Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Artist Emily Patzner Tames Wallace Stevens' Blackbirds

A recent graduate of Kingston (NY) High School, Emily Patzner was the 2015 Ackerman Award Winner at the WAAM art gallery in Woodstock, NY. This fall she will be attending the Fashion Institute of Technology and majoring in fine art. Her mixed media series “6 Ways of Seeing a Blackbird” is based on the poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. Each piece includes one stanza from the poem, illustrated like a page in a book. Says Patzner ‘”Blackbird” was my summer project last year, and it was more of a learning process than anything else at the time. As a student, I'm always trying to challenge myself to become familiar with new media and become a more versatile artist. By using one material I'm comfortable with (in this case, colored pencils) and experimenting with one that I had never used before (stencils and spray paint), I taught myself how to fix my mistakes and just make the piece work. I think it's an important lesson: to be fearless with your work.”

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
By Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Hunter-Gatherers: Tom Sleigh and Ellen Driscoll

Detail of "Hunter Gatherer"
Ellen Driscoll is a Professor of Sculpture at Rhode Island School of Design. Her work includes installations such as “The Loophole of Retreat” (Whitney Museum at Phillip Morris, 1991) and “Passionate Attitudes” (Thread-waxing Space, New York, 1995), and public art projects such as “As Above, So Below” for Grand Central Terminal (1999). The installation “Hunter Gatherer” is a 21-foot landscape made from plastic milk and water cartons scavenged from the streets of Brooklyn and the Town Recycling Center of Peterborough, NH. The salvaged material is reconfigured into a micro-world of satellite towers, abandoned oil rigs, highways and other structures. Says Driscoll “As an artist I am drawn to making things through bricolage, and the happy unpredictable chances that materials, sites, and social histories can suggest.” To see the installation, click here

Tom Sleigh is the author of eight volumes of award-winning poetry. Space Walk (2007), for example, won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award. As a dramatist, Sleigh has written several plays, a multimedia opera, and a full-length translation of Euripides’ Herakles (2001). His prose collection Interview with a Ghost (2006) includes both literary and personal essays. Sleigh currently directs the Hunter College MFA Program in Creative Writing in Manhattan.

(After the art installation “Hunter-Gatherer” by Ellen Driscoll)

Snow falling on the roof falls like it used to do

when freeze and thaw hardened to a satin sheen

and nothing moved in the offing but the lighthouse beam.

And so this morning is the morning of the heart

in which the vodka, talking shit all night,

dissolves into pure sunlight, purer thought,

and I’m not a whore and I’m not a bastard
and I wake clear-headed and see
above the clouds like a swept-bare prison yard

each cool hard instant of nothing but blank sky.

No sound of the All Clear, no need for intensity
or all the fake drama of some TV war. Just the eye

of the ocean staring through a neighbor’s window
with a sense of absolution no one younger can ever know.


Your snipers crouch on rooftops, your oil derricks
and McMansions gleam . . . You made it all from plastic,
scrounging water bottles at dawn with the other derelicts

and then cutting and gluing in the studio
your own slum of alabaster, your shining city
on the hill. Remember when I told you

in my aspiring bad boy way, how I found
in a footnote to Of Plymouth Plantation

the dissenter put to death with the cow he sodomized?

As if I’d made a dare, your eyes met mine,

then you went back to your drawing, your concentration,

now made perfect, cutting me down to size.

And the brown and blue ink flowing from your hand

mingled into lines only the ink could intend.


I want to see you put on those boots again,

those ones we bought from the Farmers’ Co-op

to tramp around mud-spattered fields.

I want to see you bend down and shove your toe

and thick sock into that green rubber sleeve

sheathing your foot and calf up to the knee

while you lean against me to steady your balance,

the two of us braced against each other

in sway and countersway, trust moving against chance

but nothing more at stake than what was always

at stake, life making its extensions,

then pulling back away—there we go across the water meadows

in slip and slop, hand in hand to see the manor house

the lord and lady pulled the roof off against the taxes.


Light plashes down on your white plastic plain—

and no one knows the end, or how this war comes out,

or who’s a casualty and who’s not.

Your snipers take aim. Rifles gleam in the spotlights.

Your shantytowns transfigure into lustrous flows

of shadow that make the enemy hard to spot:

everything is camouflaged in light,

in hard-to-see-through veils of glare and dazzle.

