Art & lit collide at Agnes

Myfanwy MacLeod’s Mascot, a mixed media piece, is responded to in verse by poet Steven Heighton in Telling Stories.
Myfanwy MacLeod’s Mascot, a mixed media piece, is responded to in verse by poet Steven Heighton in Telling Stories.

If you have ever stared at a piece of art and wondered what exactly was going on, the exhibit Telling Stories, Secret Lives that officially opened at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on Jan. 21 may be the very thing to help break down the barriers between artistic expression and audience understanding.

The exhibit features the work of seven artists whose pieces have been responded to and interpreted by seven Kingston writers. The guidelines? To write no more than 500 words in any genre they chose, in response to the artwork they were paired with by the curator of contemporary art, Jan Allen.

Carolyn Smart, Kingston-based writer and professor of creative writing at Queen’s, wrote a piece entitled “When I Was Young” in response to Sandra Meigs’ Reckless Days, a series of eight paintings composed of oil on masonite with mixed media.

“I’ve never actually responded to art in that way before and I enjoy it very much ... it was very liberating,” Smart told the Journal in a telephone interview.

Although Smart said that she had trouble getting started on her response to Meigs’ artwork, she said that once she had read the artist’s statement, biographical information, and description of her retreat, she was able to focus her ideas.

“When I was thinking about the specific things that [Sandra Meigs] saw, one of them was something to do with drowning and it brought up in me a memory in my childhood of when I nearly drowned.”

Smart’s prose response is a story about the events of the summer of a very young girl, who in the end, nearly drowns.

The correlation between Smart’s piece and Meigs’ artwork may not be clear at first. However, after reading the story and then revisiting the paintings, there is a greater sense of cohesion between the paintings in the series, which seem at first glance to be out of order and unrelated.

A similar level of understanding can be reached after reading Steven Heighton’s poetic response to Myfanwy MacLeod’s mixed media piece entitled The Mascot.

Heighton’s poem, of the same name, contextualizes MacLeod’s larger-than-life piece by providing a timeline running from the time of the cave men, to the Greek philosophers, to today’s comic books and video games.

Heighton’s poem begins with a description of MacLeod’s bizarre work of art, which draws attention to the individual elements of the installment, as well as to the work as a whole: “The installation/ a comic book head on its side on a white plinth/ deflated small pink body clumped and the floor like sloughed or flayed skin/ in the corner a dark Flintstone cudgel propped against the wall/.” However this basic description is not nearly as apt as the line “What do we have against the body anyway?” which questions why the oversized head is elevated on a pedestal, while the body lies crumpled on the floor.

The paired work of artist Terry Pfliger and writer Diane Schoemperton is perhaps the strongest in the exhibit.

Both pieces, entitled “Evolution is but a Long and Complicated Wish ... or, it’s about Time!” are strong enough to stand on their own, and together they create an incredible impact.

Pfliger’s mixed media installation is a series of ten large terrariums (boxes), nine of which are set up in a three-by-three grid and at first glance look like nine very small, neglected sandboxes. The tenth terrarium is elevated and to see inside, you are forced to climb up onto a step, painted with a map of the world.

While the first nine terrariums are clearly related, the tenth remains a bit of a mystery. Not only is it formed differently, but its contents are so different from the other nine that it forces you to think about how they are connected.

Schoemperton begins and ends her response with very appropriate quotes from evolution’s grand-daddy, Charles Darwin.

Within the frame of these quotations, Schoemperton has written a stanza for each terrarium, numbered one through ten. The poem builds up a picture of a subtly suburban life, and while the characters change from stanza to stanza, the importance that their mundane lives hold is strikingly clear.

The key to the entire work is in the tenth stanza, which ties the tenth terrarium to the other nine, and ties the evolutionary theme to the installment as a whole. “Life goes on. / Time goes by. / Despite expectations and omens to the contrary, the / world does not end after all.”

The theme of human experience through the ages runs throughout the entire exhibit, which also features the work of artists Dorothy Cameron, Robin Collyer, Vera Frenkel and Ian Carr-Harris, and writers Jill Batson, Helen Humphreys, Daniel David Moses, and Merilyn Simonds.

“I think that Jan Allen’s reason for putting these two things together, the writers and the artists, was to find an entry into the art through language,” explained Smart. “I think it was a really successful meeting of the two artworks.”

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