Where Art and Storytelling Intersect

It all started with a tag, upon which was typed, a title.

‘A Pear of Pants’ Rick Devin

About a month ago, my aunt and I visited various artist studios as part of HopArts, an open house festival day.  One artist’s bio captured my attention because of his whimsical, surrealistic images. I thought it would be a fun spot to scope out for my children. My aunt and I didn’t need the kids to enjoy Rick Devin’s studio.  The bold, comical animals leapt off the canvases. His fabric sculptures oozed character.  And then we noticed the titles of the pieces. We made a second pass of each piece, pointing out the titles, and laughing once more and more heartily. My aunt asked Devin whether he created the titles or the pieces first. He said it worked both ways. The depth of humor each title added struck me, but I don’t think I knew exactly why.

Then, this past weekend, I took my two oldest girls to Charlestown Gallery. My seven year-old is working on a painting badge for Girl Scouts and was scheduled to visit and talk to the curator/artists at the gallery. I brought my nine year-old along because she is blossoming with artistic talent and enthusiasm. I may have had as much, if not more, fun as they did.

I don’t know why I sometimes separate the visual and written arts. The creative process is much the same, only presented in a different medium. Each piece there was making a statement, telling a story, looking to evoke a feeling. And each was so varied – from artist to artist, even from work to work within one artist’s body. It wasn’t simply an image etched into being, any more than a story is words written on a page.

My girls and I talked about what some of the pieces might mean, what the artist may have intended. When they each gave a different interpretation of the same piece, we discussed how what the viewer brings to the image is as important as the original intent of the artist. My mind whirled on to the reader response school of literary critique. When I peered at another painting, analyzing it as I would a piece of literature, trying to understand its meaning, I formed a vague notion – when I looked at that tag naming its title and an unexpected door opened, leading me into a richer, more detailed room.

'Heading Out' by David Witbeck

                                                                                                                                             “Heading Out’ by David Witbeck

All art is storytelling. The thought processes involved in the creative process bend and stretch the parameters of meaning; forcing the close study of the object right in front of us and how it fits into the bigger picture. Even the ‘simple’ experience of viewing the outcome of the creative process – without engaging in its creation – pays many of the same dividends. One is still engaged. Though my daughters hadn’t made the art, they made their own meaning. The hand of the artist reached through the canvas and provoked a thought process in them that made them view the world through different eyes.

The creative arts help us to interpret and synthesize our world in a way our practical, procedural lives won’t let us. The value of that can be seen no matter which way one looks at it.


Luke Stettner, Other, 2012.

Luke Stettner, Other, 2012.

Six Degrees of Memoir

Six words.

Choose them carefully because that’s all you have to tell your life story.

Should be easy, right? Anyone can complete a story that’s only six words long.

But can it encapsulate an entire life? Can it fully relate the defining moment in someone’s life? With only six words, you have to precisely concise.

Or is it even possible to pin down a life in six words, several characters?

That was the conundrum I faced with ‘My Six Word Memoir’, a calling for and exhibition of this unique artistic narrative at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.

D by wall

A dear friend connected with the organization encouraged me to participate in the project, an offshoot of Larry Smith’s Six-Word Memoir challenge. The Jewish Alliance challenged the “community to rethink the notion of writer and memoir and offer a simple platform to share the short, sharp story of your life.”

everyone has The opening night of the exhibit, my friend and I circulated amongst  on-lookers and other writers. Some writers gave themselves away  with the click of a camera by their memoir. Others pointed theirs out  sheepishly when I commented on them. One of the organizers  admitted “[her] six words are always changing,” which segued nicely  into a conversation with another participant about the difficulty of choosing just one story. We discussed the distinction between a story and the story. Would bits and pieces of our lives represent it as fully or richly as an agoniziplace to tellngly selected six-word summary? Or more so? Someone had asked her whether her memoir was too simple. She’d countered with, ‘But is it?

Perspective is everything.

What seemed like a simple exercise in writing opened up many philosophical  and existential conversations – personally, as I sat at my keyboard, and  collectively, once I joined the audience at the art gallery. I realized that what  I put on my ‘canvas’ was not what others brought to it from their own  experiences. And what I read in theirs wasn’t necessarily what they  intended. Another case of artist vs. art critic. Writer vs. reader response.  Intent vs. interpretation.

Who can say that any one of the versions is wrong? Who can say that any one of us is finished writing the story of his or her life? It is the meditation and conversation that comes with that truly defines us.


* A special thank you to the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island for offering this project and showcasing it in such a palatable way in Gallery (401).gallery 401

Process of Procrastination

This is how I spent the better part of my afternoon yesterday.

Photo by Jennifer Butler Basile

Actually, it’s how I spent the better part of the last few years. Or should have.

If you are the one person who happens to notice the bottom corner of my blog, where I post which book is currently on my bedside table, you might have been wondering what the hell was taking me so long to read The Process of Sculpture by Anthony Padovano. I’ve actually been reading it longer than I’ve been advertising it.

This highly informative tome of the processes of sculpture was loaned to me by an artist generous of her time and talent – and trust. My aunt took me to meet her friend, Sarah Blair, years ago, at the origin point of the trajectory I’m still on to write the young adult novel of Dmitri, the seventeen year old who desires to eschew the family tradition of plastering for sculpture. This sculptor was the subject of my very first interview as an author. I felt so official, doing research, for my novel. She happily answered all my questions, showed me her work, and sent me out the door with a text she’d studied in art school.

I wonder if she knew how long it would be before her book came home?

The book sat, pregnant with possibility and inspiration, in my rolling writing office at my old house, and on the writing desk I’d graduated to after we moved. It held the scratching and scribblings of my interview notes and beginnings of detailed notes on its contents. It waited when I’d lost forward motion on the project. It taunted when I picked the project back up and had no excuse not to crack its cover. It inspired me with its epiphanies that could be applied to sculpture and life. It lulled me to sleep at night. It awoke new insights into Dmitri and his story.

After mining its surfeit of information, I blessedly, rejoicedly finished it!

And yet, I couldn’t take it off my bedside table. I had yet to transcribe the nuggets marked by myriad sticky tags, rippling their rainbow tongues at me from the edges of the pages. I should be moved on to the next book. I should be typing a new title into the little corner of my blog. Alas, I had unfinished business.

After days of putting off the seemingly tedious task of transcribing quotes and notes about the practical and procedural side of sculpture, I sat down and realized Anthony Padovano spoke about a lot more than just sculpture. He spoke of artistic process. He spoke of life philosophy. Of beauty. Of meaning. Of right and wrong. Of finding one’s voice and when and when not one should use it. Of how to use it.

Yes, he and Sarah Blair taught me what Dmitri needs to know as a sculptor, what I might find him doing on any day in his studio, but also about the artistic process all around me. Of the importance of art and the valuing of it, in our world. How it shapes and defines our lives.

The book’s rainbow tongues had transformed into technicolor teeth on my computer, as I filled the edges of the screen with each completed point. Light from the windows behind transfused even the opaque white parts of the tags with a brilliance. Soft, gentle, but brilliant. The sense of accomplishment I felt upon closing that book with a solid thunk was brilliant. A job well-done. Finally.

Now I can write my book, armed to the technicolor teeth with sculpturing knowledge and a better understanding of what makes Dmitri tick. I could, in theory, build an armature with materials from the hardware store and mix my own plaster with which to mold it into life. I definitely can return Sarah’s book to her in good conscience and thank her wholeheartedly for sharing the process and molding the shape of my book.

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