And then the first shot’s fired and in the split-second lull

before light explodes itself against light

and every light goes out, I see your careful silhouette,

head cocked to the side measuring the effect

of just how far is too far, how close too close

before such warring luminosities turn friend into foe.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Poet Elana Wolff and Artist Mary Lou Payzant Cross-Pollinate

Toronto poet Elana Wolff has recently published in EVENT poetry and prose, Canadian Literature, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, Rampike, and The Boneshaker Anthology. Her bilingual collection of selected poems, Helle-borus & Alchémille (Noroît, 2013), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation. Her latest work—a collaborative inaugural translation from the Hebrew of Georg Mordechai Langer’s Poems and Song of Love, released by Guernica Editions in fall 2014—is now in its 2nd printing. Elana divides her professional time between writing, editing, and designing and facilitating therapeutic social art courses.

Cross-Pollinating: On Paintings by Mary Lou Payzant

Cape Breton native Mary Lou Payzant has been painting for six decades. The catalogue of her oeuvre, if there were one, would number in the hundreds—works of differing scales, executed in charcoal, watercolour pencils, pastels, water-mixable oils, inks, papers, found objects, and acrylic paint. Mary Lou’s paintings show influence of surrealism, of Vienna artists Gustav Klimt and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, neo-Dadaist traces of American artist Jasper Johns. The dreamy aura of memory, memento quality of collage, sensuous overlapping layers of colour—brushed and rubbed; figures and objects collected, quirkily juxtaposed and staged in vivid scenes.

I first met Mary Lou in the fall of 2007, in her Toronto studio, with its crow’s-eye view of the Royal Ontario Museum’s Lee-Chin Crystal. The Long Dash writing group and studio artists of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) were gathered in Mary Lou’s room to explore the possibility of ekphrastic collaboration, the idea being that the writers would compose poems for works by the studio artists, or vice versa. We didn’t know what the initiative would bring, but thought it might culminate in a combined reading and exhibition celebrating National Poetry Month in April, 2008, which it did. 

At that first fall meeting the writers toured the artists’ studios, open to inspiration. The allusive images in Mary Lou’s painting Night and Wind beckoned me immediately: the light/dark, auroral-splashed palette, the partially disembodied figures—head and foreleg of a horse, a vaguely-rendered rider, the frightened face of a shadowy child—evoked Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig,” which depicts the abduction of a young boy at the hands of the phantom Erl King. Mary Lou was struck by my response. That piece began as a non-objective painting with no focus at all, she told me. It was only a combination of colours and had nothing to do with things or people. But as she worked, she related, faces kept appearing in the paint—the head of a horse, a rider—and she was reminded of when she’d been a piano accompanist, years prior. One of her favourite lieder was “Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert; Schubert had set Goethe’s poem to music. Once the faces emerged, she told me, the painting became a picture of that story, and could no longer be non-objective. We were both struck—it’s not every beginning that brings such synchrony.

2015 marks the 8th anniversary of the Long Dash/WAAC collaboration and each round has culminated in a reading and exhibition for National Poetry Month. The makeup of the groups has changed: some of the original participants have moved on, others have joined. The Long Dash poets have written what could by now be a full volume of poems for, after, and in dialogue with paintings by WAAC studio artists. Some of the artists have created works for poems too and a few of the writers have taken up the brush. Cross-pollination has proliferated as relationships have deepened. 

In 2010 Mary Lou moved to Halifax to be closer to family, but her involvement with the group  has continued uninterrupted. During the year of the move she even took up the challenge of creating a new work for one of my poems:


Sun the husband. August, strong.
All Leo long he’s shone this way. Consequently
Earth is thirsty—arid, unattractive. In-
side another wife is standing, mulling at the sink.
She turns the water on whenever she wants.
Wash, to rinse, and drink. Her neck and temples
dewy where the seeds of sweat collect.
She lets her memory loose,
and pool,
go simple as a fish—whose days abate
in rhythmic pulsing: swim,
hide. The kitchen window wall-eyed.
She views her duplicate visage in the green
beyond the glass, framed by arborvitae,
Birds there know a few new tunes
they learned from flying skyward
            where hierarchies
sing in berths of blue.   

Mary Lou titled the new painting Green Lady. Do you think she looks like you? she asked me. I do see gestural likeness—the language of the hands and hair, the wide eyes and brows raised in something between wonder and puzzlement... It’s not an objective likeness. Mary Lou  worked imaginatively—from words and images in the poem. It’s a work of feeling—concerned more for what is living and moving in the paint than what is ‘finished’. There’s the “wall-eyed” “window”-look of the “wife” as “views her duplicate visage in green.” The hair framing the face imports the greens of “arborvitae,” “apple,” and “sumac.” The “rhythmic,” “simple as a fish[ness]” from the poem is rendered whimsically in the painting. Any reflexive detachment present in the text is discharged in favour of a naive immediacy, even sweetness, in Green Lady. In Mary Lou’s creation I feel relational mirroring: the artist’s own wide eyes reflecting the writer’s.

