Image from Customs House Museum The Words of Women exhibition
Last week, I carried a plate of paints up a 10-foot ladder (that felt higher) and chose words from a short piece of fiction that I created for an art exhibition, The Words of Women. The exhibition features writings by women who were mailed a “muse” and challenged to write from the inspiration discovered in the object. I had opened a small box in the mail and found an antique. I didn’t know what it would be, only that it was for a collaborative exhibition to celebrate Women’s History Month. The art curator Terri Jordan at the Custom’s House Museum mailed out ten muses to ten writers from Tennessee. And, I received a silver, engraved, double-headed eagle ring that slipped perfectly onto my ring finger.
I didn’t know what the others writers had received, nor did I know what style they would write. The possibilities were endless as long as it fit within the 1200 word-limit parameters. I didn’t find out what all of the other writers had received until the week before the exhibition when we began to paint on the walls—a pair of silk stockings, a small brown purse, a porcelain thimble, a snake brooch with emerald eyes, and an unmarked black and white photograph of a woman in her twenties living in the ‘20s, to name a few of the objects. There were more. We only knew what we could see, and we created from that.
But what? How could I write from an unknown object? That was the first dilemma, which was soon resolved when a character began to take shape around the ring. But the toughest questions were to follow—how could I paint the walls? With text? With visuals? We had one week to paint whatever we wanted on our section. Enormously high, white walls. It was uncomfortable at times—the process, but I was caught up in a new creative space, and that became more and more evident.
What I discovered is that it’s crucial to take chances, to risk paint on the walls, and climbing to new heights in order to look from a different perspective. On the night of the opening, terrible storms raged all around us and prevented some friends from attending, but the comments we received were surprising and encouraging. “This is a brave show.” “It’s good to try something different. To start something new.” And, it wasn’t uniform. Writers merging with visual arts? It confuses the mind. There was the question, “why not have visual artists interpret the work of the writers, instead of having the writers paint on the walls?” And, I finally understood why some artists don’t particularly want to write their biographies, don’t want to write artist’s statements, or discuss their process using narrative.
Yet what was remarkable for me was that my process was affected. I edited. I rewrote. I wrote more that didn’t make it into the final print, but that didn’t matter. And, I wrote differently. I think the other writers were challenged as well.
The writings varied—poems, narratives, personal reflections about the receipt of the muse. The words on the wall also reflected our different approaches and styles. Mitzi Cross swirled a giant, diamond-backed rattlesnake onto the wall. Amy Wright stopped in like the Buddha, grabbing up the paint and brushing HOPE onto the wall, then shaping the remainder of her poetic line around it; she finished in a couple of hours one afternoon. Cindy Marsh used the letters from the Goldsmith Press and stamped a few hours here and there for days. Rebecca Beach said that she had two things she could draw, and a tree grew on the morning of the opening as the end result. Melanie Meadow’s Threads of Grace narrative twined through recognizable places in the town. Story after poem, after inspiration, moving around the gallery walls to read them all, to stand in front of the muses.
When I read Traci Brimhall’s piece about Kalamazoo’s Artifactory, I noticed the similarities and was reminded of the importance of exhibitions that celebrate community history, as well as visual and literary history. Layering gives more to the viewer, the reader, and the community.
The Words of Women exhibition is open at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, TN, through the end of April. There’s a full schedule of events for the next two months, so check the Museum website for details.
This Thursday, March 8, I’ll be reading with friends and writers from the community at the Museum for a Writer’s Night, beginning at 6:30.