Poets have long taken inspiration from art.
But in the current show at the University of Maryland University College Arts Program Gallery, the process is reversed.
The 18 artists from 13 countries represented in “The Poetics of Water” devised their work from poems. Two Washington poets were involved in the program, Kim Roberts and Dan Vera. They in turn coaxed poems out of separate workshops involving senior citizens and at-risk African American boys.
The best of their writing inspired the artists in the elaborate outreach show organized by Take Me to the River, an international artists’ collective that has put on shows in Egypt, South Africa, Istanbul and Wichita Falls.
Outreach has been a component of each of their shows, says Bethesda artist Richard Dana, a co-founder of Take Me to the River whose work is also included in the show.
“The intent is to use cultural programs to break barriers of nationalities, heritage, race and religion,” he says. “Working with immediate communities and doing outreach, we’re trying to bridge the divides that separate people. We look at the whole project as a metaphor of doing this.”
How else could this bridge be spanned: DaQuann Glosson, 12-year-old boy, writes a poem full of contradictions: “Water is beautiful / water is ugly / some people think it horrifying / I think differently.” His words, in turn, inspire an artist across the ocean in Paris named Mary-Ann Beall to create a gauzy work in blues and blacks that incorporates those contrasts — and DaQuann’s very words.
A more agitated abstraction by Ivana Panizzi, a Brazilian-born artist living in Tanzania, illustrates the stark poem by 11-year-old Horus Plaza, which reads in full:
I hear the raindrops
There on my house
It is sparkling
It is dark
We have no food
Art and poetry have long been part of the 15-year-old Life Pieces to Masterpieces program, according to Anthony Fracavilla, development manager there. The program, which is dedicated to helping young African American students in artistic expression and provides homework help from a headquarters at Charles. R. Drew Middle School, has seen some of its paintings hang recently at the MLK Library and the Children’s National Medical Center.
But it was something of a new experience for the women at the Brighton Gardens of Friendship Heights senior living community, says Roberts, who ran the workshop, and whose own poems are also in the show.
“It was not the normal thing for them,” Roberts says. “I was asking them to expose their emotional lives in ways they’re usually not asked to do.”
“It was difficult in that it brought up a lot of things I had pushed down,” says Connie Terry, a participant in the program who wrote for the first time about the painful deaths of her two sons.
“It was a catharsis, of some sort,” Terry says. “I had never been able to talk about the loss of my two sons.”
It was Dana, in turn, who created a piece to complement it — an abstract in yellow, aquas and dark purples.
Roberts’s reflections on the “McMillan Water Treatment Plan” elicited a jagged monochromatic work of grays and blacks from Hsin-Hsi Chen, who, like several artists in the show, is foreign-born but lives in the area.
Roberts’s other poem, “American Herring Gull,” incorporating a passage from Whitman, inspired a splashy swirl from Diedre Saunder, a Washington artist born in Zimbabwe.
“I got paired with two artists who were so stylistically different,” says Roberts of the works created from her poems. “But both of them captured something about my language and my words.”
The cohesion of the show is caused partly by the format — digital prints in a uniform size of 40 by 40 — but also because of the common subject matter.
Water has always been the common theme of all the work in Take Me to the River collective, dating back to the first exhibit in Cairo in 2002, Dana says.
“We use it to bring coherence to a group of artists who are extremely diverse, both in medium they use and the general subject matters. Some are abstract, some are representational, but water served as the theme for them all,” he says.
Using digital prints for all the visual work at the UMUC show despite their original media — from paint to photography to textile work — may be a jolt for some viewers. But Dana says the format brings a cohesion to the show and makes it much easier to transport — an important consideration when dealing with artists from so many different points on the globe. “It becomes an easy way to send the work over: right to the digital printer,” Dana says.
The uniform size of each piece made the show hang well in the UMUC Arts Program Gallery, a place Dana says they are especially glad to be.
“It has such an incredible amount of people not in the art world that go through that space. Myself and other artists, the sociopolitical art we do ends up preaching to the converted in museums and galleries, with everybody patting themselves on the back,” he says. “Art should be in a place where not a normal art crowd is going.”
Accordingly, he adds, “one of the coolest things at the opening was that there were three or four young women from an Army program walking around in camouflage fatigues.”
Other special guests at the opening were the new young poets, seeing their words on the wall, alongside the work it inspired in artists who in some cases lived continents away.
“One young man in particular, DaQuann, was really excited that the work he had inspired was on the cover of the catalogue and that it had included the words of his poem in the painting,” says Fracavilla of Life Pieces to Masterpieces.
“One of the most satisfying things was seeing them at the opening,” Dana says. “All of them got catalogues, and some of them were asking for artists to autograph them, and one boy was offering to autograph his poems, too.”
It was the first art opening for some of them, Dana says. “I would say quite frankly they were a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing.”
Similar reactions came from the poets at Brighton Gardens. “I am not a writer in any way,” says Wylma Bright, 88. “But they tried to get us to write something from our life.”
She recalled her time at a Delaware beach in a poem called “Bright House, Rehoboth Beach.” The resulting work by Patricia Secco, a Brazilian-born artist living in Marseilles, France, picked up on the blue of the water and the sand castles she mentioned. “I’m amazed,” Bright says.
A van from Brighton Gardens brought most of the participants from the seniors program. But not all of them.
“One of liveliest women, Evelyn, died between the end of the workshop and the opening,” says Dana, who talked to the woman’s daughter. “She told me her mother had been quite involved in the watercolor society in San Diego but had stopped doing any creative activity. But through being in the program, all of a sudden Evelyn was interested to go back to painting; she was so excited about poetry.”
His own work, illustrating the poem by another member of the Arts for the Aging program, Terry, the woman who lost two sons, was a powerful experience.
“When she first read it to everyone, it was unbelievably touching. Everyone had tears in their eyes,” Dana says. “She was telling friends this was something that had been bottled up all these years.”
That said, Dana was apprehensive about interpreting the poem in his artwork, he says.
But Terry, seeing it for the first time at the opening, said, “I really liked it. It was so stark, but in a way it was so right. And I was really so proud to have this piece there in my name.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
on view through Jan. 15
at the University of Maryland University College Arts Program Gallery,
3501 University Blvd. East, Adelphi;