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



Boats, Figures, and Catching Fish

Boats embody our life journey, each of us, adrift, on a vast ocean. We can only surrender to what life presents. We embark, not knowing where the wind will drive our craft. I first started making sculptures of boats in 2007, inspired by teachings of Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master. His writings are short, poetic, beautiful, pithy, and quite challenging to parse. In Genjo Koan, Dogen writes:

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.      Tr. Tanahashi et al.

I made boats in wax — boats with one figure, boats with fish, boats with two figures, boats overturned on a beach, a figure emptying water from a boat, a figure birthing a boat. There was nothing fixed in my play with the wax sculptures — only an endless reconfiguring of figures, boats, and fish.

I showed some of these sculptures to friend and poet, Susan Edwards Richmond. She wrote, River Crossings, a poem in five parts based on several of the sculptures. It was originally published in Issue One of Wild Apples, A Journal of Nature, Art, and Inquiry that we founded together with two friends in 2005. [There are back copies still available].

A figure of wax, softened
by pinch of fingers, heel
of a hand . . .

  in the river, bearing

the burden of flood, the stoking
rhythm of oars, molded to that
position, I brace for the sluice
wherever it takes me.

. . .
When I tried to push you
from the boat, a fish leapt
from the river, lodged in my arms.                                       

Richmond’s poem has just been reprinted and is the final section in her first full full-length poetry collection, Before We Were Birds, published last month by Adastra Press. This fine collection begins with the poem sequence Boto, the mysterious freshwater Brazilian dolphin that rises from the Amazon River on full moon nights. A Boto is a shapeshifter who takes human form to catch humans, and even bring them back to live deep in the river.

In Dogen’s, Mountains and Rivers Sutra, he refers to sages who live near water and catch fish, and catch humans.

. . .  from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. For long these have been genuine activities in water. Furthermore there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way. . .                                                                                        Tr. Kotler and Tanahashi

In this same sutra, Dogen uses expressions like riding the clouds and following the wind to describe states of meditative practice and transcendence. The mountains and rivers are none other than our own body and mind. How do we ride the wind and cross each river?

River Crossings ends with:  

sprout back along the river, edges
grow dense with birds. I am called
neither forward nor back,
out of the water nor into it.

This is the art I practice,
the one that leaves no wake.

Susan Edwards Richmond has published four chapbooks of poetry, Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto. A passionate birder, she works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. Richmond is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, edits the Plein Air poetry chapbook, and organizes our Plein Air Poetry event every fall. We are also working on a series of children’s books on sustainable agriculture. I am grateful, Susan, for our ever widening collaborations.

A Chalice of Spirit, Art, and Nature

Six months ago, I was asked by a small committee if I would make a chalice for the First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard. They would soon be welcoming a new minister, and it was to be a symbol of this new beginning. A chalice – hmm, I had no idea. At the Last Supper, Jesus drank from a wine-filled cup, and it became the much sought after Holy Grail, but I didn’t have a personal relationship with this Christian object of worship.

The committee explained that their chalice commission was not actually a cup, but a flaming chalice, the official symbol of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Association. It represents two important liturgical symbols—the chalice and the flame—and they are united by two circles.

The Unitarian Universalist website says, “We are a house without walls, a congregation without spiritual boundaries.” This symbol, likewise, seems to hold no one meaning or interpretation, but to represent the broadest possible teachings of significant importance in the Unitarian Church—generosity, love, justice, compassion, as well as service and sacrifice for others.

Light, flames, candles, and sacred fires cross religious boundaries. In my childhood synagogue, there was an ornate lamp hanging in front of the ark where the Torah was stored. It hung by three golden chains from the high domed ceiling. I often wondered if it was really an eternal lamp, and considered, while I sat through a long service, the logistics of filling it with oil and lighting it.

Light is easy to identify with, but I wasn’t asked to make the light but the chalice to support it. Then I remembered the story of Siddhartha before he became the Buddha. For six years after leaving his home, Siddhartha followed many teachers and excelled at the most austere practices. At one point, so emaciated that he was close to death, he realized that he was not getting closer to what he was seeking. That’s when he recalled sitting under an apple tree as a child while the adults were plowing the fields; he remembered his calm state of mind. He resolved to take nourishment, find this calm mind again, and sit under a tree until he reached enlightenment.

I’m an orchardist in a town well-known for its beautiful orchards. Our fruit trees offer us sustenance and beauty. Trees also offer refuge. I think we can all remember sitting against the trunk of a tree; it’s so simple, and universal. Inspired by my own love for trees and the Buddha’s story, I decided to use the image of a tree for Harvard’s Unitarian Church’s chalice. I made the trunk to support the chalice bowl and sculpted two small seated figures leaning against its trunk, enjoying the peacefulness, exemplifying a calm abiding, an equanimity. Above the figures, for the two circles, I used tree branches. The branches will encircle a glass sphere oil lamp (not pictured).

I made the sculpture in wax and had it cast into bronze. (I will write about bronze casting in another blog.) This Sunday it will be lit for the first time. The service begins at 10:00 am, 9 Ayer Road in the center of Harvard. All are welcome!

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice

First Congregational Unitarian Church of Harvard Chalice