It turns out photography isn’t the only medium that can speak a thousand words. With the right approach, sculpture, painting and even glass-blown works can as well.
Just ask author, poet and instructor Anne-Marie Oomen, who recently teamed up with Write On, Door County to lead a workshop on ekphrastic writing – the literary technique of using visual art as a prompt for written work.
“Ekphrasis means to give a voice to the mute, so that’s its original thing is to let something that can’t speak, speak,” Oomen said. “It can be not just visual art, it can be music and I think a lot of people work ekphrastically from music without even being aware of it. That’s a spoken thing and they’re speaking again in a different language.”
Oomen said ekphrasis can appeal to various genres of writing, be it poetry, personal essay, fiction or even playwriting. Regardless of the final output, the process begins the same: by “thinking into” a work of art.
Using a portrait as an example, Oomen explains that thinking into a piece of work is the process of studying both the composition and its subject – their clothing, face, eyes and the shadows – and your own thoughts “of how you’re being led into the painting.
“I think that when you stare at something for a while, you automatically are pulled toward either the purity of description or narrative,” Oomen said.
The possibilities of ekphrasis are endless. Inspiration can be drawn from the art piece, the feelings of its subject, or the process by which it was created. Oomen points out an example of the latter by American author Susan Vreeland, who employed ekphrasis in her novel Forest Lover, on the life and career of Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr.
“At the time when the tribes of the Vancouver, British Columbia area were disintegrating, she (Emily Carr) went in and painted the last of the great totem poles, those huge totem poles with the ornate beaks and the whale faces. Before they disintegrated, that was her actual historical work was doing those paintings,” Oomen explained. “Well, Susan Vreeland goes in and imagines what the artist experienced as she both sought the totems, being a woman in a world that was voyageurs basically, and then imagined what went on in her own brain as she developed that.”
The subject can also become a character. Oomen recalls a poetry series written by one of her students at Interlochen Center for the Arts. The focus was the woman in the red dress of Edward Hopper’s oil on canvas painting, “Nighthawks.”
“She wrote this poem about the woman in the red dress. Beautiful poem. Captured this late-night obsessive coffee drinking in this café on the dark street, she just captured it,” Oomen said. “Then, for her, she read about the piece hanging in the Chicago Art Institute. She went to see the piece, she saw the piece and how it was placed and all the other pieces around it, and so she made a series in which the woman in the red dress abandons the painting, leaves the painting, goes out into the museum and interacts with all these other paintings. She had 10 or 12 poems. It was just gorgeous!”
The author notes that ekphrasis provides a challenge – creating another art form from one that already exists – but for those ready to accept this form of literary help, a positive experience often awaits.
“Other people just find it really freeing, to enter a painting and feel that sense of entering another world with a little more help than they normally have if they just have to make up something.”
Write On, Door County has paired up with Door County galleries to host monthly ekphrastic writing opportunities, called ART/SPEAKS: Writing in Response to Art. For dates and locations, visit writeondoorcounty.org/events/.
#4 In the Presence
inspired by Rebecca Carlton’s “Euterpe,” muse of song and music, black clay with white glaze
Long before I stood in the presence
of clay and flowers
I stood in a swale, old
burn, and what rose first from that soil,
countless dusky pompoms, milkweed,
calling monarchs from the blue.
They came. Floating down, an
orange and black song
tasting through their tiny feet,
the white sap. Then the scent, sweet stung,
rinsed by sun.
If scent is muse for Being,
give me the butterflies
song of their knickering,
song of their entering,
song of their skinny-legged fingering.
And all this, as I stand before clay,
thinking how much
I want to sing