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 


  1. A fascinating collaboration between the poet Elana Wolff and the artist Mary Lou Payzant. My appreciation for poetry and art has increased immensely. Thank you.

  2. The Erlkönig painting and the one shown opposite the Avian poem [from the Fear of Flying series???] are really spectacular! Seeing the figures from unexpected angles and so full of movement is great. The article about Payzant's work is very interesting..

  3. Narrative by Elana "Cross-Pollinating" is simply brilliant. Images sharp and clear. Paintings sublime. One can almost hear a poem talking to the painting. I particularly love the pairing "Green Lady" and "Hierarchies" - powerful.

    Congratulations Elana - I do not want to know how much time you spend putting this presentation.

    Hope to see more of you.

  4. Though Mary Lou's paintings are intriguing and very much alive on their own, Elana's accompanying poems and writing encouraged me to experience the visuals with a greater intensity and complexity. The cooperative fusion of these two artists is most successful. Thank you, Mary Lou and Elana.