Mary Hall Surface instructs participants during a writing salon in a tower full of Alexander Calder works in the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Thirty eager adults wind their way to the top floor of the National Gallery of Art’s recently renovated East Building. Their destination is a stunning skylit tower gallery of Alexander Calder works that today will host one of the museum’s writing salons.

In a space notable for movement — the gentle shifting of Calder’s mobiles, the steady flow of admiring visitors — instructor Mary Hall Surface invites her group to linger. For the next 2 1/2  hours, salon participants will examine and discuss Calder’s art and use it as poetic inspiration.

The goal of the free workshops is to encourage participants “to look carefully at works of art while offering a new lens through which to view the collection,” says Education Division Director Lynn Russell. The salons, which began in late 2015 and are offered several times a year, cover different forms and aspects of writing, such as memoir or character. Beginning and advanced writers are welcome, and no art expertise is required.

Julie Segal Walters, a lawyer and civil rights advocate turned children’s book author, is a salon regular. She says the workshops allow her to “expand my creativity and craft, take risks and feed my soul while surrounded by one of the greatest collections of masterpieces in the world.”

When planning a workshop, playwright and theater director Surface searches for a powerful link between a work of art and an aspect of writing. For example, she featured Mary Cassatt’s “The Boating Party” in a fall salon on character-revealing conversations, finding that the enigmatic painting’s composition of a mother, child and boatman “parallels dialogue that hides as much as it reveals.”

The museum’s Tower 2 is filled with artworks well-suited to a session on poetry. It houses the largest display in the world of Calder’s mobiles, sculptures and paintings — more than 40, including 19 long-term loans from the Calder Foundation.

Calder’s mobiles — bold, graphic, with groupings and solitary elements — especially lend themselves to lyrical expression. Like a poem, every element of a Calder mobile is essential to the whole, to achieving just the right balance. The artist himself saw the connection: “When everything goes right, a mobile is a piece of poetry that dances with the joy of life and surprises.”

Today’s salon begins with a writing warm-up: Participants offer descriptions of the mobile “Black, White and Ten Red,” based on a reading about the art of the trapeze. A “single castout” describes the mobile’s lone white orb, while the black “high flier peaks, releases.” The 10 red pieces become a “spinning group.”

Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” inspires the next assignment: 13 ways of looking at the graceful hanging mobile “Eucalyptus.” The participants walk around the mobile, peer up from the bottom, linger over a swaying, leaflike element as they confer. 

They are assigned to write a three-stanza lyric poem in response to “Eucalyptus” and an American cinquain based on a work of their choice.

Segal Walters shares her poem with her instructor and with The Washington Post. It begins, Wings of the swallows soaring in formation / Amid floating leaves.” Sharing her work is an expression of gratitude, Segal Walters says, to Mary Hall Surface and to the National Gallery, “for offering mind-freeing, inspiring, educational and free craft workshops to the community.”

‘EUCALYPTUS,” AND THE POEMS IT INSPIRED
(Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

About the mobile

On long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art from the Calder Foundation.

According to the foundation, it is
“a majestic hanging mobile that exemplifies Calder’s mature vocabulary. With a large, surreal element hanging in palpable tension with the floor, ‘Eucalyptus’ premiered in Calder’s 1940 exhibition at Pierre Matisse Gallery and went on to be included in nearly all of the major exhibitions staged during the artist’s life. A favorite among art historians, curators, and the general public alike, ‘Eucalyptus’ moves with hypnotic grace and almost human emotion.”

Quote from the 2013 Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition guide: “‘Eucalyptus’ (1940), one of Calder’s first mature mobiles, was created during World War II. The piece can be seen as a composition of violent, tortured biomorphic shapes that suggest gaping mouths, body parts, sexual organs, and sinister weapons.”

Calder sometimes titled his mobiles after they were completed: “You don’t name a baby until it is born.”

About the assignment

After the writing exercise and the study, participants write a three-stanza lyric poem in response to “Eucalyptus,” including references to shape, line, color and movement.

Excerpts from selected poems inspired by ‘eucalyptus’

Wings of the swallows soaring in formation

Amid floating leaves, signaling the time

To flee again as freeze descends.

By Julie Segal Walters

What moves you and why?

Searching, observing,

Feeling, wondering, why?

By Angelita Ventura

This arabesque of swirling skirts

and laughter, let loose in the bright light

of morning, yearning

to explore, held in place

by a memory of home, bone.

By Stacie Marinelli

With each rotation, each spin

time shifts, swirls, evaporates

as pale shapes

stretch, bulge and disappear

into the afternoon

By Sheila Janega

There need be no word for this

tuxedo crispness, this origami

of evening elegance. The stem

connects the bud to the root,

to the beginning of light and

movement, beginning and end.

By Sheila Martel

ribs of ink blots rotate

through negative space. obsidian shadows

like dug graves.

By Roke Iko

The National Gallery of Art’s next writing salon is “Setting: The Power of Place.” The workshops are April 21, 22 and 23, and April 29 and 30. Registration is required and opens at noon April 18 at nga.gov/writingsalon. Information about the museum’s educational offerings can be found at nga.gov/education.

Kristin O’Keefe is a freelance writer in Kensington, Md.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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