Artist Patricia Brown spoke to Cayuga Lake Books regarding her recent collaboration with poet Lisa Harris for “Traveling Through Glass.”
How did you get interested in art? Who influenced you when you were young/starting out?
I was fortunate to be raised in a very creative household where drawing, making and playing with ideas were daily events. My mother, the English-major librarian, read to us, sewed costumes for us and encouraged us to act out stories. My father, the farmer, builder, chef, drew his farm animals to entertain us, remodeled our home, arranged flowers, and loved to make holiday crafts with us to create a festive environment. Though I did not know I would be an artist, I knew I would live a creative life.
Who are your favorite visual artists and what do you like about them?
Presently, I am curious about artists who emphasize movement in their work. I can feel the wind swirling through the trees in the landscapes of Emily Carr and see atmospheric energy vibrating in a Charles Burchfield. Maggi Hambling’s splattered waves have raw power. Jenny Saville’s layered drawings explore the constant movement of a child in her mother’s arms. In a single swoop, Zen masters draw a circle; they create wholeness in one gesture.
How did your collaboration with Lisa come about? Did one or the other of you create in response to the other’s work? Or did both of you trust you would find compatible pieces to fit together into the final version?
Close friends for over twenty years, we have continually shared our creative work. Yet, when Lisa asked me to collaborate, I said, “No,” I was not interested in illustrating a literal representation of each poem. Initially I could not see how my drawings and paintings of movement could fit into this project. Yet in my heart, I knew that Lisa would use the simple act of counting to explore the universe, love, time, and spirit. That night I had a dream of interpreting each poem through the movement of a dancer. I even saw the opening of the show of Counting, where a model danced throughout the gallery. I shared this dream with Lisa, and our collaboration began. I asked her to add a poem for zero; it was an essential starting place for me. Each number, each poem, zero through twelve, became a threshold, a point of departure and, for me, an opportunity to explore ways gesture expresses archetype.
The interpretation of each poem began with drawing a dancing model in charcoal on paper, a spontaneous grab of the movement of their dance. Often I drew with both hands at once, a strategy I use to move away from literal thinking and to open intuition. I worked with two models: Jaime a trained ballerina and Vanessa, a creative spirit who danced freely without training. In the studio, poems in hand, we experimented together to find the gesture that expressed the emotional and spiritual depth of each poem. Once I had been living with Lisa’s work for months, I found gesture in new situations. The drawings for poems 8 Eternity and 11 Knowing were creating while watching Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck in concert, as they sang, played banjo and danced.
I realized I needed color to fully communicate the intensity in the world of each poem, thus I transformed each drawing into a painting. When I came to the place where I thought I had really caught the essence of the poem, I read the poem aloud while looking at the painting. I felt the resonance, which sometimes sent shivers up my spine. I took the painting to Lisa and observed her reaction, listened to her interpretation. We realized that a specific connection had been made that neither one of us could have predicted – words transformed to image. Lisa experienced the artwork as windows into her poems, thus she titled our book Traveling Through Glass.
Our trust and unending regard for each other’s creative work is evident in the three-part structure of Traveling Through Glass. Section one, Counting, features our collaboration. In section two, Breathing, I describe my process and show other gestural work. In section three, Seeking, Lisa has shared her favorite poems. To express that we feel that the words and images are equally important; Lisa and I share equal copyright; Lisa as writer, I as artist.
What are some of the differences between creating artwork independently – from a vacuum, let’s say – and working within the specific parameters of a project like Traveling Through Glass?
I work without words when painting abstractly. I am intuitive, in the moment, not really knowing where I will travel with the work. In drawing the model, I am fully present, honest in capturing the energy of the poses.
The challenge in developing the images for the poems for Counting, was to get past an intellectual interpretation of each poem to a sensual, physical gestalt. The process involved paying attention to the verbs in each poem, playing with action and music to a point where the model, the poem and I were one. Traveling through Lisa’s poems, I have explored emotional territories and archetypal meanings of gesture that I would not likely have painted on my own.
