photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson



February 2005

"Art's mission is to reveal; what it reveals, however, is not some objective truth about the world's conditions, but rather the nature of the mind experiencing the world---the nature, if you like, of cerebral response."
W. D. Snodgrass, To Sound Like Yourself: Essays on Poetry.



Reciprocity Between Paintings and Poems: An Explanation

Dear Reader,

This month I am sharing ideas excerpted from the preface of my latest manuscript, Reciprocity: Selected Poems and Paintings, which explores a phenomenon I have experienced 35 times while painting and writing. The first time it happened was1998, soon after my return to painting. I was uncharacteristically stalled after starting a canvas. The tree dominating the left side of the canvas had morphed into a woman. Was she a wood nymph? A goddess? I was frustrated and hovering at that point, so I sat down to write about what was on my mind. I needed to understand this elusive subject. My jottings ended up being about a muse who sent a "murder of crows to menace Vincent" and "a solitary magpie" to Claude Monet, referencing two well-known paintings I had had the pleasure of seeing first-hand while wearing my museum shoes (Judy's Journal - January 2005).

When I returned to my painting, I saw that the figure of a man had emerged in the blue-green ground covering the canvas. He was turning into a bird. I completed his transformation and attached an unwieldy title to it: "Transformation: The Ornithologist Becomes an Augur." The theme was the nature of inspiration. Months later, the writing I used to uncover the subject became the poem, "Transformation" [Gestures of Trees, Mellen Poetry Press, 2000]. I thought this painting/poem combination was a coincidence or a fluke.

Even though approximately ninety percent of my poems and paintings are not overtly related to each other, reciprocity happens repeatedly. When I finished painting "Homeless," I felt a lack of emotional resolution and satisfaction. The painting itself was resolved, but the image of a homeless woman I had seen sitting in a doorway in New York City haunted me. I was compelled to write about her "legs jutting out, arms crossed over her chest in a pious pose." and "the multi-colored palettes of her bruised, broken nails." From the writing emerged a poem, "The Year of Rita." Painting and poem were bound together in response to an event in that literally took a split second to occur, but many hours at my easel and word processor to resolve.

I began to search for other artist/writers. Painter Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) was also an accomplished writer and poet. In an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, Hartley's poetry was displayed throughout the galleries. A short elegiac poem about the two Mason brothers who were lost at sea was posted next to his painting of them. The catalog states that "[Fisherman's Last Supper] was the seed for Hartley's climactic painting about the Masons," describing what could be called a reciprocal relationship between his poetry and painting.

In fact, part of the pleasure of writing the manuscript's preface came while studying the work of renowned poet/artists whose lives span centuries: Jean Arp, William Blake, Marc Chagall, E. E. Cummings, Leonardo da Vinci, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Roberto Matta, Michelangelo, M. C. Richards, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Dorothea Tanning. Edgar Degas wrote a sonnet about his sculpture, "Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen." The longer I am a member of a thriving community of poets and visual artists, the more it is evident that I am one of a large group whose reputations may not have reached iconic proportions, but who nonetheless do the work of both.

The question I like to think about in all of this is "What is the nature of inspiration with respect to the phenomenon of reciprocity?" The answer is rooted in the need to act upon a strong urge to create a response to an event, memory, observation, or idea, coupled with an overwhelming sense of curiosity about what will emerge as I write or paint. The need can only be quieted when either a poem or painting is made. However, when I finish one, something, someone, perhaps that muse from the first "Transformation" painting, insists, "There's more." My task is to remain open and ready to do both.

Art making, and reciprocity in particular, begins with an intellectual and psychological urge to explore what is on my mind. In The Poet's Handbook, Judson Jerome wrote what must happen next: he believes that poets have more than a need to verbalize or express, but to take delight in the making of images, sounds, to communicate to others, to create an effect on the viewer/reader. He writes, "You use language to make an art object." In making a reciprocal poem and painting, I move beyond my inner life and personal expression to make something outside of myself. While my intention is that each painting and poem has its own integrity, one is also integrally bound to the other.

Speaking of being integrally bound, next month's journal will focus on something that is, unfortunately, a part of the creative process: rejection. Writer and Boston Globe columnist Don Murray said, "There's not a lot to learn from rejection." That may be true, but I think there are strategies to help us get through the experience. So, writers and artists, if the word "rejection" triggers a memory of what worked to get you through it, email me at