An introductory note on ekphrastic poetry (“Artists at Their Easels” ) by Dr. Michael Cunningham:
I have been interested in portraiture, artists’ renderings of the human face and figure. And I am interested in self representation, especially in the two forms where it is commonly found: the memoir/autobiography and in paint.
My “Artists at Their Easels” project is a result of the convergence of these two interests. At first the subjects came to me; for a long time I have been familiar with and provoked by the mischievous Rene Magritte’s “Clairvoyance.” The same is true for Jan Vermeer’s “The Artist in His Studio.” I have been fascinated by the photography of Vivian Maier, the North Shore nanny who shot thousands of street scenes in Chicago at the middle of the 20th century, none of which were reproduced until her negatives and proof sheets were discovered at a garage sale in the last decade. I was delight to find that, in some cases, Maier had turned the camera on herself, capturing her fleeting image in a huge department store window.
In other cases, I have deliberately looked for self-portraits in studio settings. I was familiar with the work of British avant-gardist Lucian Freud, but didn’t know that he had done self-portraits until I investigated.
If the limited number of poems that comprise this project can be classified, it would be in this way: poems in which the artist speaks and those in which an observer speaks. In the first category, I am challenged to be a good mind reader, that is, to take what information I may gather about the artist and imagine what he or she might be thinking. The poem about the Frida Kahlo painting shown here is such an instance. My research is not extensive. Though I have seen and enjoyed “Frida,” the 2002 biopic, and have seen a number of exhibits of her work and that of her contemporaries at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, I have not read Hayden Herrara’s biography. I suppose that this leaves me open to the charge of “historical error,” but then complete fidelity is not my goal. The Frida who speaks in this poem is the Frida that I imagine.
In fashioning poems in the second category –- those about viewer responses – I rely on my own engagement with the poems. The speaker in these poems is some version of myself. The voice found in the poem about Vermeer is close to my own. It’s me that finds something intriguing about the use of red, an unusual color in the painter’s palette. The voice that you hear in the poem about the naked and aging Lucian Freud is my own; in the painting I find an image of my own increasingly decrepit form.
Dr. Michael Cunningham is the Director of the Lewis University Arts & Ideas program.
From a Series of Poems “Artists at their Easels”
No model, no easel, no curtain, no chair.
No vase of flowers, no glass of water.
Feeble defiance in the raised trowel-sword,
And in the palette-shield he holds at his side.
Wearing only old boots without laces and
With head tilted down,
He stands before his visitor
Looking like a startled child aroused from a nap
In the lumpy bed behind.
But he is no child,
Nor for that matter a handsome man.
The fleshy folds of his torso
Like meat on a butcher’s block,
The sagging skin under your chin
Like quarry slag,
The wrinkled scrotum and shaft,
(The source of his fifteen children)
The impastoed lumps on his forehead
All signs of the ugly, aging body.
In a whisper: “Before I return to dust…
This is who I am, unbeautiful but alive.”
I touch the fatty lump on my neck,
I feel the sharp pain of the inflamed tendon,
I observe through my watery eye the drooping
I reach not for a pill or a brush,
But for a pencil to write this poem.
Let me layer words as he did paint.
[A genre of folk paintings that give praise for salvation from a tragic occurrence.]
The painter of portraits
Always paints herself.
So although my Dr. Farill
Wears no tortured mask,
Nor has his body bound
In a steel brace,
Although no orange parrots sit
Upon his shoulder,
Or hydrangeas crown
His bald head,
His serious eyebrows
Meet above the nose,
My savior, my saint
More loving and selfless
Than the unfaithful Diego,
My troubled husband and muse.
Seven operations on my spine.
Twenty-five years of exquisite pain
Relieved by his magic art.
A surgeon’s knife heals
Rather than disfigures.
Unlike the woman who gave praise
To La Virgen for enabling her to walk
After a horse, frightened by a snake,
Fell on top of her,
I am still in this wheelchair
But free to paint again,
To express as hundreds of anonymous artists
Have done, gratitude for divine intervention.
In my quiet ecstasy I imagine
I can float above the steel wheelchair,
That it no longer reminds
Of the collision of steel
So many years ago
That broke my body.
Yes, that is a heart on my palette
That rests on my wide lap,
Broadened to make room for
The passion I feel towards
This kind man, my savior.
I gladly share the canvas with him.