Meeting Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis is a genre of writing about a work of art. Homer’s lengthy and vivid description of Achilles' shield in The Iliad is one of the oldest examples, though Keat’s Ode to a Grecian Urn is more quoted, especially its enigmatic last lines.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
          Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The writer, and most often a poet, explores a work of art, responds to it, even adds elements from his or her own life. The Poetry Foundation defines an ekphrastic poem as follows: “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” I love this description and thought about it when I sat down to write a statement about a new sculpture I am exhibiting at 6 Bridges Gallery in Maynard, Massachusetts (July 11 – August 12).

Meeting   in the studio. sculpture, 2017

Meeting in the studio. sculpture, 2017

To write about, Meeting, I started by considering its materials — rope and wood. Rope is used to connect one object to another, a canoe to a tree or a skiff to a dock. A rope hammock connects two trees. What intrigued me when I placed the thick rope into the walnut trunk was that it connected back to itself. There was no connecting of two objects but a unifying of the whole. The ends disappeared as if there were no ends.

This section of a tug-of-war-size rope has been in my studio for six years ago. Back then, I suspended it, tied it, uncoiled part of it, and wove it back into itself. When I hung up the heavy coil, it made me think of a Japanese Enso, the circle that is an expression of enlightenment, the ultimate connection with everything because there is nothing inside or outside, nothing separate or divided, nothing to connect, no beginning and no ending.

I then wrapped a thin white twine around the rope, the way a snake coils around a stick. It reminded me of a painting I saw in a small church in Florence. Christ was nailed to the cross alone up on Calvary Hill. There was a simple white cloth wrapped around his pelvis, the cloth painted as if being blown by a gentle breeze. The body was dead, but life stirred in the simplicity of the white threads. The painter may have been suggesting that life is never completely extinguished.

The wood component of the sculpture, a walnut trunk, sawn twice to reveal its two hollow sections, has also been in my studio for a number of years. A bronze sculpture I made of Kwan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion, sat on it for a while, but I removed her knowing the wood had something else to reveal.

One day I took the tug-of-war rope and threaded it through and around the wood. I was intrigued by what I saw, but also by what I didn’t see. In Meeting, we don’t actually see whether the two ends of the rope meet. It’s a question that is unanswered. The rope, in its serpentine path around and into the trunk reveals only part of itself. It is like happening upon a snake, though the head and tail are hidden.

Meeting is the word for the worship practice of the Quakers. I went to a Quaker elementary school where we had ‘meeting for worship’ on Wednesday mornings. We sat in silence unless someone was moved to speak. In a Quaker Meeting, we meet ourselves, we meet God, we meet each other.

Art is a form of meeting. We meet the work, its materials, colors, and forms, the artist and ourselves. Ekphrasis writing is a form of meeting. When I write about my own work, I discover connections that I had never considered while making the piece. And when I read the writing of others who have been inspired my art, I encounter the work differently.

At another summer exhibit where I have a sculpture, Art on the Trails: Finding Solace in the Woods at the Beal Preserve in Southborough, MA (June 7 – September 24), there will be a reading of ekphrastic poems written about the works of the exhibiting artists. I have a new casting of Tree Harp in the exhibit and hope there will be a poem written about it. I much prefer to hear what others write about my sculpture. An ekphrastic poem that I treasure was written by Joanne Reynolds about my sculpture Ordinary Pine when it was installed at the Jackson Homestead in Newton, Massachusetts.

Ordinary Pine  , partial view, installed at Jackson Homestead, Newton, MA

Ordinary Pine, partial view, installed at Jackson Homestead, Newton, MA

       Ordinary Pine         

What happened? That is to say, what happened
To us? Or between us? What
Will become of us now?

True, you were older. Suffered
The deluge. Cast a shadow
More borrowed than your own.

I came shortly after. Not so much a part
As a go-between - a link.

I remember the way you reached out
To the youngest - your great hands - how well they played!

Facing away from you now, each of us
Cut down, I long to see you.
Both of you.

Such a hole in each of us.

                        —Joanne Reynolds