Three creative nonprofit organizations—Lamorinda Arts Council, Lamorinda Arts Alliance, and California Writers Club, Mt. Diablo Branch—collaborated to introduce a creative process known as ekphrasis to their members in early 2022. Taking inspiration and direction from ekphrasis exhibition programs from arts and cultural organizations in Mendocino and other parts of the world, authors from CWC and LAC would create literary interpretations of artworks made by artists of LAC and LAA. We all expanded the traditional format of ekphrasis by having artists make artworks based on the works of authors. Artists and Authors were paired anonymously, and the pairings were revealed at the exhibition in the LAC Art Gallery at the Orinda library on May 6, 2023. The exhibit runs until June 2. The library is located at 26 Orinda Way, on the second floor.
Ekphrasis is a Greek word meaning “a literary device that describes a work of art.” The practice began with Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates and was revived in the Renaissance; in 19th century, it became popular again. Philosophers, historians, and authors have expanded the meaning of ekphrasis to describe the essence of artful things, the archetypes and the mimetic processes that make our perception of works of art and literary passages come alive. Ekphrasis is like jazz; we expect innovation and improvisation on a musical theme that expands our awareness and perceptions of sound. Jazz fills our minds with the sound of possibilities.
Improvisation and inspiration are at the heart of the ekphrastic experience. A visual work of art, such as a painting or sculpture may inspire an author to use verbal language to describe an artist’s visual work. These words, phrases and stories can highlight various aspects of the artwork or take the visual expression or theme to a different level altogether: the improvisation. In this exhibit. the artists also take inspiration from the verbal expression of an author and use visual language to create a painting, drawing, sculpture, or collage based on the author’s narrative or poem.
Subtle shifts in meaning may be accomplished by translating an author’s work into another language, such as English into Spanish. Likewise, an artist can use different media and processes to make a variation of an artist’s work such as translating a painting into a sculpture or making a film based on an author’s works. However, extraordinary shifts in consciousness can occur when artists in any media may inspire other artists to create and translate the messages and meaning of one kind creative expression into other media and forms of expression. An example is a film transforming an author’s story into sound, music, speech, images, and action. This exhibit celebrates this kind of creative collaboration. Most people who view a film based on a book know that the film is not a documentary of the book, but a different artform; a film inspired by the book.
There are many ways to tell a story, and many ways to interpret meaning. Metaphors are part of the language of visual and verbal art. One such metaphor was written more than 200 years ago by the poet, Keats. He equated beauty and truth by saying, “Truth is beauty and beauty is truth.” This quote is found in the concluding stanza of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a prime example of ekphrastic poetry.
I really liked this quote when I read it in high school. I also like a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt that modifies Keats’ metaphor about truth and beauty which I paraphrase: “No matter how plain a person may be, if truth and honesty are written on their face, they will be beautiful.” These metaphors inspired another of my own making: “Looking closely uncovers the extraordinary. Beauty must be found.”
The idea conveyed in works of creative expression that we consider extraordinary is that beauty and truth are revealed in the journey, not the destination. Walking through this ekphrasis exhibition of 50 artworks and 50 writings from more than 30 authors and 35 artists, shown side by side, one pairing after the next, creates the distinct impression that a series of small journeys results in a collective one. It is a classic example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What a fabulous way to create community.
Initiating Artist: Ruth Stanton
Responder Author: Bill Carmel
A day of plein air in the countryside,
A feast of sensory pleasure.
A pure delight to those with senses alive.
A stroll through this Ranch sometimes reveals the unseen things:
How they collect, fold, combine the elements into life;
How they cycle back to where life begins.
Just like the hike that begins and ends at the same place.
The canvas is a window that records
Every sensation, Every thought, Every emotion,
A symphony of the brush-baton and palette orchestra.
Respond to the wind in the trees and the tall grass,
Respond to the insects, Respond to the birds,
Respond to the wildflowers, Respond to the riot of sensations that pour in.
Short walk up a small hill to the promise of a view.
Looking back quiets the mind.
This is a time when the senses compose a place
Where the light is just right, The colors just right,
The harmony of forms and colors just right.
Set up the easel under the oak.
Deal with the mild gusts with cord and stakes.
Great geometry hidden in the stable, trees, walls, and hills behind.
Begin with the pencil outlines, soft and free.
Then the underpaint.
Find the complement and lay it down.
Thin and smooth. Quick and pale.
Drying in the sun.
Load the brush and paint.
Forms. Depth of field. Contrast.
Slippery, wet on wet. Liquid motion.
Chartreuse fields alive in sunlight.
Brushes into water.
Look away from what is painted.
New dreams in the midst of day.
Awake! To chattering squirrels and new points of view.
Stable walls and border walls of Italian stone.
Elongating shadows, deepening mysteries.
Chartreuse fields so bright it hurts.
Tempered in sienna, blue, white, and umber.
Move paint around the canvas,
Deliberate adjustments before the calm.
Plenty of time to pack it in.
There is beauty all around the ranch.
Our senses know true beauty.
In the sky, on the land, every plant and animal.
Initiating Artist: Lance Jackson
Responder: Alvin Ziegler
“Dowsing, a Painting”
In the forest of Mesopotamia, a rare cave painting from 5,500 years ago chronicles inventors who were also scholars—the first humans who made papyrus from wood pulp.
On this paper, they voiced rights of the individual.
Because they wrote stories of the sacred singular that defied their brutal tribe, they worshiped trees that gave them little books, tools—even flutes, as they loved music.
But the ruling clan denounced the storytellers as criminals then scorched painful tattoos into their skin with the word hater.
Once labeled, the writers with their books and flautists with their flutes were escorted far into the woods.
Still, the crisis grew until anything spoken about the tribe was called hateful.
Many moons later, the tribe worried after a book about a hero scholar appeared in their village—all the way from the scholars’ encampment.
This raised a fury. Would books endure as long as the other forest existed?
So, that night at tribal council meeting, the group held a vote to decide if the trees where the scholars lived should be destroyed.
Many disapproved of the action but feared speaking out. Voting was unanimous.
The secluded scholars—known as “the haters”—needed to be silenced forever.
So a band of men with torches marched to where the scholars were banished and burned their trees to the ground.
Finally, surrounded by smoldering evergreens, this cave painting depicts a solemn ritual performed with sticks. The storytellers could only “Dowse” embers with words to grieve their loss.