes of writing, I had three pages of writing and two starts to a poem, but not a lot of bravery to share any of it. Although I didn’t leave with a poem I was confident in, I did leave with a mind more at ease knowing that creativity remains for whoever looks for it. 

In an earlier draft of this article, I recommended that people go to the Miller Art Museum to look at Ekholm’s paintings and try writing in response to art. In light of social distancing and self-quarantining, I recommend you go to the website of a favorite Door County artist or gallery and write from an image you find there.

If you can muster more confidence and bravery than I had, please submit your poem and the image you used as your inspiration. They may appear in the pages of the Pulse. Send submissions to [email protected]

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