Jan. 27, 2017
A class art project at East Carolina University and a local gallery exhibit explore the relationship between art and poetry, demonstrating the divergent paths inspiration can take.
Last fall, 15 students in illustration professor Joan Mansfield's art and design class were challenged to create a piece of art that complements the written word, with the best piece to be featured in the next online issue of the North Carolina Literary Review, published at ECU.
Mansfield, who has contributed art and illustrations to NCLR over the years, reached out to editor Margaret Bauer and art editor Diane Rodman about having her students create an illustration for the art and literature journal.
Bauer and Rodman suggested that the students create artwork to accompany a poem by James Applewhite slated to be published in the next issue. Applewhite is a North Carolina poet and a regular contributor to NCLR.
"Diane visited my class to present the poem," Mansfield said. "I wanted to see what they could come up with conceptually that wasn't too literal - to create a piece of art that complements the written word."
Ultimately, Bauer and Rodman selected an untitled mixed media piece by graphic design student Paul Kelly, who said he attempted to express Applewhite's sense of scenery and the feeling of the poem.
"I felt like it was about a man reminiscing on his life as he wanders a familiar place one last time," Kelly said.
Mansfield said she responded to the contemplative mood of the piece and appreciated Kelly's choice to have the figure in his work facing away from the viewer, leaving the particulars of the person in the work up to the imagination.
Applewhite's poem, "Alone on the Holiday Campus," will be published in the online edition of NCLR, due out in the coming weeks, accompanied by Kelly's artwork.
Meanwhile, more than 20 artists prepared new work inspired by two other Applewhite poems for the annual Applewhite show at City Art Gallery, open through Feb. 11.
"This is the seventh year that we have partnered with the NCLR for this show," said gallery owner Torrey Stroud. The exhibit is unique among the gallery's shows in that artists are invited to submit work based on a common source of inspiration.
Many of the artists are ECU faculty or alumni. Jordan Parah, who earned her bachelor's degree in sculpture from ECU, said she enjoyed the process of working from a poem.
"I read both poems and really connected with 'Thinking with Clouds,'" she said. "I went off of feeling. It talks about sundown, illuminating distances and nature being mysterious. I work from nature as an inspiration a lot, so this came naturally."
Parah's piece, "Mysterious Clouds," combines curving strips of gold, orange, red and purple steel strips into an oval shape. "I wanted to use different shapes and colors in a harmonious manner," she said.
Despite working from the same sources of inspiration, the artists created very distinct works in a variety of mediums. The show includes oil paintings - some abstract, some realistic - mixed media, sculpture, stoneware, jewelry and even a piece created with eastern N.C. clay on panels.
The clay piece, created by ECU alumna Vicky Smith, was inspired by the poem, "Steps Up the Steep Bank." Smith said that as a visual artist, she pictures images in her mind when she reads, so drawing inspiration from the poems came naturally. Using clay as a medium, the work takes on a life of its own as she cannot entirely control the surface and how it cracks.
Applewhite, who saw the work for the first time at a Jan. 13 opening reception, said it was fascinating to see what each artist came up with.
"Sometimes the artist works to reproduce an image portrayed in a poem, and sometimes it is a more abstract representation of a feeling," he said.
Gesturing towards John Gaitenby's oil painting "White Farmhouse," Applewhite said, "This one is based on 'Thinking with Clouds,' and it looks like perhaps it's the house that's thinking."
There is a complicated relationship in the brain between the visual and the verbal, he said. "Often a poem is a visual image that turns into words."
Rodman said she enjoys the intertwining of art and the written word in the show as well as in the pages of NCLR.
"Dr. Applewhite believes that there is a strong correlation between art and literature, and that each is often inspired by the other," she said. "There's a connection that exists between the two, and when they're paired it brings an illumination to both of them. It's just a natural correlation, I think."