photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Patsy McCowan



December 2004

The first thing to understand is there is such a thing as necessary waiting for writing. A writer drains the well with each draft, and it takes time for the well to fill...the waiting can be terrifying.
Donald M. Murray, Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers.
Boynton/Cook Heinemann, 1990.


Getting Rid of Elvis: Revision in Writing and Painting

Dear Reader,

Getting rid of Elvis was a difficult decision. There he was, right where I put him, in the second line of a poem about a portrait painted by Goya. An early draft of the poem began:

Don't you think the archbishop has nice eyes?
In their warmth, they are not unlike those of Elvis Presley.

The problem was that the poem imagined the day-to-day life of the archbishop. Elvis just didn't belong, not because he had blue eyes and the archbishop's were brown, but because his presence overpowered the archbishop. It was painful when I deleted the line because I loved it. What enabled me to finally let go?

Time was the key. I could not have deleted the line when the poem was young. It needed time to age. As it grew older, its faults became more numerous than its virtues, making it easier to delete. What did I do with Elvis? I put him in my day book (Judy's Journal: October, '04), where he waits in the wings for a chance to appear in another poem.

When I paint, decisions and revisions come with every brush or palette knife stroke, every new blob of color on my palette, and each return to the painting after an absence of moments, or in some cases, years. This is my dance with the canvas: step back, move forward, go away, repeat, repeat, repeat. Look at the work from a measurable distance. But more importantly, trust the distance of time. Four years ago, I made a painting of an aqueduct in the south of France ("Nyon") that had a road going under it that looked stuck there.

Last week, I was ready to work on it with experience and skill. I gave the work (and myself) some space for learning, which helped me to revise the road, as well as the sky, in "Nyon." This last idea is from Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The book is rich with thinking and strategies that help me take stock of what it means to "keep on keeping on" making art.

In addition to giving the work some time to rest, getting/giving feedback from/to others helps in the revision process. The areas of a painting that are unresolved can take on the power of a haunting. What is happening with that stone wall along the bottom of the painting? I decided to take "Landscape Tapestry III" to an art critique, where Jackie Ross said, "I'd like a ladder to help me climb over that wall." Her comment made me recall my decision to make the stone wall a formidable barrier. I wanted the viewer to work hard to get into the painting; the stone wall was a metaphor for life's challenges. Jackie made me think about that decision.

A few weeks later, because I could not look at the painting without hearing her comment, I fashioned paper strips into a ladder and taped them onto the painting. It would still require some effort, but now there was a way into the painting. The strong verticals of the ladder brought the eye up into the area which carries the most interest. I removed the strips and painted the ladder. "Landscape Tapestry III" can be seen in the Worcester Art Museum's Education Wing until January 28, 2005. It will appear May 1 in the Gallery on this web site.

The post-Elvis draft of "the archbishop's portrait" I mentioned in the first paragraph appears in Poets in the Galleries, edited by Francine D'Alessandro and myself, and is available in the gift shop of the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.

January's journal will be devoted to my museum shoes. Black, clunky, and beyond comfortable, I could have never predicted all the places they've taken me. If you'd like, you can email me with your ideas, questions or comments about the creative process at