Confessions of a Rail-Jumper

A few months ago I opened an Etsy shop and named it Jumping Rails. Part of that name choice came from an experience in which I’d jumped a fence to cross some train tracks despite the warning sign not to, but the deeper reason has to do with my path as a creative person. You see, I am constantly jumping rails from one pursuit to another.

Pretty much any time before my senior year of high school, had you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said, “Artist.” But after graduation, I honestly had no idea what direction I wanted to go. I still loved to draw, but didn’t like the idea of it becoming “work.” Art stayed a hobby for me, but it didn’t at all stay centered on drawing, even though drawing was the heart of what I considered true art.

Over the years, art has shifted from one thing to another for me. Some examples:

Drawing

Painting plaster figurines

Assembling a multitude of craft kits

Scrapbooking

Refinishing furniture

Building and sewing window treatments

More drawing

Writing

Making wands

Mixed media art

Acrylic painting

I’ve had to shed the strict “artist” label I’d held onto during my childhood and adolescence, but it’s come off layer by layer over many years. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty for not sticking to one art form, worried that I was abandoning certain talents. I have wondered off and on what it says about me that I am constantly changing direction and focus. I’ve thought, “I must not be an artist anymore because it’s been so long since I’ve drawn,” all the while not realizing that all creative things are art as well in their own ways. The guilt was never quite strong enough to keep me from jumping, though. I have never been one to force creativity. I found inspiration and it called relentlessly.

It wasn’t until after I started writing that I finally began to see the connection. It finally sank in that I was using the same creative force to write stories as I had to draw portraits. And that same creative force was at work when I scrapbooked, or sewed, or reupholstered a set of dining room chairs. I also accepted that painting didn’t have to mean masterpieces; I didn’t have to be Da Vinci or Van Gogh. I could paint space ships and fairy trees and it still counted as art to me. I could glue burnt paper and brass keys to painted canvas as long as what I created made me happy and counted as art to me.

All of those things, all those art forms, are part of a giant rail system, but for so many years I thought to be a true artist I needed to stay on one track. Now, I’ve had time and life experiences that have shown me all the branches of creativity cross each other. (As we get older, we are more able to see just how complex life in general is, so carrying that over to art makes much more sense.) I’ve gotten to know other artists and creative people who have embraced the different aspects of their own natures, and I’ve learned from their examples. Now I know it’s perfectly okay to jump the rails from one track to another as long as I keep the train moving.

 

 

Author Bio:

Kat Heckenbach spent her childhood with pencil and sketchbook in hand, knowing she wanted to be an artist when she grew up—so naturally she graduated from college with a degree in biology, went on to teach math, and now homeschools her two children while writing. Her fiction ranges from light-hearted fantasy to dark and disturbing, with multiple stories published online and in print. Her YA fantasy series Toch Island Chronicles is available in print and ebook. Enter her world at www.katheckenbach.com.

Amazon page for Toch Island Chronicles ebooks on sale for $1.39 each- https://www.amazon.com/s?ref=series_rw_dp_labf&_encoding=UTF8&field-collection=Toch+Island+Chronicles&url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text

Ekphrastic Writing–Creative Speed Dating (by Sarah E. Morin)

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Image courtesy of Supertrooper at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you hit a creative block, maybe you read outside your genre to find new inspiration. Maybe you talk it out in your local writing group. But have you ever considered finding new inspiration, not only outside your genre and writing group, but from another set of artists altogether? Magic can happen when creative people from different branches of the fine arts come together.

Last fall, Karen, a local painter, sat down for coffee with me and a couple poets and painters. (We poets insist on meeting at the local coffee/tea shop. Caffeine makes us more productive.) As we chatted over cheap legal stimulants, she proposed a group collaboration.

We spread the word to our poet and painter friends, and, a few weeks later, about a dozen of us gathered for a brainstorming session. We each brought three poems or paintings to the session to share. Truthfully, we had no idea what we were doing, other than the consensus that “Wow, I had no idea there was such talent here in this other field. It’s really inspiring.”

Immediately, people started to connect with what they read and saw. For example, I saw a painting of Princess Di wearing a hat with a brim so large it looked like Saturn’s rings. I asked the artist’s permission to write an ekphrastic poem based on her work, in which I compared Di’s celebrity to outer space.

 

What is an ekphrastic poem?

An ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired by a work of art.

In our case, the artists also created art based on our poems. One of our most prolific artists was Alys Caviness-Gober. Here is a piece she painted for my poem Carnival World:

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CARNIVAL WORLD

When the carnival left

the fairgrounds bore

the alien imprint

of crop circles in the grass.

The merry-go-round

left the round ghost

of the landing site

of a flying saucer.

Where are the inhabitants

of this fleeting world

that still smells of deep-fried adrenaline?

Where are the monuments they erected

of metal bars and canvas?

What means their last message:

the trampled echo of calliope music?

