October 7, 2009

Retrospective: “Now, Again, Poetry, I Grasp For You”

Now, again, poetry,
…I grasp for you, your bloodstained splinters, your
ancient and stubborn poise
—Adrienne Rich, “The Fact of a Doorframe”

The following is an excerpt from my undergraduate thesis, a year-long exploration of spirituality through making art.

The serpentine form is haunting me. It’s been several months since I saw the documentary Rivers and Tides, in which sculptor Andy Goldsworthy creates breathtaking structures entirely from native natural materials—leaves, thorns, mud, ice, stones—only to document their literal disintegration through time and natural processes. Watching Goldsworthy work, slow and deliberate, sometimes seeing a structure unexpectedly crumble beneath his hands—it’s an otherworldly experience. “There are always these obsessive forms you cannot get rid of,” Goldsworthy admits, sounding as if he himself is haunted by the forms that repeatedly appear in his work—circles, egg-shaped cairns, stone arches, and the snake-like or river-like line that he calls “the serpentine form.”

I love all of Goldsworthy’s work, but I am particularly captivated by the serpentine form in its many versions. He draws it in a canvas of snow atop a frozen pond; he builds it into a wall of dried clay in a museum gallery; he recreates it in wet leaves atop a flat stone. It’s a little different every time, but you’d know it anywhere.

Months before initiating this journey, I created a mixed-media painting that borrowed one version of Goldsworthy’s serpentine form. In it, I used red Carolina clay (mixed with a binder) on a wood support to create the bold line of the form. The background texture was formed by torn sandpaper and found objects from nature that I had painted black. Now I feel a strong leading to work with similar materials and again to borrow Goldsworthy’s serpentine form, but this time to incorporate text. I turn to poetry, the first art form I ever loved. The text itself will create the form—poetry as media.

I find two poems that speak to me of the direct experience of God. The first, “Evening,” is a short poem by Rainer Maria Rilke in which the final stanza describes the “immensity and fear” of the human experience. We search for our place in the universe and the meaning of our presence here, unable to quite grasp the idea that God is both external and within us: “now bounded, now immeasurable, / it is alternately stone in you and star.” We are flawed, stumbling, imprisoned human creatures, and yet we contain sparks of the divine Source from which we spring.

The second poem, “Matins” by Denise Levertov, explores the possibility that God is found in mundane everyday routines, in kitchens and bathrooms and dirty streets as well as in holy places. The final section of this long poem directly addresses the divine: “Marvelous Truth, confront us / at every turn, / in every guise… / Thrust close your smile / that we know you, terrible joy.” Levertov’s word choice indicates her ambivalence about the omnipresence of God. The possibility that the divine is woven into daily life, that no place exists where God is not, brings a mixed reaction that is both welcoming and fearful.

Both poems suggest that the divine is as near as we allow it to be, that the Source is somehow tangible. I see a connection to Annie Dillard’s description of the beliefs of a certain Hasidic teacher: “[A]ll we see holds holiness… This is not pantheism but pan-entheism: The one transcendent God made the universe, and his presence kindles inside every speck of it” (For the Time Being). I am drawn to these poems because they suggest that it is not possible for us to truly be anything other than awed and a little bit afraid of the nearness of God, who dwells within us whether or not we acknowledge (or enjoy) that presence.

I make multiple photocopies of each poem and soak the copies in coffee for a couple of days to dull the bright-white copier paper. Meanwhile, I gesso a pine plank and use charcoal to draw the winding form on the gessoed wood. It pleases me to again be immersed in the landscape of this curving, flowing line. Next, I fill in the background of the form with black gesso, leaving the form as unpainted negative space. I like the bold yet empty look of it, and it remains at this stage for several days.

The following week, tearing the coffee-tinted sheets of text into very small pieces—single words or parts of words—I soak the bits of text briefly in a solution of matte medium and water. I begin to layer the text onto the serpentine form.

Although I am placing the bits of text at random, the repetitive act of handling and placing each piece allows the poems to sink deeply into my awareness. Again and again I see the words “alternately stone in you and star” and “terrible joy”; I carry these words in my heart during the days of working on this piece.

I am constructing a physical form from literal pieces of poetry. The drips of wet binder integrate with the black background as I add numerous layers of text to the winding form. The serpentine form, flat against the background at first, has risen dimensionally from the support.

…A friend suggests that the serpentine form might be more striking—and more true to the influence of Andy Goldsworthy—if I incorporate gradations of color. It feels right. I decide to keep the central part of the form as the lightest tone to give it somewhat of a glow, with the darkest sections at the top and bottom of the form.

I begin painting segments of the form with coffee. It’s a slow process—I have to let each application dry overnight before adding the next. Drips from the coffee mingle with the dried matte medium drips, leaving further traces of the long process of creating this piece.

In the end, the lightest section of text is tinted only by the original soaking, while the darkest sections at the top and bottom of the piece receive up to seven separate applications of coffee. I title the finished piece Direct Experience of God. It is the most visually striking work I have done yet.

There are many images of Andy Goldsworthy’s work available on the Web. A good starting point is here


  1. Tracy - very interesting piece of writing...and art. I quite like it.

    I was drawn to your page by your quote from Rilke. In Rilke's short story, 'About One Who Eavesdrops On The Stones,' from his collection, "Stories of God", Rilke has God imagining that He too is kept from us, as if imprisoned in stone, after having absorbed Michelangelo's reply, ‘You, my God, whoever else. But I cannot get next to you.’ to His question: 'Michelangelo...who is in the stone?'

    Again, I like your writing - and wish that I could see this serpent form firsthand - where will it be exhibited?



  2. Jack, thanks for the Stories of God info- I'm adding it to my reading list.

    This particular piece of art was exhibited for a week in April 2006 for my student thesis at Guilford College. Currently it hangs in my living room. :) If ever I am blessed with an opportunity for a one-woman retrospective show, I will certainly announce it here!