There is a long history of poets and writers who draw inspiration from the visual arts. Master poets John Keats and Percy Shelley crafted great poems like “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ozymandias,” translating the visual world into poetic language.
Using creative writing in the galleries can be an effective and powerful method of getting visitors to connect with artwork through language. In both the Dallas Museum of Art’s public programs and multiple visits programs for school groups, I design and use writing activities based on simple structures to get groups thinking imaginatively.
The acrostic is a simple poetic form in which the initial letters of each line have a meaning when read downwards. I initially implemented this writing exercises as a companion to a piece in the DMAs collections: Sigmar Polke’s ekphrastic painting Clouds, which was inspired by a Chinese folk tale written by French writer Marguerite Yourcenar.
Changing matter, lead to goldLike a wizard alchemistOur painter hero Wang-FoUndermines the angry emperor.Devises escape on a painted rowboatSet out to sea.
Though the above poem is very sophisticated, this is an easy writing activity. It is appropriate for younger visitors, as well as adults, and can be adapted to suit the title of any object. Other successful variations of this exercise have included creating acrostics where a person’s first name is substituted for the vertical line.
I sometimes use a writing exercise created by the Surrealists, called, “The Exquisite Corpse.” This exercise uses an artwork for its inspiration and can be very effective with groups who may be less forthcoming in sharing their writing. In The Exquisite Corpse, one person starts off the chain of writing with a single sentence. The piece of paper is passed on to the next person, who writes the next line. Before passing the page to the next person, the page is folded down, so only the last sentence written is visible to the person who receives the page next. In this way, one person’s line is formed and influenced by the person before them. The process is repeated, until everyone has had a turn. At the end of this activity, the paper is unfolded and the poem is read aloud. Each person contributes to the writing of the poem, which makes sharing in a group less self-conscious.
The integration of creative writing into learning in the galleries can have powerful effects. Learners are invited to access visual art through language, and in doing so are given permission to transform their own creative impulses into the concrete and the poetic.
Shin Yu Pai, coordinator of docent programs, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas
Pai, Shin Yu. “It Works for Me…Sharing Successful Techniques and Ideas.,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 7.