Report on The Last Ekphrasis

IMG_3748Last night we enjoyed one another’s company for the last time — at least, it was the last time that Ekphrasis will gather under my auspices with its regular purpose of sharing and critique, since I’m moving to Texas to start my PhD at Baylor. It was a magnificent meeting! There were food and flowers, hilarity and drama, literature and art. In attendance were myself, Sharon G, Devon W, Eric M, Richard B, Curt D, Laura W, Andrew S MacD, Betsy G, Jeff H, Amanda L, and two newcomers, Thaina D and Diante R.

Even though it was a sort of a going-away shindig, it was really just an ordinary hard-working meeting. Lots of people shared excellent work.

IMG_3744(1)At the beginning of the meeting, Thaina and Devon shared the hot-off-the-press Spring 2016 issue of Xanadu, Lehigh Carbon Community College’s literary magazine. Thaina and Devon, along with Diante, are student editors of the magazine this semester, and I’ve been a faculty adviser to it for six years. This semester’s may have been the most professional issue of the magazine we’ve ever produced: the design is streamlined and debonair. Diante has a poem published in it; Thaina has a few poems and several pieces of prose.

indexThen Sharon G read another chapter of her Robin Hood novel adaptation, Mercy and Justice. This chapter included a sad story of a poor, cast-off, single, expectant mother, helped by Marian and Robin, which was a good way of revealing their compassionate character. Sharon has completed about half of this novel and hopes to draft the rest of it this fall, after finishing her current novel-in-progress, Chrysalis!

13184680_1014038361966917_2053915199_oRichard B and Eric M each showed pieces of their artwork. Richard is writing and illustrating a comic book starring his Jack Windsword character. Eric is working on drawings he’ll bring to the Baltimore Comic Con. Their work is somewhat similar–both depict heroes, villians, mythic, archetypal characters with bold lines and swift action–but their techniques are quite different. The black-and-white image to the right is from Richard’s book. The colored images below from Star Wars and Star Trek are some of Eric’s works of art.




Then we moved into a sort of stage-like area we had set up, in order to watch several theatrical scenes.

First up was a stage adaptation of a bit from a Brandon Sanderson novel, by Betsy G. It was a scene packed with secondary-world-building, lots of neologisms and names and cultural references. In it, an experienced con artist is teaching her apprentice how to fool her potential victims by posing as a foreign princess. The prize? Her dupe’s boots. 13184742_935769666536853_1112604979_o

Next up was a selection from Jeff H’s recent full-length adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, which was recently produced by Players of the Stage. This scene was Toad on trial for causing a motor car accident–which is really just a cover for his enemies to lock him up and take his ancestral mansion.

Then came my short play, Galatea Awakes, which I wrote for my creative writing class at LCCC, and from which I previously posted a selection. It’s a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and I’m exploring themes of the artist’s isolation and relationships, the idea of the art as a child, issues of voyeurism and objectification, questions about the nature of beauty, etc. It was admirably performed by Richard, Andrew, and Sharon, and much hilarity ensued–sometimes when it wasn’t in the script, such as when Pygmalion whispers to his animated statue to “scroll down, scroll down” for him so he can read his script!

We got to see another play from my creative writing class, too: this one by Thaina. It is a side-splittingly funny drama entitled Why Deals With the Devil Never Work (And You Should Always Read the Fine Print). I’ll give you just a tiny snippet here to give you an idea of how funny it is:

ASH: Look man, I just really want my soul back. Please? Pretty please? Have a heart.
SATAN: What part of Lucifer, Demon, King of Hell, do you not understand?
ASH: I know you’re Satan and all, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk!
SATAN: Do you listen to yourself when you speak?
ASH: Hm? Of course I do! My soul is gone, not my hearing!

Yup, it’s all like that. With a great twist at the end.

And we were treated to a performance of a powerful slam poem by Diante, a tale of troubles and salvation. It is meant to become his final project for Creative Writing class.

Finally, Laura W ended our evening with a mind-boggling 2-min mystery: a piece of flash fiction in 500 words. Since Laura won most of the weeks of Signum University’s “Almost an Inkling” flash fiction contest, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was magnificent!

