“Listening to works of art and participating in a conversation with them can produce exciting and shifting responses in each of us: poems, stories, self-portraits, essays, and other creative works are generated that ‘talk back’ to the visual stimulus.” (xv)
The power of bringing together visual art and writing is something that all museum educators have likely experienced at one time or another while guiding a tour or workshop in the galleries–whether through a process of recording observations or a deeper engagement through poetry. Writing has the ability to get students and visitors to truly “enter into” a work of art and open their imagination. While there are many excellent resources on the topic of art and writing that I use regularly (including Kathy Walsh-Piper’s Image to Word, the Weisman Art Museum’s Artful Writing, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new Looking to Write resource), I keep coming back to the Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art, edited by Tanya Foster and Kristin Prevallet.
Written by a range of educators, poets, and artists, the book’s chapters lay out a meaningful series of creative encounters with visual art, both within and outside the museum environment. The chapters that have most influenced my own teaching practice are those centered around abstract and contemporary art — an area where writing (both reflective and creative) can open new pathways to meaning, especially for viewers who might be uncomfortable with work by artists like Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, etc.
My favorite strategy in the book comes from Gary Hawkins, who recounts an experience he leads for students with Cy Twombly’s monumental Catullus at the Menil Collection. First, he situates each student in their own spot in front of the 50-foot-long canvas, mapping out an area of the painting that he designates “yours” — giving the students a real sense of ownership and accountability. Each student observes and writes on their own at first, then assembles their responses into a larger group poem that is performed in front of the painting. For this final collaborative poem, students are asked to choose 2 lines from their writing, and read their favorite line when Gary taps them on the shoulder. As he writes, “the effect of these group poems that build down the face of the painting and rise to fill the room is stunning.” And I can agree, as I’ve adapted this experience for students in front of large works by Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Richter, and the result is remarkable. This has been the perfect exercise to digest a large, complex, abstract work piece-by-piece in a way that allows students or visitors to own the experience.
Overall, Third Mind offers up these types of experiences with language that we can adapt to our own learning environments. In her contribution to this volume, poet Anne Waldman provides the necessary linkage between this creative, collaborative act of writing and William Burroughs’ concept of “the third mind,” which inspired the book’s title as well as its conceptual framework:
“Something new, or ‘other,’ emerges from the combination that would not have come about without a solo act.” (131)