“A balm, a poultice, a splint, a placebo, a treatment, a remedy, a prescription, or perhaps even a cure.”
Matt Daly is a poet and teacher so it’s probably no surprise that he can conjure fitting words to describe the new mixed media and poetry exhibit he has curated in Jackson. “Poetry Apothecary” is a “collaborative collection of original poems and visual artworks made by 25 local poets and artists,” Daly said. It continues through July at the Center for the Arts Theater Gallery.
The center is observing COVID-19 social distancing measures during the run of the exhibit which comes at what usually is the height of the summer tourist season. For those unable to attend in person, an online tour of the “Poetry Apothecary” can be viewed at Jackson Hole Writers Conference website.
Daly, the assistant director of JHWC and curator of the exhibit, proposed “Poetry Apothecary” well before the pandemic but needed to do some fast footwork to adjust when the coronavirus cancelled the annual June conference, one of the most popular events on the country’s literary calendar.
The response from artists and writers encouraged Daly. “The ideas behind this show might seem kind of heavy,” he said. “They felt heavy to me at first. But writers and artists found a lot of lightness and joy and humor in the work they created.”
The exhibit went up June 16 in the gallery. Then came the filming and a soundtrack featuring poets reading their work. When complete, Daly posted an online “work-in-progress” gallery tour that he dubbed “A Poetry Apothecary Tour with Shadowy Figure and Occasional Lights.” A good description. It is weirdly lit at times and, in some scenes, a shadowy masked videographer is reflected in the gallery glass. The masked man is Daly and his trusty iPhone. It is sometimes difficult to keep up with the camera flow while reading the poem down to its final stanza. Some of the poets’ recordings end with a crackling mic. That may be due to the myriad devices used by the poets to record their narratives. The viewer is not always sure about the identities of the poets and artists and the titles of their work.
Some of the rough nature of the video is due to expediency and some is part of the experience.
“One of the unexpected joys of shifting so much of life to virtual meetings has been, for me, the window into the ragged intimacy of people’s lives,” Daly said. “My aesthetic is a little rough around the edges, unpolished, so the way that the unpolished has appeared in our lives is kind of great. My hope for the exhibit is that its lack of polish carries a sort of intimacy that draws people in, gets people considering what heals them.”
Daly plans to update the video throughout the run of the exhibit.
The Apothecary’s online tour offers the viewer a chance to linger over the work. As with most videos, you can pause or go back to see something you missed. It’s not exactly a gallery experience but, then again, you don’t have to wear a mask and stay six feet away from tourists from Tulsa.
Labels are a bit difficult to see on the video but are a clever match for the artwork. Poet and artist are listed as “active ingredients.” “Other ingredients” include everything from recycled blotter paper to cigar boxes, photos to calligraphy.
The video launches the healing theme with a reading by Connie Wieneke of “Cento for Treating Unbearable Loss.” A cento is a poem created with words from another poet or writer. Weineke uses the words of the Portland, Oregon, Catholic novelist and essayist Brian Doyle, who died from brain cancer in 2017.
See better with your soul than you can with your eyes
A blinking extra heart
The artwork is by fabric artist Robin Sruoginis. On watercolor paper dyed with blueberries and hibiscus flowers, a bare tree grows up through Wieneke’s patchwork of Doyle’s words.
The poem “An Illness” is matched with the photo of equipment in a hospital room, possibly one where a COVID-19 patient gasps for breath. The scene, from the University of Utah Medical Center ICU, shows a tangle of monitors and IV bags. The photo is mute but listen closely and you can hear the beeps of the monitors, the rustling of the nurses as they go about their tasks, the hiss of a ventilator.
Below that, the poet/artist duo of Beverly and George Leys ponder mortality.
If chosen – emptied of human form,
long grasses tumbled sunlit
and Oh – the space
where a breath drawn
carried you on and on.
As the photo hints at a person’s last breath, the poem brings us to that place in a sunlit alpine meadow where we once stood, every breath a gift of life that seems as if it will never end.
Those nights – centuries long
the texture of the wind
needed a landscape for survival.
No narrator recites these lines which gives us room to interpret. For a minute there I thought I heard Wordsworth versifying about England’s Lake District.
We do hear voices in many of the other selections. In “Cento: To Restore an Inner Life,” Weineke employs the words of poets she admires to make another patchwork poem.
The 3-D artwork by Chris Wimberg that contains the poem is a bit of a patchwork itself. A flip-top wooden cigar box opens to show a woman in the foreground against green velvet fabric. She wears a formal dress and feather headdress. She peers at us through those comical spyglasses kids make with their hands. The words are typed on strips of paper resembling old-fashioned ticker tape and spooled around the woman’s image, through the box, even written on its side. A ball of twine rests beneath the spooled words. Weineke reads the cento in a soothing voice that reels out the magic in words removed from their context and rearranged.
Appearing right before Weineke’s work is “Summer Ghazal” by Laurie Kutchins. A ghazal is a short poem with roots in medieval Persia consisting of rhyming couplets called shers. “Summer Ghazal” has five shers, each ending with “poems.”
Kutchins’ couplets have been broken apart, printed in different fonts, and inserted into Ava Reynolds mixed-media artwork of two panels. From a distance, the earth-colored rounded forms look rock-like and are surrounded by wavy circles. Click on “full screen” to enlarge the work and you can imagine the rock shapes as the summits of mountains, the wavy circles the lines on a topo map. More recognizable rocks rest at the bottom of the plain wooden frames. The five shers feature mentions of rocks and landmarks of the Rocky Mountains: Teewinot, Muddy Mountain, Elk Mountain. The rocks are welcoming and terrifying at the same time.
What happens to the world when terror ascends
Only children hear the beating wings of poems
In other lines, “a climber falls, ropeless” and we hear about “the vertical ruin of poems.” It ends with this couplet:
Kinder Mountain, Elk Mountain, Heart Mountain
We beg you to uplift and erode us, just like poems.
The active ingredients in “Loss of Home” are many. Betsy Bernfeld wrote the poetry, and the accompanying video was shot and edited by Macey Mott. It is the story of Bernfeld’s childhood home in Tucson built by her father Bill Orient. After much wrangling, the home was demolished to make way for commercial development. Bernfeld was able to salvage the handmade front door pictured in the exhibit. Her sister Susan Edmiston made the model house in the video. It’s a poignant look at how loss can be about someone or something.
The second part of the virtual exhibit is in the center’s conference room and is called “Sticky Situations.” Jenny Dowd’s simple pen and ink drawings are set into recyclable paper plates and mounted in a long row. In the video, the camera pans to each one while Daly recites one of his short poems from the rear of each piece. Should you visit in person and be curious about reading the poems yourself, disposable bamboo sticks are located on the table for a whimsical exercise in pandemic-era plate flipping.
Watch the exhibit’s videos at jacksonholewritersconference.com or jhwriters.org.
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Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.