Friday, June 07, 2013

Ekphasis

Last week my friend, poet and PGSS teacher Al Rempel, helped put together a night of EKPHRASIS at the local Groop Gallery.

I'm no Stephen Lewis, but I think my vocabulary has some depth -- I know perfidious from penniferous for example (if you were both, you'd be untrustworthy and covered in feathers). Ekphrasis, however, was Greek to me... literally.

It is a word on that "Greek side of life's lexicon" that I tend to avoid. Words of singular or archaic use strike me as pompous or overly abstract, but are nonetheless puzzles that beg solving. The almighty Google tells me it is a description of a experience, the naming of a thing, or a "calling out" of what is being observed. Ekphrasis is used more commonly to refer to a work of art that evokes the essence of another work of art for an audience. Typically, this means writing or image-making applied to a specimen of the visual arts.  A photo exhibit on architecture could fulfill this definition, as could a poem about a dance performance.

In the case of the Groop Gallery, Ekphrasis was both the name of the exhibit and the nature of the closing night for a successful show that featured local artists and sculptors (see right column). The result was both dialectic and synergistic: "local visual artists present their works of art to invoke inspiration from some of Prince George's finest poets and literary artists. A closing night scheduled for May 31st will feature poems and literary interpretations based on the exhibited works."  The poets had visited the gallery at the exhibit's opening, picked a piece to "unpack," and spent a few weeks crafting a response.

On May 31st, A relatively large crowd packed into the tiny gallery on PG's eccentric 3rd Avenue. We had a half hour or so to study the artworks, and then a bevy of poets standing an arms length from us and a work that had inspired some writing, let loose with some spectacular verse. This experiment was a bullseye shot for my learning style or whatever it is that throws my brain into the focused-frenzy that I associate with learning.  When I had been observing the artwork, I posited my own silent verse and free associations onto the pieces. I imagined the sorts of things that the writers, particularly my friend Al, would be thinking, cringing at certain possibilities, excited for others (I must admit that I have a love/hate relationship with poetry).

When the poets spoke, I could feel a few of my predictions and personal viewer-responses burn up and float off into the crowd. What grew back in their place were the quirky, compelling, and insightful observations from some talented writers. Some seemed honest, straightforward, even vulnerable -- clear image making inspired by evocative art. Others seemed contrived, not in a bad way, but in the sense that the poet's voice was so strong they had a hard time giving/opening up to the power of the artwork. I could sense that the normally confident poets had soft hearts for the most part, quite cognizant of the fact they were commenting on someone else's work and that most of the visual artist were in the room.

I was immediately stunned at the possibilities for my students. What kinds of experiences or evidence can I present to them, or can they find for themselves, that compels this kind of synergy? How can students feel safe to explore their voice along the full range from simple "opening up" through to sanguine expression?  I happen to have a single class of English 11 next year after solid Social Studies for many years. I suppose as a basic start, I could take my students to an art exhibit (in our school or out in the community) and try some ekphrasis.  I think I'll try that, but I also want to capture the process somehow, and find other ways to employ the rich engagement that came from one practitioner valuing the work of another. This ain't a new topic for me, I've been preaching "identity" as the basis for student (and educator) engagement for as long as it has seemed obvious to me, but I've often ignored or forgotten the power of direct connections between a Self and a complex Other.

When the Other is both a person (in the room), with their identity as artist in the fore, and a work of art that conceals and reveals a variety of meaning, the possibilities are gorgeous. Ekphrasis is a great way of looking at how learning takes place, part imitation, part inspiration, requiring of discipline and motivated by the lifework that we do to affirm or develop identity.

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