At the time Mary Lou was painting Green Lady out of  “Hierarchies,” I was writing “High Park” for her painting Spring in High Park. The palettes of both present gradations of green, in which the colour closest to the light—yellow—and the colour closest to the dark—blue—meet and mingle in flora and fauna-like forms. In both paintings there’s growth, hint of metamorphosis, ebullience, also stylized quiet. Greenery flowing and growing in situ. There’s an affirmatory quality to both too—representation heightening the real, idealizing it almost, yet without any whiff of trickery. Spring in High Park can be entered into metaphorically and dwelled in. What is expressed in the work joins with what is aspired to, and the partner-poem aims to paint the contemplative place of gazing into the shades of the painting:

High Park

She crossed the park and came to a bridge,
crossed the bridge and came to a space,
entered the space and came to a secret

garden. She stood for a day
amid the green. Time went by
and added up. She drank

from the pond, slept
on the ground, ate from the edible
petals. Eventually, she came to resemble

the elements: water, earth, the
leafy oaks and redwood exhaling air.
Shimmering and rising ~ something like fire.

Mary Lou frequently uses found materials—hand-made papers, magazine images, tinfoil, candy wrappers—fashioning her finds into collages. A shampoo ad might present a fall of hair that becomes a waterfall, a desert, a meadow. It’s all metamorphosis, she says; creating order out of chaos. The collages are studies, forays, prompts, as it were, that alter as they’re transposed. The little collage titled Pain, made of found papers and measuring only 3" x 4 ½”, is her smallest. The painting that metamorphosed out of it measures 36" x 24". That painting, created in 2004 during her husband’s final illness, kept growing and growing, and could be perceived as “auto-therapy,” she says. Crisis is often followed by painter’s block, which she usually works out of through the making of drawings and collages. Elements of the crisis may appear re-presented in the art, yet the art is not detached from the reality it transposes.
The flame-shapes suggested in the Pain collage are carried over and accentuated in the Pain painting. The vague leaf motif in the collage reappears in the painting too. Asymmetrical forces are at work here: the oversized circle exceeding the frame, the vermillion-capped crimson shafting up the centre like a limb pocked yellow. There’s deliberateness to the imbalance in this piece, no attempt to redress it. It’s a portrayal of an inchoate truthfulness. The Pain pieces show “auto-therapy” at work, as both portrait and process. It’s believable.
In 2012 Mary Lou began work on what has become a series she calls Fear of Falling. She’s completed four pieces so far and doesn’t think she’s through yet. There’s no statute of limitations on fears or ordeals—memories get triggered and shoot up. With these paintings, as in dreams, the categories of outer reality seem to fall away as forces of the inner world become freed. In Fear of Falling #1 a free-floating synthesis opens on all sides. This piece had the same immediate, visceral impact on me as the Erlkönig-connected Night and Wind piece eight years prior. The poem I wrote began as a response to the colours, textures, and aura of child-memory that I saw held sketchily in the overlapping figures. At a certain point, it became unclear if I was writing about what I was seeing in the painting or experiencing in my own activated imagination. Such is the stuff:


Template for a naked day: a woman
falling on the sky, what will— 

Feeling steers her, gravity has no hand.
Fear will keep her breathing

past a palette scratched and static.
Her shadow looks (to her) like splatter on grass.

The splat could be forensic
yet this isn’t time of true or false

or crime investigation.
Colours imitate her tilt,

the primaries and neutrals.
Her sense of falling forward into one recurring scene:

a child at night in bed,
a shade, a raiment. 

She doesn’t call for help or else she does and help is deaf.
She doesn’t call for help or else she does and help is harm.

Long before she was a woman
postured falling forward,

the bird in her was static.
Fear would keep her breathing,

the palette a requiting cry, woman naked in the sky.           
Cradled in acrylic.

The outer world of inspiration and the imaginative inner world of memory and association overlap. Distinctions aren’t fully definable. Mary Lou responded enthusiastically to the first version of the poem I sent her, titled “Remission.” I retracted that title—feeling it overemphasized a therapeutic mission—and retitled it “Avian,” to reference the sky palette and the flight/falling polarity. Art isn’t always restorative, even if undertaken as “auto-therapy.” Painting and writing won’t reverse a trauma, or necessarily heal wounds. But both can bring release and help the maker process memory anew. After she’d read the first version of my poem, Mary Lou revealed that her painting did have a child-connection, as I’d sensed, and was rooted in a real-life trauma that happened more than a half century ago. Fear of falling, Mary Lou confirmed, still lives with her and is a recurring theme in her art. It is a theme that reaches deeply into the universal pool.                                                          

Read an interview with Elana Wolff here