The literary and visual arts come together in Stanzas, a city-wide poem
Concrete is Porous: the anchoring stanza
Kegan McFadden, executive director of the Victoria Arts Council, is excited about the new, city-wide Stanzas exhibit running in September and October. With a background in both visual arts and creative writing, he says such an exhibit, bringing the two together, has always been a dream of his. That dream was about to come to fruition last April, but was covid-cancelled.
Now, with some adjustments, it’s set for relaunch in early September with 6 galleries and 75 artists involved. Community partners include arc.hive, errant artSpace, Empty Gallery, the Ministry of Casual Living, Vancouver Island School of Art, Planet Earth Poetry, the Victoria Festival of Authors, and the Greater Victoria Public Libraries.
Each organization takes a different tack in exploring the intersections and overlaps of visual arts and language. These are the “stanzas,” the paragraphs in a city-wide poem.
The anchor exhibit at the Victoria Arts Council Gallery, “Concrete is Porous,” will feature what’s known as concrete poetry, a way of using text in which the visual or graphical is more important than the meaning of the words. The medium pares down language to its elements of letters and syllables which the artists play with visually.
The art form stems back to the 1960s and this exhibit, bringing together established older poets with emerging ones, shows that concrete poetry is alive and well. Originally shown in Toronto, it is curated by Hart Broudy and bill bissett and features work by 28 preeminent Canadian poets. bpNichol’s ground-breaking digital chapbook First Screening, published via floppy disk, in featured, along with works by bill bissett and Paul Dutton. Aram Saroyan’s controversial 1965 one-word poem—“the most expensive poem ever published”— “lighght” will also be among those on display.
Viewers will see three types of concrete poetry: visual, phonetic, and kinetic—or optic, sound, and movement. Typewriters are sometimes employed and/or digitally generated concrete enhancements, with the overall aim, according to Mary Ellen Solt in Concrete Poetry: A World View, to “relieve the poem of its burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself and to be an object in its own right for its own sake.”
McFadden has complemented the exhibit by including additional work by five artists from the West Coast, including internationally-recognized Vancouver Island artist Michael Morris. There will also be what McFadden describes as a chandelier-like installation in the gallery’s “Vault” space by Victoria-based poet-artist-librarian Christine Walde.
Walde has used the lyrics from Joy Division’s iconic 1980 song “Love Will Tear Us Apart”—a song she listened to a lot as a teenager. She printed out the lyrics, tore them apart, and composed a number of poems from them in a new order—a pun on the band New Order, which was formed by the remaining members of Joy Division after lead singer Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide in 1980.
Walde says, “My intention in working with this song and within these conceptual constraints is not only to present the lyrics in a visual way, but to make the song sound new in the present eyes and ears of the audience.” For Concrete is Porous, the lyrics have been 3D-printed and hung as a mobile of interconnecting words in three-dimensional space, bringing a new kind of order to the work that is both transient and ephemeral.
View 6 works in the Concrete is Porous exhibit (60 seconds)
McFadden also points to the work of Jordan Abel, a Nisga’a writer from Vancouver, as a highlight of the exhibit. The author of The Place of Scraps (winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), Un/inhabited, and Injun (winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize), Abel’s latest project, NISHGA (McClelland & Stewart in 2021), is a deeply personal, autobiographical book that attempts to address the complications of contemporary Indigenous existence and intergenerational impact of residential schools. The forthcoming book, says Abel, explores “how the colonial violence originating at the Coqualeetza Indian Residential School impacted my grandparents’ generation, then my father’s generation, and ultimately my own. The project is rooted in a desire to illuminate the realities of intergenerational survivors of residential school, but sheds light on Indigenous experiences that may not seem to be immediately (or inherently) Indigenous.” Excerpts from NISHGA, printed in graphic shapes that, says McFadden, “re-appropriate Jordan’s father’s own imagery,” blanket the entrance to the VAC gallery.
Cree poet Neil McLeod, states of Abel’s work, “his work creates a poetics of anti-colonial space and consciousness—a space where a new and vibrant Indigenous poetic consciousness can emerge. He is one of the most exciting and innovative Indigenous poets of our time.”
Concrete is Porous runs Sept 4 to Oct 24 at the Victoria Arts Council Gallery, 1800 Store Street, Tues-Sat, noon-5pm. 778-533-7123, vicartscouncil.ca
A stanza in conTEXT at errant artSpace
The artist-run gallery errant ArtSpace is contributing a stanza to Stanzas in the shape of conTEXT, featuring mostly local artists exploring—through painting, drawing and sculpture—text as printing, handwriting, calligraphy, sound, letters and words.
Co-curators Jane Coombe and Ira Hoffecker write, “The visual and language arts have always been close partners. The first pictograph was both an image and an emerging form of written communication. Ancient Asian calligraphy and western illustrated manuscripts made no distinction between visual and verbal language. From the early Cubists, modern and contemporary art has embraced words and letters for both meaning and aesthetic value—from critiques of commerce and advertising to the street level interventions of anonymous graffiti artists.”
Hoffecker is interested in how different societies transform and change city spaces over the course of centuries. Though painting is her primary medium, for this exhibit she is presenting a sound piece in which the voices and different languages of five artists are “layered” together, to explore patterns and identities.
