“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”
–Leonardo da Vinci
There’s nothing surprising in the observation that literary artists and visual artists often combine their talents to create works which, when joined together, allow each to transcend possible limitations of the other. The literary artist lends verbal depth to the visual. The visual artist provides visible articulation for the literary.
The goal of each has generally been the same: to fashion out of the raw material of creativity a symbol-or an image-capable of communicating some significant experience of truth, beauty, life, or death, to the observer. And there have been in fact any number of successful partnerships between such creatively charged intellects. Artist Romare Bearden and playwright Ntozake Shange’s I Live in Music comes to mind; as does various works by Salvador Dali and Federico Garcia Lorca; the visual style of Aaron Douglas and the literary voices of the Harlem Renaissance; the French poet and critic Apollinaire Guillaume, whose literary loyalty empowered the bohemians of Picasso’s early days; and more recently, poet Coleman Barks’ interpretations of Jalal Al-Din Rumi “illuminated” by Michael Green.
I meditate upon these creative artists’ subtle yet titanic achievements at this time for two reasons: one is because the ear-drum shattering booms of war and the soul-numbing cracklings of human discontent that continue to echo across planet Earth remind us of how painted and verbalized visions help people retain a sense of context and harmony in an era that too often seems to make such notions-like black and white TVs– utterly obsolete. The second reason is because May 29, 2010, marks the second anniversary of the publication celebration for the art and poetry gift book, ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love, held at the Jepson Center for the Arts in Savannah, Georgia. A third less official reason is because recently ELEMENTAL was added to the Google Book search engine, which means those unfamiliar with it may now enjoy an extended preview .
Considering the legacies of visual art in partnership with literary art, in general, reinforces the powerful resources they still provide. Contemplating the anniversary of ELEMENTAL in particular renews appreciation for the extraordinary milestone it continues to represent.
Until the advent of the modern self-publishing and “author services” industry, getting any book published by an author who had yet to establish him- or herself as a viable commodity within the literary marketplace was much like running, at first one decade-long marathon to build up enough courage to call oneself an author, and then a second to convince a bona fide publishing house that you were not delusional by making such a claim. This meant books of poetry published outside the academic arena were considered foolishly frivolous investments, and books of art extravagant pleasures afforded the few but not the many. Yet at how many graduation ceremonies, political functions, funerals, weddings, conventions, and other life-defining events are the words of poets evoked to clarify the spirit and substance of the occasion at hand? On how many rainy days and in how many hours of stifled desperation has an individual made her way into a museum or gallery and took healing refuge in an image that bore witness to their heart’s challenging journey?
“A Widow Remembers” by Luther E. Vann
(from ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love)
There is much that could be said about ELEMENTAL as an extraordinary gift of manifested vision in the lives and works of two creative artists. We can note the still amazing fact of how I first came across Luther E. Vann’s work on exhibit at the Beach Institute on May 30, 1991, and found myself transcribing his painted worlds into notes for poems and essays long before considering the possibility they might one day serve as the foundation for a book. Or we may consider how the journey started on that day took another 17 years–almost to the day!– before arriving at the destination of publication. From the writer-poet’s perspective, I remain humbled by the history accumulated along the way and which in times of doubt helped renew motivation and creative energy. That the poems eventually included in ELEMENTAL contained value far beyond kudos for an individual author was made evident when audiences at coffee house open mics expressed their enthusiasm and readers of those poems published in ESSENCE Magazine did so as well.
The greatest testimony, however, came when the story of the struggle to publish ELEMENTAL reached members of the Telfair Museum Friends of African-American Art and they in turn shared it with the city of Savannah. Members of the community (SEE “Thank You Gracious Contributors” page in Google book preview) then chose to have their say by contributing funds to raise the monies necessary to get the book published. They succeeded in a spectacular way that remains profoundly inspiring.
Whereas the great historian and humanitarian W.E.B. Du Bois once observed that “the cause of war is preparation for war,” the actions of those who made ELEMENTAL possible led me to consider that the cause of beauty and grace in the world is humanity’s empowerment of beauty and grace in the world. While it is unlikely that poetry or art shall eliminate the reality of war in the twenty-first century, it is thrilling to know there remain individuals, and even entire communities, still willing to invest in art and poetry’s own uniquely explosive contributions to the great, and small, dramas of human history.