The Marriage of Art and Words
by Pattie Palmer-Baker
My love of words – what they express and how they look printed on the page of a book or written in beautiful handwriting – led me to study calligraphy. I enjoyed learning different styles including the ever-popular italic, but found the 8th century Carolingian alphabet the most beautiful to look at and the most satisfying to write.
Once competent in italic and Carolingian, I discovered that writing out lines of attractive calligraphy was not fulfilling. I took courses in several book arts including capital letter decoration and gold leaf application, all challenging and fun to master – but still not enough. I wanted the ability to use a book art to create images that would be more than decorative but also illustrative.
When I studied paste paper, a 17th century decorated paper technique which allows the artist to create highly textured surfaces with vibrant color shifts, I knew I had found my visual medium. Although a complicated process where the artist paints a mixture of color and paste on wet paper and uses a variety of texture-making tools to create shapes and designs on the surface, I found it worth the effort. By layering images cut from the paper into a collage, I could give meaning to the calligraphy I wrote around the edges of the artwork.
Just as importantly, the words I calligraph must give meaning to the images. Searching through books of poetry for just the right words to illustrate the image/experience I had in mind was time-consuming and often fruitless. So I decided to write my own poetry.
Words come first
I write the poem first then create six to ten papers for each of them. After a long process of choosing the most fitting images within the papers, I cut them out and do a lay-out. Calligraphing the lines is the most exacting process because it is so easy to make a mistake: a wrong word, a letter left out, a color blot. Assembling the work is the most pleasurable part especially because so often the final result surprises me with meanings and interpretations I swear I had not thought of.
Writing the poem is the most difficult of all my creative efforts. Not only does the poem carry the meaning of my inspiration, it is the inspiration. For example, at an outdoor concert I was moved not only by a particular singer and one of his songs but by the audience’s shared reaction. I was haunted by this experience until I was able to express the feeling with a visual metaphor and begin the poem:
Like sunflowers, the audience turns
toward your sugared, black-coffee voice,
as do I.
The sunflower simile gave birth to the poem and poem inspired the artwork I call “Sunflower Audience.”
Like most artists/poets, I want to translate my inner world into a visible, concrete and understandable form. But more than that, I want to pay homage, to express gratitude for something that has jolted that world. For example, when telling my therapist about feeling alone and isolated as a child, I was moved so deeply by his focused listening, acceptance and understanding that I experienced a sort of altered state. Suddenly, his stillness and unwavering gaze morphed into the image of an autumn tree. This became the start of the poem and the basis for the artwork, “You Are a Tree.”
You sit in utter stillness and warm
me with your amber gaze.
You are like a tree, an autumn tree.
The sun backlights your leaves
gold, carnelian and garnet.
Your trunk is never bent, no bony arms
no sharp fingers reaching to the sky.
Often something in the natural world awakens my need to express gratitude. For weeks on my morning walk, I passed a magnificent pampas grass plant that filled me with admiration. I wanted to pay homage by writing a poem, not a long one, just enough to give the reader/viewer my translation of its expressive beauty.
What bends the grasses into grey-green semi-circles,
straw-yellow curves? Not the summer-stilled wind.
Perhaps a wish’s fragile weight sways
the tufted reed, curls the tender stalk.
As often happens, the expression felt incomplete without an accompanying artwork.So I created two for this poem: “What Makes the Grass Curve I” and “What Makes the Grass Curve II.”
I think of all art as a kind of translation. Locked inside our bodies are our experiences, feelings and perceptions. Everyday words convey only shadows of the meanings. I could say, “Oh, the beauty of Lake Quinault and the mountain backdrop moved me so much” or I could write a poem and create artwork in an effort to reach through another’s mind/body barrier for a moment of shared understanding. All artists aim for this and that most assuredly was my intention when I created “For Water to Flow.”
Black-gloved, green-wristed mountains
unclench their fists, spread wide their fingers,
tender spaces for rock-weary land to settle
for toiling water to flow.
Welcome to the latest article in our Writers on Writing series, where authors share how they do what they do: Find inspiration, create drafts, make choices on how – and what – to add, subtract, revise. In this series, each author will offer insights into her creative process that we hope will inspire your own.
Pattie Palmer-Baker’s creative output is often a partnership between her poetry and the book arts of calligraphy and paste paper, but it is the poem that inspires the image and always appears somewhere in the finished collage. None of her artwork is without a poem, but many of her poems stand-alone. Whether she is writing or creating an artwork, Pattie translates the inner world into media that moves the reader away from and out of his/her habitual perception of the world. Find out more about her work at here.