There were some amazing conversations, too, about the “Artist-as-inspired-romantic-genius” myth, about the use of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in writing and drama, about anachronism and style and craft. These are the talks on which my soul feeds.

So, yes: a fitting ending for, what, eight years, I think, of Ekphrasis meetings. I’ll miss you guys, and I hope you carry on!



Fine Art vs. Popular Art

3Way back when, I think in early August, we had a meeting during which we talked about “High” vs. “Low” or “Fine” vs. “Popular” art. I have wanted to blog about it ever since, because I think it was an important conversation.

First, we started out talking about terminology, and decided that (as far as possible), non-pejorative terms are better: “high” vs “low” is insulting to the “low,” obviously. We talked about other terms that get thrown around, such as calling popular art “formulaic garbage,” and whether it’s possible to be formulaic without being garbage, and the phrases “secret pleasure” and “guilty pleasure.” We also wondered whether our enjoyment of a work is the same as our evaluation of it — I, for one, do not find this to be the case. I greatly enjoy many works that I think are not of high quality, and I greatly appreciate the high quality of many works that I am not able to enjoy.

Next, I asked participants to make two columns on a sheet of paper. They labeled one “Fine Art” and the other “Popular Art.” They were NOT to write definitions at this time, but instead to put down examples of works of art they believed fit the categories — preferably in matched pairs, like two pieces of music, two murder mysteries, two romances, etc. Before you read further, why don’t you try this exercise yourself, then compare results?


Fine Art

Beethoven’s 7th Symphony
Titian’s Pieta

Michelangelo’s David
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Sleep no More
(high-art haunted house)
Babylon 5
Moonlight sonata
Lord of the Rings
Pride & Prejudice
Watership Down

Michelangelo’s Pieta
Mona Lisa
The Village
David Copperfield
Romeo & Juliet

John Williams
‘s The Philosopher
”Hush” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Popular Art

Illustrations to Mouse Guard
Hunger Games

Plastic action figures
Lord of the Rings
Star Trek TNG
Seasons 1-3
P & P and Zombies
Wild Hearts

Barbie figurines
Instagram photo
The Way, Way Back
Dream Evil
The Black Arrow

Hannah Montana
Gangham style
Spike: into the Light
Jim Lee Justice League #1
“The Freshman” from Buffy

What do YOU think? Do you agree?

Then I had them continue writing in their two columns, but this time the assignment was to write characteristics or definitions of the two kinds of art. So you try that, first, before reading on.


Fine Art:

High degree of technical skill
Long heritage
Well-established tradition
Great variety of virtuosic mechanisms employed
Lasts forever in human culture
Very well known, stay popular
Loved and celebrated by intellectuals
Create your feelings
Create/convert a fan base
Made for artistic reasons (not $)
Narrow appeal
Full of deeper meaning and subject
Challenges beliefs
Technically difficult
Has a message to communicate
More complicated form
Enduring messages
Transportive themes woven throughout
Well-crafted execution

Popular Art:

Intuitive rather than highly trained
Small variety of technical mechanisms employed
Has short life in human culture
Temporarily popular
Not loved and celebrated by intellectuals
Manipulate your feelings
Appeal to a fan base
Made for money
Have a broad appeal
Easily understood
Very little to no subtext
Poor quality in some area of technique
Adds nothing new or engaging in terms of content
Technically simpler
Less depth/more superficial
Focused on the consumer
messages Important at the moment
crafted to please an audience

FINALLY we debated about these, interrogating many of them. Lots of “fine” art was made for money (Shakespeare is the classic example). Lots of popular art communicates a message, while there are plenty of fine artists who think that communicating a message makes the work into propaganda, and so on. What do YOU think? 

I had planned to go on and talk about our relative assessments of these kinds of art, whether the two categories are even useful, and what kinds we “ought” to be making–but we didn’t get to. Maybe another time!

“Tulips” by Sharon Gerdes


Today’s post is by Sharon Gerdes, about the above triptych, “Tulips.”

