It certainly was for Michele Fricke, who was in charge of selecting shows, booking galleries and installing and taking down at least 6 of the 34 fiber exhibitions held around town in conjunction with the Surface Design Association's biannual conference in Kansas City last month. She also cocurated one of those shows.
Starting in March 2002, Fricke rounded up images of work by six fiber artists she admired. An art history teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute, Fricke says she often found herself describing the artists' works as "poetic," "lyrical" or "articulate." She passed on the visuals to former KCAI cohort and poet Harvey Hix, now in the academic affairs department of the Cleveland Art Institute. Hix looked for poets whose work seemed to have something in common with the artists Fricke had selected. After pairing artists to poets, the curators gave them one year to create what would become Couplets, on display through August 1 at the Writers Place.
Although its earnest experiment in collaboration yields memorable works, in its entirety Couplets doesn't live up to expectations for a show with such a thought-provoking premise.
The exhibition includes works of fiber from Jerry Bleem, Karin Birch, Mary Babcock, Lesley Nishigawara, Donna Sharrett and Jill Ault. Hanging on the wall adjacent to their corresponding artworks, handwritten in delicate calligraphy with brown ink, are poems by Patty Seyburn, Philip Brady, Stephen Burt, Suzanne Noguere, Glori Simmons and Carol Moldaw.
With only six pieces and six poems, the show is tiny. "I deliberately intended for it to be a very small, intimate exhibition," Fricke says. "I didn't want people just to look at the art and not to read the poetry. Poetry requires contemplation."
Unfortunately, though, the exhibition suffers aesthetically from that presentation. Couplets takes up barely a third of available wall space at the Writers Place and seems dwarfed by the rest of the room; the staircase, fireplaces and, worst of all, the bright-red upholstered chairs act as visual distractions.
Although it's not immediately evident, the most successful aspect of Couplets is the way the poets and artists have overcome the difficulties inherent in collaboration. Most had never worked with another artist practicing a medium different from their own. Complicating matters further, Fricke and Hix purposely matched up poets and artists from separate regions of the country. It was sort of like a blind date, says North Carolina artist Mary Babcock, who was paired with poet Stephen Burt of Minneapolis. Poet Suzanne Noguere, who lives in New York City, regrets that she was not able to experience the work of Arizona artist Lesley Nishigawara in person. "Art evokes a visceral response that reproductions cannot hint at," Noguere says. The artists corresponded mostly by e-mail, a nonvisual form of communication that intimidated many of the artists. "I was writing to a writer -- and that's his language," says Karin Birch, who lives in Maryland. Birch eventually bought a digital camera to share images of her ideas with Youngstown, Ohio-based poet Philip Brady.
Many of the collaborators started by exchanging slides and books of poetry, searching for a link between their work. Jerry Bleem, who lives in Illinois, was struck by the way California-based poet Patty Seyburn juxtaposed images and ideas. "I found myself being grabbed by certain lines, lines that took two seemingly disparate concepts, and found insight in their being brought together," he says. Seyburn's words prodded Bleem to fashion a small sculpture out of very different materials -- Guinness beer cans and orange-dyed sheet music.
And Seyburn discovered a connection between the differing sounds in her poetry and Bleem's recycle-bin materials -- his repertoire of media includes everything from nail clippings to insect body parts. "He incorporates a lot of types of materials in the same way I incorporate a lot of different types of diction," she explains. Bleem covered his piece, which is reminiscent of a less bulbous Henry Moore sculpture, with thousands of tiny, gray office staples. The assonance in Seyburn's writing echoes Bleem's repeated metals: Quote: "The good life gives no warning."/Wear a sarong/a monocle./Learn pinochle/Mah-Jongg. Plopped on a pedestal and pushed up against the wall, though, Bleem's piece can be appreciated from only three sides.
Fiber artist Jill Ault and New Mexico poet Carol Moldaw found inspiration in their mutual admiration of painter Agnes Martin. Ault borrowed Martin's minimalist sensibilities to create a silk quilt, and Moldaw used language from Martin's book Writings when composing her poem. Much like a quilter pieces together different fabrics, Moldaw's poem repeats lines in a predetermined pattern. And Ault layers light-green and purple-dyed organza, tying them together with horsehair to form her quilt. The thin, white lines running horizontally and vertically across the piece call to mind Martin's aesthetics.
In other cases, the poets and artists allowed their work to influence each other in more general ways. Karin Birch liked the "lush and dense" quality of Philip Brady's writing. In a departure from her usual aesthetic frugality, she hand-painted and embroidered a hemp surface with intricately patterned knots and beads, creating an abstract tapestry. Moreover, Birch experienced what she describes as a "strong aqua-color reaction" to the imagery of tears, water and boats in Brady's writing. She had been working almost exclusively in red, but the collaboration caused her to rethink her palette.
Mary Babcock describes her process with poet Stephen Burt as "inspired loosely by a shared set of events," adding that she wanted the work to "co-evolve in an interdependent way." Her "Brief History of North American Youth," a sculpture of steel, gut, stitching and rust etch, looks like half of a shriveled and cracked eggshell perched on a floor of flat, rusty beams. The off-white, translucent gut smells a little like rawhide doggy chews. Sadly, though, Babcock's sculpture is set in a corner and displayed knee-high on a black, end-tablelike piece of furniture, under lighting that fails to flatter the wonderful range of translucency in her material.
The two most striking pieces in Couplets include New York City artist Donna Sharrett's "Leaf Without a Tree" and Lesley Nishigawara's "Left Out," both of which incorporate the words of their accompanying poems into the body of the artwork. Sharrett stitches dried rose petals, guitar-string ball ends, friendship rings and rosary beads made with a recipe from the thirteenth century onto a black velvet background in a mandalalike flower design. Inside each of the six main petals, Sharrett has sewn a few words from the poem that San Francisco-based poet Glori Simmons composed for this collaboration.
For "Left Out," Nishigawara spent a lot of time researching snowflake formations. After shaping undyed silk pieces into tiny tubes using a Japanese technique called shibori, she sewed the silk into a six-sided shape and suspended it from the ceiling above a hexagonal piece of glass resting on the wooden floor. She then frosted Suzanne Noguere's haiku into the glass: Left out in the snow/and why not? first the ink bled/as your words melted. Light catches the words in the glass, giving them a glistening, wet, melting quality.
Hix says he and Fricke didn't give the collaborators any specific directions. "We intentionally left as much as possible to the artists and poets themselves. We didn't tell them how to work or set any limitations other than a general awareness of limitations of space," he says.
But the curators may have undermined their audience's ability to appreciate the finer aspects of the results. The installation of the three-dimensional pieces leaves much to be desired. And the calligraphy, though beautiful to look at, is difficult to read. Overall, the show lacks striking visual elements that might convince viewers to spend the time and effort necessary to appreciate the subtle similarities between poems and artwork.