You can purchase “Traveling Through Glass” on Amazon now.
Katharyn Howd Machan spoke to Cayuga Lake Books about her recently published poetry anthology, “Secret Music: Voices from Redwing, 1888.” The book is now available for purchase and can be bought on Amazon.
What is the feeling of publishing all of these poems written since 1987?
1985. I am deeply gratified to have them all together in my new book, Secret Music. Of course, they haven’t stopped, and I’ve even written several more since this collection was sent to the publisher [laughs]. The new book is going to keep these characters alive in me. And to have them all together this way, especially now that I’ve got the reading lined up with a number of people taking the voices, it becomes more fully alive for me. There have been two full stage productions in Georgia of the Redwing poems, and I’ve gotten to see them both. Costume, set, absolutely stunning. It turned into a play, essentially. And that full embodiment, outside of myself—I felt deeply gratified.
What is it about 19th-century rural life that gave you so much inspiration to create the characters and town of Redwing?
I have definitely borrowed heavily from other people’s lives crafting these poems, as well as from my own experiences. I’m not abashed about doing that at all. The fun that I’ve had with it is that, suddenly, 20 years later, I can create a sibling for someone. The best example I can give would be “Laura Pearce,” who was one of the first. It was in April of 1985, I was inspired by lilacs blossoming right on South Hill in front of somebody’s house. Maybe it was May… it was spring. And then it was many, many years later she talks about meeting a gypsy, romantic, you know, and the mother giving her the scarf, and all of this. And years later I create a twin for her who says, “Oh, she didn’t do that. She was meeting our pastor secretly in the woods—there.” So, who do you believe? You don’t know. Who do you believe? And it excites me that I could have characters play off of each other in that way. And the constellations of names: I took a lot of the names from a couple of cemeteries not far from Chautauqua. I wanted it to be very clearly not based in Ithaca. It’s further west. I always say Redwing is kind of central, western New York, within the fictional county of Tuscarora. But it was near Chautauqua that I took old names because I wanted to make sure they were names of the time. Because names have changed, some just aren’t used anymore. Like Theophilus. Have you ever been in a class with someone named Theophilus? [laughter] Our main lawyer for the college is Nancy Pringle, and Pringle was a name I saw on many gravestones because her family was from that area… so Pringle became one of the main names.
Have you or has your writing changed much from when you began writing this collection years ago?
These poems have continued in their own world, literally, of Redwing. I don’t see great differences between earlier ones and later ones. Maybe some different themes brought in from what I’ve experienced, perhaps, or seen in other people’s lives. Otherwise, my poetry’s changing all the time. For the past seven years, I’ve been working on a manuscript that I consider done at this point in time: Shapeshifter fox. That’s seven years of poems, hundreds of poems. Not all of them of the same quality, but you know. I just write a lot. And publish.
Did you have input towards the cover art for Secret Music?
Yes, I commissioned that wood carving from Mary Shelley at the beginning of the summer. She showed me sketches and we talked about it and gradually she created it. It was a gift for my husband for his 50th birthday, too. It’s about this big [makes gesture] and we have it over our fireplace. It’s stunning. The first edition of the Redwing poems from 2005 has the Pan statue on it. There’s just something to me about Pan being the wildness that has to somehow be restrained within most of these Redwing characters. They don’t dare say out it loud, but they’ve got this Pan in them. In some cases to the point of it actually being a pan-ic.
Is there something you’ve been reading and enjoying lately or an author you’ve been really taken with?
Eleanor Henderson [laughs]. And I finally read The Golden Compass, the Philip Pullman books and then his prequel. I finally read those. I got to read nine books while I was recovering from my recent operation. More Neil Gaiman. Right now I’m reading a book about mermaids and I’m reading an anthology of dragon stories. I’m reading and teaching this material, and I’m also working right now on a collection of science fiction fantasy poetry.