Another artist presenting in conTEXT is Anne Petrie. Her work uses the words in some of the first directives we hear as young children—Sit Down, Sit Up, Sit Straight and Sit Still—to show how meaning depends on context. “These casual orders are intended to contain our energy; their usual effect is to frustrate our desires. And yet, their discipline helps us to survive, even grow.” By using long scrolls of paper and gradating tones of type she explores how “These once inhibiting prescriptive phrases can now be experienced as moving with us through different phases—from the command to do as we are told to the suggestion of an opportunity to pause, rest and reflect. A once external demand can become an internalized choice.”
In her work in the exhibit, co-curator Jane Coombe presents an abstract sculptural installation and hand written canvases that reflect the essence and words of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “In Praise of Ironing,” “a poem which speaks to everyday work, its power to transform things, the nature around us and how words can transform our thinking…My intention for conTEXT is about valuing the importance of my artistic practice, process and daily work.”
The only non-local artist in the exhibit is Rachel Epp Buller, a feminist art historian, printmaker, book artist and professor at Bethel College in Kansas. Much of her artistic, written, and curatorial work has addressed the maternal body and feminist care in contemporary art contexts. Currently researching handwritten letter-writing as an act of relational care, she says, “I have come to think of letters not only as a way of exchanging thoughts and ideas but also as a form of active listening. Letters are an invitation to listen, almost a contractual agreement of care for another person. I believe that such listening is directly connected to a slowing down, a taking time to take care…The letters I write and receive inspire drawings, artist books, letterpress prints, epistolary texts, audio narratives, and embroidery, drawing attention to the ways we care for each other with our words.”
Other artists included in conTEXT are Lorraine Douglas, Richard Pawley, John Luna, Farid Abdulbaki, Jeanne Cannizzo, and Kathy Guthrie.
View 9 works in the conTEXT exhibit (90 seconds)
Errant artSpace is also presenting an afternoon of ekphrastic poetry—poems written in response to specific works of art. John Luna is both a visual artist and a widely published poet. He and Gisela Ruebsaat, who has published and performed her award-winning ekphrastic poetry locally and internationally, will be presenting work that they have developed in response to specific pieces from the conTEXT exhibition. There will also be an opportunity for guests to actively engage with the art by developing their own written responses. This event will be held in errant’s parking lot to maintain safe distancing, September 12 at 3 pm.
Luna, whose practice includes painting, installation, poetry and critical writing as well as teaching visual art and art history, is also giving a free Zoom talk entitled “The Speaking Surface: Text and Embodiment in Painting” on Saturday, September 19, 7pm-9:30, focusing on the overlap between visual art and the written word and how one influences the other. (Register at firstname.lastname@example.org)
ConTEXT runs from Sept 12-27, weekends only 12-5pm, at errant Art Space, 975 Alston Street, Victoria. The Ekphrastic Poetry Event is Sept 12 at 3pm. See https://errantartspace.com.
An ekphrasis stanza at arc•hive
The artist-run centre arc•hive is offering an online exhibition featuring responses from nine poets to the work of its nine studio artists. Arranged in a chapbook edited by former Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer, each visual piece—whether a painting, sculpture, drawing or photograph—is accompanied by an audio poem. Being able to hear the poet read his or her own ekphrastic work adds a wonderful dimension to the experience.
Cover of the chapbook ekphrasis
Curator Regan Rasmussen explains, “This collaborative exhibition/chapbook event was originally intended to take place at arc•hive in April, but due to the pandemic we decided to launch a virtual exhibition including the artwork with audio recordings of the poets reading.”
The visual artists included are Alison Bigg, Markus Drassl, Laura Feeleus, Karina Kalvaitis, Kimberley Leslie, Connie Michele Morey, Regan Rasmussen, Jenn Wilson, Sandy Voldeng.
The poets responding to the works of these artists include John Barton (Victoria Poet Laureate 2019-22), Yvonne Blomer, Michelle Poirier Brown, Rhonda Ganz, Cynthia Woodman Kerkham, Anita Lahey, Garth Martens, Emily Olsen and Aziza Moqia Sealey-Qaylow (Victoria Youth Poet Laureate 2019).
Writing in the chapbook’s introduction, Blomer says, “Here, led by the visual art, poets have entered their own thought and dream-spaces, their own realities. They have contemplated the ideas and processes of the artists, and let their words twin, like braided hair and like woven cloth, into poems both unique and linked.”
Poet Anita Lahey describes the ekphrastic responses as “…poems that crackle with energy that derives from bonified collisions, in this case those between poet and artist; consciousness and creation; eye and canvas; word and picture; heart and heart…”
arc.hive is at 2516 Bridge Street in Victoria. See the chapbook at https://arc-hivearc.org/ekphrasis/.
Other “stanzas” in the city-wide STANZAS are: Micah Lexier at Empty Gallery, 833 Fisgard, Sept 1-30; jg Muir’s interactive Keyboard 2.0 at The Ministry of Casual Living in Oden Alley, Sept 1-30; Victoria Festival of Authors runs online September 30-October 4; and LINE/break: a curatorial roundtable at Victoria Arts Council, Oct 24, 3 pm.