As a poet teaching in a museum environment, I often turn to writing-based activities to assist visitors in appreciating and understanding works of art. For the novice art viewer with a limited art background and art vocabulary, a writing exercise functions as a strategy to slow down the mind in order to focus upon looking closely at visual details and clues that help a viewer intuitively make sense of a work.
Using writing to teach about the visual arts fulfills a dual function by assisting the visitor to gain a basic entry point into the artwork and giving a viewer a springboard into a deeper exploration and transformation of their own experience and relationship to that work. Through language, the viewer is encouraged and challenged to claim and articulate his or her experience of art by finding a personal voice to talk about these objects. This process of reflection can provide insight into the creative process of the visitor, as well as the process of the artist.
Viewing a work of art closely parallels the process of reading a work of poetry or literature — both textual and visual languages share a common vocabulary of technical terms that can include setting, style, character, mood, and narrative. Both organize and make sense of the world in similar ways. We read a poem or story on different levels, in the same manner that we approach looking at art objects. Within the process of making a concentrated reading or visual inventory, we may pass an eye over the work, scan for subject matter, take a longer and deeper look for technical and contextual concerns, in addition to taking time to examine what we assume to be an artist’s intent.
As a poet, it has taken me years to connect the relationship between form and writing. Coming to writing from a non-Western orientation to the English language, I have never felt connected to the notion of form as I learned it in poetry workshops — writing in lines of iambic pentameter, rhyme, and traditional meter. Form for me was only an experiment, or imitation at best, devoid of meaning.
It was not until I began to look carefully at the painted machine-like images of John Pomara speeding across the canvas and the pollen forms of Wolgang Laib that the notion of how form shapes and embodies an artist’s vision exploded open. Words function in the same way as paint or other substances; units of language live and move across a blank surface with the energy and resonance of each word unfolding an organic form relevant to a subject, versus a set of predetermined parameters.
The exercises that follow are object-based activities that have been tried and tested on audiences of various ages at the Dallas Museum of Art. Adaptable to objects in any art museum, they are strategies for approaching works of art and for delving deeper into personal connections and more enriching experiences.
Choose a work of art that depicts people engaged in an activity or event. Study facial expressions, body language, and the relationship between characters. Using these visual clues, write a story about the scene. What led up to this moment? What comes next in the story? (While a range of objects could work for this activity, history painting and classical works lend themselves well to this exercise.) Share the stories. What overlap do you find in the different stories and discuss how the artwork provides possibilities for multiple narratives.
A Sense of Place
Choose a work that depicts a landscape or place. Pretend you are writing a postcard home to a friend from this place. What are the sights, smells, sounds, and flavors of this place? Why have you gone there? Describe what is happening around you.
Using a portrait, create a character sketch of the person. How does this person wear his or her hair and clothing? What does this person’s environment and the objects included in the portrait tell you about who he or she might be? What do you think this individual’s personality would be like based on what you see? Imagine having a conversation with this person. What would he or she speak with you about?
I remember .. . Decorative art objects lend themselves especially well to this exercise. Select an object. What memories, either private or public — real or imagined, does this object unlock for you? What time does this recall? Write a ten to twenty line poem recording the visual, sensual, and emotional details you associate or find with this object, using the phrase “I remember …” to start off the exercise. (This activity may be more effective with older audiences.)
Find a work of art in the museum that has strong formal elements: form, shape, line, color, and textiure. Take this object as a point of departure to write a piece of visually engaging poetry that connects to the formal qualities of the artwork you selected. Write a poem in the shape of a ziggurat, a mountain, or a tree — whatever form is in front of you. Consider where you break a line and the physical arrangement of text on the page. Keep the text moving, let the visual image guide your hand and eye.
Spend time looking at works that employ collage techniques in some way. How are these works visually organized; what seems accidental and what seems purposeful? Make your own collage out of words by cutting up sentences from a newspaper and placing them in a paper bag. Shake up the bag, remove the phrases at random, and copy out the text. Revise or rearrange the text to construct a narrative.
At its simplest, the Japanese haiku is a brief, three-line poem composed of 17 syllables broken into lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. On a deeper level, traditional haiku employ images from the natural world and connect to a specific season or time of year. Because of these qualities, suitable objects for this exercise might include landscapes and other scenic vistas. Haiku is traditionally used in close association with haibun, or prose form, as in the work of Matsuo Basho. A variation on the haiku writing exercise might be to alternate writing in verse with writing in prose. Approach your chosen object using both forms.
Shin Yu Pai is a poet and writer living in Boston, MA. She is the former docent coordinator for the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, TX. Her article, A Process-Oriented Approach to Engaging the Senses, ” appeared in the Winter 2001-02 issue of The Docent Educator.
Pai, Shin Yu. “Creative Writing Activities and Museum Visitors,” The Docent Educator 11.4 (Summer 2002): 6-7.