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Visual Verse: Poetry Meets Fabric


Visual Verse: Poetry Meets Fabric
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In 2003, the Contemporary QuiltArt Association brought together forty poets and forty quilters for a unique undertaking. Gayle Bryan, former president of the association, explains the genesis of the project: "We’d been given a grant for a five year lecture series. The end of the five years was approaching and we decided that we wanted to do something special. The idea of working with artists in a different medium was appealing and we kept coming back to the idea of poets."

To facilitate cooperation between the two art forms, the QuiltArt Association set up a "mating service." It issued a call for poets in Seattle area universities, bookstores, and writing centers, then arranged an event at which poets and quilters were given ten minute interviews to decide if they wanted to exchange phone numbers. However, not all poets met through the service—some members, Bryan included, worked up the courage to contact poets themselves.

Once partners were selected, the pairs worked for one year investigating the intersections between textile art and poetry, ultimately creating artforms that fused the two genres. The finest of these collaborations eventually became the traveling exhibit Visual Verse: Collaborations in Poetry and Cloth.

"A lot of our quilters did the best work they’ve ever done while collaborating with the poets," Bryan said. "It’s a huge obligation when someone else’s work is involved with yours. Maybe only half the collaborations were selected for the show and, to be accepted, both the poem and the quilt had to be working."

Gayle Bryan & Linda Bierds: "Fade to Remembrance"

Gayle Bryan decided not to go through the "mating service" because she knew she wanted to work with poet Linda Bierds, a MacArthur Fellow and the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Washington. "I had never met Linda," Bryan says, "but I admired her poetry. I was so intimidated by her work that it took me a while to gather the courage to contact her."

Bierds said she is often inspired by visual artists, and when she looked at Bryan's work she was moved by the "intricate ways she was using fabric to create visual designs. I thought of the collaboration as an opportunity." Bryan elaborates on the process of a quilt artist: "Most traditional quilters start with a pattern and add color. They use a paper template. Art quilters begin with a general concept and a big, white wall. Most of us work visually by sticking fabric on the wall, pulling it off, and putting something else on."

Both Bierds and Bryan were inspired by the photography of idiosyncratic Victorian photographer Charles Jones. "Our collaboration worked out perfectly," Bryan says, "because my quilts tend to focus on historical images, as does Linda’s poetry." Bierds sent Bryan an early draft of the poem "Charles Jones and the Garden," and Bryan responded with photos of her work-in-progress. "I loved the otherworldliness of Charles Jones’s photographs," Bierds remembers. "I also loved the circular element to the story: the fact that he was using glass plate negatives of his photos to make greenhouses for plants that would then become the subjects of his photos."

For Bryan, the collaboration presented new artistic challenges: "I had a really good idea of what I wanted the quilt to look like, but not so clear an idea of how I would get there. I knew I wanted two layers: one silk curtain over one cotton layer. There are images painted in color on both layers but, when I first started, I wasn’t even sure if I could paint on transparent silk or if I could make the idea of the curtain work." Bryan mastered the technical challenges involved in making her quilt, "Fade to Remembrance," and she says that the collaboration with Bierds made her look at her work in "a more serious way": "Because I have huge admiration for Linda’s poetry, our collaboration gave me greater confidence in my work."

Sally Sellers & Nikki Giovanni: "I'm Not Sorry"

Like Gayle Bryan, Sally Sellers solicited her poet partner. When Sellers first learned of the Visual Verse project, she had been resistant to the idea of a collaboration, but that same day her daughter came home from school raving about their guest artist: Nikki Giovanni. "In six years of encountering guest artists, she had never been this enthused," Sellers said. "I submitted my idea to Ms. Giovanni, along with my portfolio. She responded that we should work together."

