Monday, July 4, 2011


All my life, from childhood to today, I've found inspiration in the visual arts of the West and East, and had fate not pointed me in the direction of literary fiction, I would have happily attended the art school in Illinois that accepted my application in 1966.
But fate, I guess, does tie up over time a few loose ends. First, my daughter Elisheba did graduate from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and I was in heaven for four years as I studied her textbooks and assignments. She is now owner and curator of Faire Gallery Cafe, which exhibits work by a new artist every month. In its first five years, Faire has had over 60 art openings, housed over 200 musical acts, hosted comedy shows, housed one play, over 15 staged readings, and featured regular open mic nights.
And, secondly, in 1994 The Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with Bulfinch Press published a lovely, wonderful book entitled Transforming Vision: Writers on Art. On these pages, 46 writers and poets respond imaginatively to 40 magnificent works of art in The Art Institute of Chicago.
The list of writers and the visual artists they are paired with is more than impressive. Here, we find Saul Bellow and Robert Hayden on Claude Monet; Delmore Schwartz on Georges Seurat; William Maxwell on Eugène Boudin; Richard Howard on Henri Fantin-Latour; Richard Wilbur on Edgar Degas; Jon Stallworthy on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec; Adam Zagajewski on Edgar Degas; Susan Mitchell on Paul Gauguin; Cynthia MacDonald on Mary Cassatt; Patricia Hampl on Henri Matisse; Jacques Dupin on Joan Miró; Francine Prose on Diane Arbus; Carl Sandburg on Auguste Rodin; Willa Cather and Amy Clampitt on Jules Breton; Guy Davenport on Grant Wood; Joyce Carol Oates on Edward Hopper; John Edgar Wideman on William Sidney Mount; Wallace Stevens on Pablo Picasso; Rita Dove and Reginald Gibbons on Ivan Albright; John Yau on Jasper Johns; Blaise Cendrars on Robert Delaunay; John Hollander on Charles Sheeler; Gerald Stern on Chaim Soutine; Susan Stewart on Francis Bacon; Susan Sontag on Francisco Goya; C.K. Williams on Leon Golub; Stanley Kunitz on Philip Guston; Mark Strand on Giorgio de Chirico; Philip Levine on Lyonel Feininger; Shelby Hearon on Wayne Thiebaud; Mina Loy on Constantin Brancusi; Garry Wills on Thomas Eakins; Charles Wright on Piet Mondrian; John Updike on Claes Oldenburg; Li-Young Lee on Li-Lin Lee; Charles Simic on Joseph Cornell; Miroslav Holub on Paul Klee; Jorie Graham on Anselm Kiefer; Charles Baxter on John La Farge; and Ellen Bryant Voight on Georgia O'Keeffe.
My contribution to this volume is a Buddhist-themed short story entitled "The Work of the World," which is my response to Peter Blume's The Rock (1943), a painting that ensorcelled me every time I encountered it in The Art Institute of Chicago. I selected the one black figure in that painting, a bare-chested man lifting a slab, as my protagonist in an apocalyptic landscape, where everyone is rebuilding the world after a long-anticipated catastrophe. The story is reprinted in I Call Myself An Artist: Writings By and About Charles Johnson, edited by Rudolph Byrd (Indiana University Press, 1998). And I had the great pleasure of reading it on September 24, 1994 at the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington as a way of introducing the great painter Jacob Lawrence just before he was interviewed on stage by an arts reporter from New York for his exhibition "Jacob Lawrence: Thirty Years of Prints (1963-93).

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