They flew away

through colorful stars

Ferris wheel galaxies

and left behind the litter of

a space, a time.

 

An ekphrastic piece need not be as literal as an illustration or description. You may imitate the mood the art evokes, or a specific segment of the art. For example, one poet looked at the way three cows in a pastoral scene were grouped and turned it into a statement about gossip.

There really are no other rules. Just inspiration!

Karen’s Poets and Painters group has met once a month since fall. I won’t say there haven’t been challenges in getting a large group of right-brained, strong-minded people to agree on an end goal. But there have also been some collaborations so moving they brought me to tears. For example, one painter (Sojna) depicted two abstract, red birds facing each other. One was right-side-up, one upside-down (think ying-yang). Vince, one of the poets, saw in it his son’s relationship to the world. His beloved son is on the autism spectrum and sees the world in a completely different way.

Eventually we also added a photographer and stained glass artist to the mix. The studio staff liked the idea of collaboration between different artists so much they hosted a whole exhibit in January, which featured pairings of visual art, written word, drama, and music.

No one in our group was limited as to style, number of poems, or number of collaborative partners. You could work with anyone as little or as much as you liked, as long as it was mutually agreeable. Just like in any partnership, sometimes you hit it off (artistically), sometimes you don’t. I began to think of our monthly meetings as Creative Speed Dating. Some poems and paintings were lovely but didn’t find a collaborative match. On the other hand, sometimes one painting triggered five poems. Occasionally someone sparked a chain reaction. A poet wrote a poem based on a painting, a second artist painted a new piece based on the new poem, and so on, like the childhood game of Telephone.

Do you have to write ekphrastic poetry in a big group? No. If you work with one artist, you get to know each other’s style intimately and can form a great friendship. After a while, you will find yourself writing a poem to bring out that artist’s specific talents.

If the artist you want to collaborate with is unreachable (or deceased), you can still use your piece as a writing exercise. When I enter my ekphrastic poems in contest or for publication, I only include images of the art if I have the artist’s permission or it is in the public domain. If you do not have permission, your poem may still be publishable without the art if it is transformative and a very different take on the original. I am not a lawyer, so read up on your copyright law before proceeding.

 

How did ekphrastic collaboration benefit me as a writer?

  • Visual artists are very tuned to, well, the Trying to describe a particular shape and shade made me reach further to find more precise word images.
  • I was particularly drawn to portraits. As a writer, I asked the eternal character and plot questions, “Why is she holding that umbrella? Why is her head turned away from his?” You may find a whole story in a work of art, or gain new insight into your WIP.
  • A visual artist will find angles to your writing you never considered.
  • The art may challenge you to try unfamiliar poetic forms which match the feel or shape of the visual work. A small nature scene may lend itself to a rictameter, or a painting with repeated patterns to a pantoum.
  • Not a poet? Try writing ekphrastic flash fiction. You’ll gain many of the same benefits. Poetry helps me pare down the word count in my prose, and flash fiction would do the same.
  • It can be as quick a process as you like. You find a painting you like, write your poem in a morning, and you’re done. When I was in the middle of putting my 160,000 word novel on a diet, I found it a relief to take a couple hours and just do a writing project from start to finish. Other short-term opportunities include exhibiting your collaboration in a temporary exhibition. A handful of our poet/painter pairings chose this route, which included a kickoff event with food and public readings. It was good exposure for us all.
  • Writing, as we know, demands many hours of solitary work. It’s a relief to gather with other creators of fine art who can share our struggles and encourage us.
  • Face it, we artists and writers love to hear the magical words, “Your work inspires me.”

 

How to Find Your Creative Speed Dating Match:

If you are a writer looking for an artist, go to art fairs and festivals. Not only can you see if the art inspires you before you approach the artist with your proposal to collaborate, you can often meet the artist in person. You can feel out whether you can work with this person, whether your business personalities jive, and get some background information about what inspires them. Also, they are most likely to agree to a collaboration if they see you in person instead of a random email. Pick a non-peak hour and bring your contact info. If the artist is not present (say, at a gallery) write down the name of the artist and google it later.

 

Dates gone wrong: Can you be wrong in your ekphrastic piece?

Yes and no. There is only one time an artist asked me to rewrite my ekphrastic poem. She painted an abstract piece of a snowy ground and red trees. I interpreted it as the transition of winter to spring, and she fall to winter. Generally, if you involve yourself in such a group, you should go into it accepting that your collaborative partner will take your work in new directions. That is both the benefit and the risk. Like dating, if the partnership doesn’t strike a spark, remember it was only one awkward first date. Learn from it (which was the whole point) and move on to other partners with whom you have creative chemistry. Most of all, have fun.

 

1387848_10205686331655788_1864298394_oAbout Sarah E. Morin:

Sarah E. writes unruly fairs and poems. Her first novel, Waking Beauty, asks the question, “What if Sleeping Beauty refused to wake up?” She performs her short stories and poems for local libraries, organizations, and conferences.