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Ekphrastic Pilfering: Art Museums as Literary Inspiration

Dispatches from Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi

I was recently going back through old journals under the guise of “getting ideas” (read: getting out of doing actual writing), when I realized how many of my entries have been inspired by trips to art museums. “Invented organs for invented bodily functions!” reads one note attached to a description of a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal. “Aluminum foil used to create illusion of depth,” and “floating terrariums” along with “character named Vaughn” accompany a Scotch taped-in ticket to Mass MoCA (5/24/08). I remember that trip: in one darkened gallery my friend Josh and I sprawled out on bean bags, illuminated phrases by Jenny Holzer rolling above us, and promptly fell asleep. When we woke up we felt refreshed, and not just by the 45-minute nap: it was as if in sleep those projected phrases had worked their way into our brains; we left the dark room blinking, the ordinary world newly transformed.

For a writer, a museum affords the possibility of concentrated ekphrasis: you can imagine the narrative behind a particular image (as I seem to have done after seeing Hopper’s “11 AM” at the Hirshhorn Gallery in DC), or you can take your inspiration from the form of the piece, thinking about how that might translate into text (during that same trip I saw a sculpture of a book made out of pins and thought, “What would it mean to write something that physically hurts?”).

There’s a special energy to my museum entries, an energy that I can only guess comes from seeing content arriving in new forms. I’ve recorded my excitement on seeing David Beck’s “MVSEVM” (pictured above), an amazingly intricate project that does what I hope to be able to do with my fiction: create a whole structure out of an accretion of precisely detailed individual worlds. But would I have been able to articulate this without seeing the installation itself?

“I visit art museums wherever I travel,” Prairie Schooner Editor in Chief Kwame Dawes wrote me in an email. “On my recent trip to Hong Kong I visited the Hong Kong Art Museum, where a special ceramics exhibition was up. I found myself drawn to these amazing ceramics dating back centuries and I managed to write some poems in response to them. I think I am drawn especially to the "ready-made" images in this art work, but there is something about mood, tone, and the sensation of looking at art that triggers ideas for me. There are so many poems that I have written that I can trace back to a work of art, work that may not appear to be connected to some piece of art to the uninformed observer, but that is in fact inextricably tied to it at some level. What can I say? I am a bit of a pilferer.”

But writers are all pilferers, of course, and an art museum seems one of the most productive places to do it. Where else but at Baltimore’s amazing Visionary Art Museum would I have gotten the idea to write a story in the form of a paranoid last will and testament? It’s easy for me to get stuck thinking along the lines of how a story “should” be, to have only a limited number of possible forms in mind. At these times, when my writing feels a little stale, I might visit the Sheldon Museum of Art, one of Lincoln’s treasures, to re-experience just how many ways we human beings express ourselves—and perhaps to “pilfer” one of these modes of expression for myself.