Poets & Visual Artists Take Creativity To The Next Level In Gallery Installation

Nov 19, 2020

Some northern Illinois poets had to write outside the lines for a unique Woodstock art exhibition. 

“As It Happens” is an art show on display at Woodstock’s Old Courthouse Art Center. Various poets wrote pieces at different stages of visual artists’ works but the poems are much more than words on paper. 

Artist Carol Hamilton worked with the Woodstock poetry group Atrocious Poets to come up with the concept for the exhibit. She shared her observation.  

“And that the poets, when it was first presented to them, they were a little skeptical I think when they heard they had to make their poems visual," she said. "You know, they're used to written word not making an art piece from their poems.” 

Hamilton said she took part in an artist and poet collaboration several years ago but for that one, only one poet was paired with the artist and the poem was used to inspire the visual artist. She explained when she met members of Atrocious Poets, she knew they had to come together to create something similar.  

Dawn Zehr typing inside of the Atrocious Poets' studio.
Credit Yvonne Boose

Poet Dawn Zehr sat in a corner room inside of the Old Courthouse Art Center. A glass Atrocious Poets sign hangs above the entrance. 

The small space is decorated with books like “The Complete Works of Carl Sandburg” and K.A. Holt’s “Rhyme Schemer” as well a few typewriters.

The poet group uses these typewriters to write poems, even on the spot at different events. Zehr said they like to put poetry where it doesn’t belong. But the pandemic slowed them down. This exhibit is another way for them to put poetry in places that it isn’t normally found.

“And I think that this show, really allowed poets to explore words in a different way," Zehr said. "Really allow them to flourish and grow kind of three dimensionally in a way I that think a lot of poets were initially most uncomfortable with.” 

Woodstock resident Anita Theodore said it was her second time coming to see the display. There is one piece that she said she can’t get enough of.

“It’s suspended, but still has movement. But then you've got keywords like stop and silent and dark and shadow," she explained. "So, it's a very clever, very thoughtful…and I think I'm just going to come back and look at it over and over again.” 

Theodore was describing a piece by artist Bert Leveille called Synapse. Leveille collaborated with poets Annie Hex and Jennifer May. The piece was inspired by Leveille’s art coach, Paul Klein, who died of cancer this October. In an explanation of her piece, Leveille said she was working on a painting last year while Klein underwent brain surgery. She said at some point, her painting turned into an image of his brain.  

Anne Burns was there with Theodore. Burns is also a fan of this piece. She suggested that the words really complement the work. 

“It frames the inside moving figure. So it's...because life is just not linear, it just moves, you know, and the brain moves and I love how it just…that last stop," said Burns.

Elgin poet laureate Chasity Gunn also took part in the exhibit. She was the first poet that wrote for the visual piece called “7th Street Neighborhood Evolution” by artist Jenny Mathews. She said she met members of Atrocious Poets about a year ago.  Gunn explained that she studied how to write based on visuals so this wasn’t new for her. 

“So, whether that was artwork or whether that was photography, or just different types of images. And so actually, when I was in graduate school, I found a picture of a lynching. And from there, I began to connect, writing based on visuals," said the Hamline University alumna. 

"7th Street Neighborhood Evolution" by Jenny Mathews.
Credit Yvonne Boose

Mathews said originally the artists were going to meet with the poets as they did the work but things had to pivot because of COVID-19. She did a time lapse video of herself painting a landscape of a Rockford street corner so that the poets could write for their assigned phase. 

“It's part of a longer project that I been working on where I like to paint places that are maybe my favorite but aren't necessarily deemed pretty. It's not the river or the gardens. It's just these little shops on 7th Street that I remember going in and buying bubblegum when I was a kid.” 

Theodore said the concept should also challenge how spectators interpret the art. 

“I think that when you combine multiple media, it enhances people's experiences. There's evidence that when you target different parts of the brain, different ideas of understanding and comprehension are possible," Theodore stated. "So, I think when someone can combine, you know, images with words it can reach people in different ways.” 

Hamilton shared that when she started on the piece, she wasn’t thinking about the pandemic. But after looking at the finished product, she said she noticed how the pandemic took hold of her creative process.

“I was amazed because it felt like kind of the sadness and isolation that I felt while I was practicing the stay at home, I was like, wow, it really came out. I wasn't aware of that while I was working," Hamilton explained.  

Mathews confessed that, although the exhibit came together beautifully, she missed not having an opening night. She said for her, the facial expressions of observers give her the feedback she needs. However, she is reminding everyone that they can respond by using QR Codes that are displayed or even putting a note in the comment box.  

The exhibit opened earlier this month and will continue through the end of the year. It showcases works by five visual artists and 14 poets. Hours are Thursday through Sunday from 11-5 p.m. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 15 masked people can view at one time.  

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.