Can Artists and Writers See Through Each Other’s Eyes?

birdsFifteen artists and writers are immersed in a unique creative experience this summer at the coast, trying to see through each other’s eyes in their own creative process.

They are taking part in a new program at the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita.

Titled “Word & Image: A Dialog Between Writers and Artists,” the program paired artists and writers to create original pieces, each in response to the other’s work.

The Hoffman Center for the Arts is known for its variety of programming for all of the creative arts, with the Writers’ Series, Clay Studio, art workshops and shows, Friday Night Flicks, and musical events.

This summer, two women launched a program to combine two of those arts, spurring artists and writers to leave their comfort zones for this different kind of creative process.

Emily Ransdell is a poet with an MFA in Creative Writing. A past recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, she is currently a member of The Poet’s Studio at The Attic Institute in Portland. Deborah DeWit, a full-time painter and photographer for 35 years, has exhibited widely. Her work is included in many private and public collections throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“Writers have been writing in response to art for centuries,” said Ransdell. “We thought it would be interesting to try a modern take on the tradition by letting artists have their turn as well.”

Ransdell described the project as a spin-off of the Hoffman’s weekly Writing Lounge, where local writers create short pieces in response to various prompts, often resulting in works that surprise the authors themselves.
Whereas artists and writers usually generate works that reflect their own experience and vision of the world, this project compels them to respond to someone else’s vision of the world.

“This way of finding subject matter for an art piece is both similar and different than the way I usually work,” says artist Lori Dillon, “a lot of the time I do get inspired by an event, series of events, or my own poetry/writing in my head.  So the difference is that I’m being ‘led to create’ by someone else’s voice.”

“One key thing here,” adds Ransdell, “There are no rules. No set process. The artist and writer can choose to meet or not, discuss or not, share results ahead or not. The whole goal of this was for people to experiment.”

Everyone seems to be approaching it differently. Some have looked at other works by the artist and writer. Some met once to discuss, others not at all. Some pairs are exchanging process progress and results all along the way.

Artist Vera Wildauer and poet Phyllis Mannan were matched and chose not to meet or discuss their process.
“It might be good to see the original,” Mannan wrote Wildauer in an email, “but I don’t think I want to hear the background, at least not right away. I want to let my unconscious mind work a bit first.”

“I rarely work from a picture or photograph when I write,” Mannan added in an interview, “so this way of working was unfamiliar to me. I learned to closely study the nuances of a scene, to question the relationship between people and objects. I hope to use the process of careful questioning in future work.”

“I was immediately drawn to one of Phyllis’ three poems,” Wildauer describes working from the other direction, “since it included so many images and evoked so much meaning about the ‘real world’ versus faith — with some odd juxtapositions. I had a great time with it, finding mixed media to lend itself to the process perhaps more than other forms.”
Writer Aina Tonjes and artist Cathi Howell did choose to meet.

“I got two pieces to choose from,” says Tonjes, “and after meeting with Cathi in person one of them became much more relevant than the other. I did need to know what exactly moved her to put those shapes down, and without having talked about it I don’t think I would have been able to motivate myself to write.”

“I wasn’t sure how to best write about Deborah’s piece at first,” Ransdell said. The two coordinators are taking on the same challenge as all the participants. “I didn’t want to just describe. I wanted to evoke something.”
She remembered a technique that poet and teacher Andrea Hollander used during a PoetryFest workshop in Manzanita. Hollander had the participants choose six words and work from there.

“So I chose six words that Deborah’s piece made me think of and I’m working from those,” Ransdell adds, “It’s definitely a technique I’ll use again. I was surprised and pleased; it’s a different kind of poem for me.”

The thirty participants range in age from 15 to mid-80’s, and come from as far away as Long Beach Peninsula and Portland to those who live full or part time in Manzanita, Nehalem and Wheeler. At the evening event where participants were paired up,

Juleen Johnson attended via Facetime. Her husband held up an iPad so Juleen could see the audience and the event from her location attending the Iowa Writers Conference in Iowa City, Iowa.

The event has certainly paired up people who might never have interacted otherwise. 15-year-old writer Elizabeth Johnson brought her parents along from Long Beach, Washington, to meet with photographer Steve Jones, 61.

Artist Karen Gale said “the biggest surprise was to find how much my partner Deb Simmons and I had in common both in our styles and in our lives. We are the perfect partnership!”

Simmons responded in an email to the same interview question whether anything surprised her about the process with “the friendship that has formed with MY artist!”

“I think all of us feel like the bar is kind of high,” says Dewit, “I need to do something worthy. Plus it’s just one piece of art or writing, not one of many of your works in one place. And everyone feels a commitment to each other, to honor their work.”

“What a challenge this has been, what a stretch,” adds Simmons, “The bottom line is to come up with something ‘worthy’ of the artwork, which I admire and love.”

The results will be unveiled at an opening reception and reading at the Hoffman Center for the Arts on Saturday, August 29, open to the public. Each pairing will be printed as a frame-able art piece and offered for sale as a souvenir for people who come to the show.

The project might well become a recurring event. After all, it exemplifies the Hoffman Center for the Arts’ tagline and goal: Explore. Create. Connect.

And who knows, it might inspire other projects.  “This is such a unique event!” says Lori Dillon, “Now I’m thinking about the concept of pairing musicians and writers and visual artists.  Whoa, doesn’t that sound crazy and good?

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