Working on these three paintings over the last three years has been a challenge, to put it mildly. This project started out as a triptych, but after completing the middle painting twice, once for me and one for a friend as her wedding present, I was sufficiently bored of the same tree branches and leaves. I fully intended to never paint the first and last pictures. Unfortunately, my husband was rather fond of them and wanted a complete set. For his sake, I pushed on, very slowly, often allowing myself to get distracted by other projects to delay the inevitable boredom of the same branches and leaves.

I’m glad I pushed through the difficulties of the project. One of the biggest issues for me as a painter is that I have so little time to devote to painting that once I get around to pouring out paint and picking up the brush I have trouble remembering how to the mix the colors, how to make the lines… in short, how to paint! Often when I would find an hour or two to devote to painting, I would not accomplish anything, because I spent so much time repainting the same things trying to remember how in the world it worked!

The other trouble was the length of time separating the pieces meant that the style is somewhat different in each piece. I used to worry that I was going to have to repaint all of them to match stylistically, and perhaps I should. There are things about each painting that I love, and things that I dislike, and things that I’m embarrassed by, but they are what they are: a triptych revealing my struggle and my progression as a painter.

Finishing the last painting last Saturday was a relief, but also bittersweet as that will probably be my last painting for a long time. As I’ve worked on developing my skill outside of college, I’ve been forced to come to the realization that I am better at drawing than painting, both in talent, skill, and in the time available to me. One day, I may have the opportunity to pick up painting again. Until then, I will draw as much as I’m able and enjoy the paintings I have.

February Meeting Report

On Tuesday evening, we eccentric Ekphrasians gathered in the wild world of Wegman’s. It was a glorious meeting. While the skies froze outside, we heated things up there in the cafe with our readings, performance, talk, and laughter.

First, Jeff Harvey started us off by imitating Andrew Stirling MacDonald’s approach to 2015: he shared a list of ambitious creative writing goals for the next 12 months or so.

spitfireThen Marian Barshinger showed her very great confidence by performing a dramatic monologue right there in the grocery store! She’s taking a course in Acting for the Camera, so her focus in this piece was on facial expressions and voice, rather than blocking or gesture. She chose a speech from The Spitfire Grill: a heart-rending narrative of abuse. She performed it very powerfully, with depths of expression and serious focus.

Next Betsy Gahman read a revised chapter of her novel Dragonhoard. This novel is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and in her version, the Beast is a dragon. In what we heard on Tuesday evening, our narrative-perspective character finds himself transformed into a dragon. Betsy’s revision goal was to get into the physicality of dragonness, and she achieved this admirably.dragon_symbol

A performance of another kind followed: a reading of of a scene from Sharon Gerdes’s play Rifton. This is a lively, funny, thoughtful family and small-town drama. It is really coming to life as she reworks it, deepening the relationships and exploring the pain of misunderstanding.

Following this reading, Eric Muller of Hand-in-Hand artworks shared more of his amazing drawings! It is a huge blessing to have a professional artist in our midst. He showed us the final, colorized version of a book cover he has recently created, plus several original portraits of U.S. Presidents for Pastime cards.eric

Switching to creative nonfiction prose, Carl Hoffmeyer shared a really gritty tale of torture–with a surprising historical twist. Carl has a gorgeous reading voice and a masterful command of narrative pacing, so his reading is always a supreme pleasure.

Continuing with our successful streak, Richard Berrigan honored us with the first few pages of his new comic book, starring the same characters from his ongoing Jack Windsword world. His style is lively and active, with exciting plotlines and mythic figures.

Then there was more fiction: a back-story chapter from Earl Pape to go with his dwarf-human saga. This was an account of a battle between minotaurs and their mysterious opponents.

We have a new member of the group, Devon, and she graced us with a piece of tragic creative nonfiction. We hope to hear more from her in the near future!

Since we still had more time, we got to hear yet another scene from Sharon’s Rifton and yet another of Carl’s gripping stories. This was an unforgettable tale of dinosaurs in the backyard!!

Do join us sometime with your own work to share.