I’ve always had an interest in art forms that combine words and images in unique ways. At an AWP Conference several years ago, I remember a session where someone described an interactive exhibit that recreated the child’s board game, “Operation.” The artists created a life-size operation board. Using giant tongs, people would be able to pull out capsules from the “patient” that could then be opened to reveal stories about people’s experiences with the health-care system.
Visual and verbal art forms can be combined in may creative ways, ranging from the simple to the complex. Photographs and paintings can be a wonderful source of inspiration for fiction writers or poets. Several years ago, a friend who worked at a local art museum approached me with a project. The museum was interested in exploring ways of making visual art accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. They wanted my creative writing students to write poems, stories, or even brief descriptions of paintings in their collection that would enable people who couldn’t see the work to be able to respond to it.
Combining visual and and verbal forms of art creates interesting elements of interpretation. A photography professor and I used to collaborate on a magazine that included poetry, fiction, and visual art forms of all kinds. Laying out the magazine posed some interesting problems, since most of the pages contained both visual and verbal works. Often, when we combined the two, one would end up affecting the way people looked at the other. In one issue, we used a black and white photograph of a house glowing with all its Christmas lights. The poem we placed beside it was about a dysfunctional family, and once people read it, they could no longer see the photograph in the simple, positive spirit the photographer had intended. Sometimes when laying out the magazine, some visual images would naturally seem to match the mood and tone of one of the poems or stories. Other times we would intentionally place works together that had nothing in common simply so that one didn’t affect how readers saw the other.
The museum project ended up creating some interesting ethical questions. While we realized that there wasn’t any way that we could create a specific image in someone’s mind through a description, we felt an obligation to both the artist and the person who would listen to our description to capture some part of the artwork. Poems worked especially well for this project because of their length. Some told a narrative, focusing on a story that involved a person in the painting, while others reflected the colors or general mood of the work, trying to interpret the emotional impact of the painting. In some cases different students chose to write in response to the same painting and not surprisingly came up with very different interpretations. The museum found these to be especially interesting. Interpretation, they wanted to show, is always an individual experience.