Breath and Matter Exhibit Brings Together Poetry and Sculpture (Part 2)

by heather hughes

On July 18, “Breath and Matter” opens at the Boston Sculptors Gallery in the South End. The exhibit—which grew out of Murray Dewart’s anthology Poems About Sculpture and draws its title from a Robert Pinsky quote, "What has art made of breath to do with an art made of matter?"—features nineteen pairs of artists. Using materials as diverse as light and tree bark, steel and moss, sculptors responded to and incorporated poetry in their practice.

Several of the poets included in the show—Oliver de la Paz, Alison Deming, Chard deNiord, Anaïs Duplan, Danielle Legros Georges, and Corey Michael Smithson—described their experiences collaborating for this exciting and unconventional show, which runs through August 12.

Additional poet and sculptor pairs featured in the exhibit include: Dany Crosby Baez and Nora Valdez, S. David and Peter Haines, Wendy Drexler and Jodi Colella, Anne Elliott and Ed Andrews, Lisa Harries Schumann and Leslie Wilcox, Ernestine Hayes and Andy Moerlein, Audrey Henderson and Julia Shepley, Nancy Lord and Sally Fine, Tomas O’Leary and John Anderson, Mary Pinard and Andrea Thompson, Robert Pinksy and Murray Dewart, Lauret E. Savoy and Michelle Lougee, Lee Sharkey and Claudia Olds Goldie, Emmet Van Driesche and Liz Shepherd, Sophie Wadsworth and Eric Sealine, and Ros Zimmermann and Nancy Selvage.

Read Part 1 for more about the collaborative process, ekphrastic writing, and recommended poems about sculptures.

 A reading and reception will be held on August 3 as part of SOWA First Fridays Gallery Walk.

More Collaborative Process

Boston’s Poet Laureate Danielle Legros Georges was paired with sculptor Donna Dodson, whose work she describes as “informed by a feminist aesthetic, and contains whimsy and a wry humor.” Legros Georges says the two discussed “our themes and approaches to art-making and the world before each creating a work responding to an original artwork of the other. Donna sculpts from wood beautifully—strange animal-human hybrids—all clearly female. I felt my task was to respond to a particular work of hers and also somehow comment on variations on a theme, as visual and physical rhyme and repetition.  She read my work and chose a poem to respond to, picking up on my own humor (which I think is not unlike her own) in a poem on the heavy topic of death.” Those discussions and close observations of one another’s work led Legros Georges to choose a verse form that would echo the repetition of the female form in Dodson’s sculptures. “The ghazal seemed perfect,” she says, “Also, because Donna’s work takes up myth (and at times notions of creation), I found this Arabic form particularly fitting due to its classic nature.” 

Writing for Exhibition

Is writing for an art gallery, a specific space and presentation of a poem, any different than one’s usual practice? Poets took varied approaches.

For Anaïs Duplan, writing intended to live off the page involved writing “a poem that had some duration.” They say that “the idea of duration reflected, for me, the process of collaborating with Hannah, of going back and forth together about the process of creating. Then, of course, there was the issue of how to exhibit a video-poem. Hannah made an amazing poster with a compendium of screenshots from the video, a really wonderful additional layer of interpretation.” Duplan’s approach very much addressed the site-specific nature of the project and the work that they were engaged in with Hannah Verlin.

Corey Michael Smithson also centered the collaborative aspect of the exhibit. “My only concern,” he says “was in creating a text that would correspond well with Andy's choice to work with projected light. I was less focused on the public exhibition or the physical gallery space than the conceptual framework.”

Writing “Elegy for a Barn” was no different for Chard deNiord “than if I had simply been collaborating with Nancy Milliken on a similar project or writing about this subject on my own.” He did not keep the gallery or exhibition in mind while working on the poem, citing how this can “create a destructive self-consciousness that militates against the creative process itself. As Garcia Lorca wrote, ‘The minute a violin knows it's a violin the music stops.’”

Oliver de la Paz thought about the ways his usual writing process is a natural fit for a gallery space. “I work in big canvasses,” he says, “I view myself as a project-centric writer, meaning I have a big narrative/theme/idea. Often my poems work in series or sequence, so you could liken what I do to a series of studies where an artist examines multiple takes and angles for a singular larger piece.” Although he notes that his poems do work discreetly, the relationships among poems amplifies each individual one.

Poetry and Sculpture

Alison Deming sees poetry and sculpture overlapping and entangling through “love of form and investing form with voice.” Similarly, Corey Michael Smithson notes that “poetry and sculpture are both primarily concerned with the relationship between structure and expression. The two disciplines often have similar requirements: analysis, experimentation, testing, judgment, addition, elimination, and the thoughtful application of previously acquired skills.” He even calls attention to the ways that the language each uses to discuss their processes often partakes of the other’s disciple: “writers often use terms like ‘chiseling’ or ‘polishing’ or ‘chipping away’ as they refine their material; and a sculptor may employ literary concepts like ‘harmony,’ ‘rhythm,’ or ‘flow’ to describe their physical forms and strategies.”

“I like to think of poetry as a form that’s similar to the three-dimensionality of a sculptural form,” says Oliver de la Paz. “Though our medium is soundscapes, there are ways on the page that we can represent space and breakages in form, pattern, and structure. Traditional forms like the sonnet or the villanelle operate via pattern and expectation or at times the breakage of those expectations. Free verse poems often have to create or shape patterns of their own.”

The interplay of the two art forms is far from theoretical for Anaïs Duplan, who studied sculpture before studying poetry in school (and architecture before either). They say, “each time I made a transition, it felt as though the real shift was one about immediacy. Sculpture more immediate than architecture and poetry a more immediate version of sculpture.” Like other poets, Duplan considers “art-construction as a singular process, that has different nuances depending on the medium but which is ultimately revolving around similar processes of art-thinking, art-building, art-responding” 

Danielle Legros Georges summarized the interplay between the arts thus: “For me, good art begets art. It’s the ideas and approaches contained in them that draw me in—and, of course, the fact that art reflects and provides new visions of life and our existence.” Breath and Matter does just this—offering varied and new experiences of how good art leads to more.