Sellers struggled with her quilt, "I’m Not Sorry," until she received Giovanni's poem, "Quilts," which begins:

Like a fading piece of cloth
I am a failure

"I gathered up stained linens, mostly from second-hand stores," Sellers said. "Nikki’s words reminded me that imperfect tablecloths were far more interesting than the pristine folds of fabric stashed away in the linen closet. My idea was to create a piece using stained areas, a piece most likely in white and beige and faded browns."

The real breakthrough came when, after reconsidering Giovanni’s poem, she began highlighting the stains with gold beads. "In Nikki’s poem," Sellers observes, "the stain was what was to be celebrated."

Michael James & Hilda Raz: "Men Are? Women Are?"

Exhibit jurors Michael James and Hilda Raz are colleagues at the University of Nebraska. Raz is a professor of English and Women’s Studies and the editor-in-chief of Prairie Schooner, and James is the Ardis James Professor in the Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design in the College of Education and Human Sciences. Prior to his professorship at UNL, James directed a performing arts series in Providence, Rhode Island, where he organized readings with Robert Pinsky and Donald Hall. "I have a longstanding interest in poetry," James explains, "and I had read some of Hilda’s books, so, when the opportunity came up, I asked her to collaborate."

The book of Raz's that most affected James was Trans, which is about her daughter’s journey into a new self, into a son. "I’ve always been interested in what defines gender besides biology," James said. "I found the book itself extremely powerful and probably could have worked with any number of poems or images from that book, but that line in 'Stone'—'Men are? Women are?'—struck me as powerfully relevant."

James’s process differs somewhat from that of many other fiber artists. For the past few years, he’s worked exclusively with digital imagery. Once manipulated, the images are transferred to fabric. After the surfaces of the fabric are constructed, the fabric is used to make a quilt. James explains, "Each piece is a densely quilted, three-dimensional textile object meant to be hung on a wall."

As James observes, the collaboration with Raz coincided with his preexisting conceptual explorations: "I was working on a series of images that used scenes associated with Japanese culture and I wanted to use those images, but in not so literal a sense. I was exploring dualities in individuals and experiences: how what we reflect outwardly does not necessarily reflect what we experience inwardly. So, I used the image of a geisha-in-training—the epitome of the masked figure."

The back view of James’s "Men Are? Women Are?" shows seaweed flowing underwater. "I chose that image for several reasons," James notes, "Hilda’s son studied marine biology, so it seemed appropriate. I liked that image because it implies something under the surface—unseen emotional undercurrents. Also, I saw the image as an analog to the symmetry of the body, alluding to the physical change that any transsexual body would go through."

James says that, in working with Raz, he felt "humbled": "Having read her poetry admiringly, I felt out of my league with her. For artists, there is a public that responds to your work, but the response that means the most to me is the response from other artists. Being able to work with someone of Hilda’s stature was affirming."

"Michael is the most accessible great artist I’ve worked with in years of collaboration," Raz concludes, "It’s a challenge to find ways to drop our boundaries and increase our intelligence. To collaborate is to use two minds. That’s why collaboration is a difficult, rewarding privilege."

"Fade to Remembrance" by Gayle Bryan & Linda Bierds:

"Fade to Remembrance" detail:

"Fade to Remembrance"
Copyright © 2003 Gayle Bryan.
40.5" h x 29" w
paint on silk and cotton
Photo credit: Mark Frey
Used with permission.

"I'm Not Sorry" by Sally Sellers & Nikki Giovanni:

"I'm Not Sorry" detail:

"I'm Not Sorry" detail:

"I'm Not Sorry"
Copyright © 2004 Sally Sellers.
26" h x 24" w
stained linens (silk, cotton, organza), and beads on canvas
machine appliquéd, machine quilted, hand embellished
photo credit: Bill Bachhuber
Used with permission.

"Men Are? Women Are?" by Michael James & Hilda Raz, front:

"Men Are? Women Are?" back:

"Men Are? Women Are?"
Copyright © 2003 Michael James.
42" h x 98" w
digitally-developed and digitally-printed cotton;
machine-pieced and machine-quilted
Photo credit: Larry Gawel
Used with permission