A picture and a poem: An intimate connection

April 11th, 2016

We are happy to celebrate National Poetry Month with Stenhouse’s resident poet and author, Shirley McPhillips. In this guest post, Shirl talks about finding connections between paintings and poems, about creating “art from art.” At the end of her post, be sure to look at her paintings and try your hand at writing a few lines inspired by the images. Share it in the comments section for a chance to win a copy of Shirley’s book, Poem Central.

A picture and a poem: An intimate connection
By Shirley McPhillips

I’m growing more and more to believe that our fundamental task as human beings is to  seek out connections—to exercise our imaginations.

—Katherine Paterson, The Spying Heart

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It’s all about making connections, both in learning and in life. When objects and activities of the outside world meet an inner world of consciousness and imagination, there is a chance for new perspective, new possibility. In this exchange we develop a sense of self, an anticipation of finding new ideas.

Recently my friend Molly and I had the opportunity to set up an exhibit of our art work for a month in a local library: watercolor, acrylic, found-wood sculptures. Being poets as well, we wanted viewers to find  connections between the visual and the word.

We mounted some of our original poems along with one or two established and student poems and placed them among the paintings. The content of poem and art may have suggested a direct alliance—e.g., “Birdhouse on the Old Outhouse” next to a watercolor of that scene. Or a loose connection like a sound poem next to the abstract “Rooster Ruckus.” Or a random juxtaposition with no obvious connection. Better, we thought, for reaching. Or head scratching.

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Poems and art together on display

As an added opportunity to interact with the art work, we set up a “Poet’s Corner.” A place for viewers to invite the muse. To sit in a quiet place, contemplate what they were observing and reading and to compose a short poem of their own. They could write off things around them in their lives, or think off a mounted poem or work of art in the exhibit. If the muse was busy right then, folks could compose at home and put the poem in the book later.

It was important for us to make the “corner” writer-friendly:

-A framed invitation to write, with a quote from Seamus Heaney:

Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it;

            –a small bistro table;

-a Tibetan bench:

-a blue, glass pen holder for pencils (If any disappeared, we imagined they were greatly needed elsewhere, and just replaced them.);

-various types of Post-It notes and paper;

And most importantly, an elegant, flat-lying, “guest book” for poems and art with a photo of a George Bellows painting we mounted on front.

As the book opens, Jack’s hand-printed poem graces page one. He writes of a painting by Eli Rosenthal. His poem encourages those who come after, eliminating “first page shock.”

On Poetry Night, visitors browsed the exhibit, chatted with one another about the art, the poems (and the “nuance” of the Pinot Noir), then settled down for an evening of presentation. Presenters responded in various ways: Expressive readings, movement inspired by a painting or poem, a reading with shamanic drum interpretation, telling a memory connected with a painting, and so on.

At the end of the evening, a few folks who had contributed to the “Guest Book” read their poems and told about connections they had made which resulted in this work.


Scan 2016-4-7 0005People who participated in “A Picture and a Poem: An Intimate Connection” said it best:

Ted: The painting of the birdhouse on the old outhouse cast me right back to my grandmother. Visiting her in the summer.. The weathered boards. Wasps’ nests inside! Her standing outside humming a tune so I wouldn’t be scared. A big hug afterwards. I haven’t felt that safe since.

Marley: “Ah sunflower weary of time.” Blake’s poem. We had to memorize it in high school. I went up to that painting first. Sunflowers are my favorite flowers. I wanted to think about why. Their faces. The connection to the sun. The casting off of so many seeds.

For lots more ideas about making art from art, you might refer to “Poets Facing Art: Ekphrastic Poems,” on page 196 in Shirley’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers.


Take up the pen. “Dig with it.”

We invite you to look at Shirley’s paintings below. (Or choose an artwork you like.) What do you notice? What does that make you say? Ask? Remember? Pretend you are sitting or standing somewhere inside this painting. Look around. Write a short poem and leave it in the comments section or e-mail it to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. Have fun with it!

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Entry Filed under: Writing

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Carol Kellogg  |  April 14th, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    Shirley’s “A Picture and a Poem” exhibit inspired two poems at our house. Like Shirley, I, too, love to paint. One of my abstracts, which hangs in my husband’s study, is filled with yellow orbs and fat arrows pointing from east to west. For my husband, A.R. Homer, it conjures up the sun’s transit across the sky and inspired his writing of the following poem:

    Dawn’s piercing fingers pry the sky
    from Night’s relentless grip
    and old Sol, glimpsing the horizon,
    dismisses a million stars
    with but a wink of his eye.
    Birds’ chatter ceases, man’s begins.

    Heedless of such travails
    Sol ponders only his daily course,
    reaching for the point of noon
    with steady measured step.

    Affecting not inconstancy,
    unlike man’s sordid dissembling,
    he shines with equal glory
    on Colossi who bestride the world
    and the dust which they become.

    Each day anew a
    furrow straight and true,
    ignorant of worldly whines.
    Come – see how he shines!

    Another painting, of an empty rowboat on a vast expanse of water which dissolves into a pinkish sky, at times strikes me as melancholic and at other times seems tranquilly joyous, depending on my mood. This inspired my own poem:

    Blue seas, blue skies
    Soft breeze, bird flies
    Salt air, gull soars
    O’er fair white shores
    But nothing poetic?
    The mood: apathetic.

    Grey seas, dull skies
    Harsh breeze, horseflies
    In air planes scrape
    O’er bare landscape.
    But with lines poetic?
    The mood: copacetic!

    I found that the paintings not only inspired the poems, but the writing of the poems brought out new insights into the paintings, as well. Thanks, Shirley!

  • 2. Louise Sasaki  |  April 15th, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    It was wonderful to walk around the room and take in the great variety of artworks, and then have a chance to share a thought or inspiration in the guest book. This poem came from imagining myself in one of the winter landscapes:

    A gloomy mist clings to the brow and lashes
    And momentarily blinds with a blink of the eye,
    Drawing smooth paths on chilled cheeks.
    The heart searches the heavy grey
    Of the horizon for a hint of color.

  • 3. Linda Van Orden  |  April 16th, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    At the exhibit a hand crafted drum and it’s sound, inspired these thoughts.

    Painted owl on taut moosehide,
    Shaman’s drumbeat
    Sears our souls.

  • 4. The Learner Within: Week &hellip  |  April 17th, 2016 at 12:48 am

    […] Picture and a Poem. In this blog post, Shirley McPhillips talks about finding connections between paintings and poems, about creating […]

  • 5. Drew  |  April 18th, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    I love this idea, such a gentle way to coax creative expression. What a great event!

  • 6. Carol Kellogg  |  April 20th, 2016 at 2:54 pm

    Shirley’s middle painting above (the pensive moon-gazer) inspired the following, with additional inspiration coming from the painting to its left, which put me in mind of Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

    Three Ways of Looking at the Moon

    Earth’s staunch companion
    sacred to some
    lovely to all
    just a bit of debris
    from a cosmic collision
    with us.
    A chip off the old block.

    Can two lovers
    miles apart
    be joined together
    if they gaze
    at the same moon
    at the same time?

    Graffiti on a Key West bench overlooking the ocean:
    “All forgotten memories lie buried in the sea.”

    When the blood-red moon
    slides into the inky depths
    does it look for the secret of life
    the one we were given
    but somehow misplaced?

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