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Voice and Vision

What: Voice and Vision Convocation, See the collaborative works of art created by artist/poet teams. Join the discussion about the ins and outs of such collaboration. Listen to improvisational jazz with Larry Simon and Friends. Refreshments will be provided.
Where: Portsmouth Sheraton Harborside
When: Monday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m.
Contact: www.pplp.org

It occurs regularly. The poet finds a fresh voice from artistic vision. An artist creates a vision after hearing the poet's voice.

The Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program (PPLP) saw the obvious connection between words and images and created an objective question. What would come of merging the local talents from literature and visual arts into singular works of symbiotic talent?

The short answer is a 12-piece display the PPLP is unveiling Nov. 1 at the Sheraton Harborside Hotel. Called "Voice and Vision," the show is the work of artist/poet pairs that have been working on a single piece of combined art since January.

Portsmouth Poet Laureate John Perrault hatched the idea as his way of fulfilling his lone mandate as poet laureate: To create a project that will bring poetry to the city.

Perrault, a lawyer/teacher by profession, has long held the opinion that people benefit from varied interactions. Cross-pollination he calls it. It's an ideal he lives, mixing his 22-year Portsmouth legal practice, with teaching night classes, with folk music and his own poetry.

"I saw this project as a place to start as far as artists are concerned. To learn something more about what other creative minds are thinking strongly about and what other themes and techniques they find stimulating," Perrault said.

Image by Cappy Whelan, text by Kimberly Cloutier Green

The idea hit its intended audience. More than 60 pairs – one poet, one visual artist – submitted samples of their individual works and a project plan in an open call during 2003. Perrault then facilitated a four-person jury (two poets, two visual artists) who selected the 12 pairs that would be asked to submit joint projects.

"It's not too uncommon for an artist to respond to a poet's work, or vice versa," says Nancy Hill, co-chairman of the PPLP, "but to work together, to collaborate, to make one work is very uncommon."

After the initial showing at the Sheraton, the Voice and Vision projects will scatter to permanent display homes in public venues. Portsmouth City Hall, Ocean National Bank, the new Portsmouth Public Library, Portsmouth Courthouse and Fleet Bank are among the entities that have agreed to hang the art.

Knowing the art would be a public piece was paramount to Perrault. On a small scale he's already accomplished significant inter-disciplinary interaction. What he's hoping now is to help in the process of bringing art to the public and, specifically, the downtown business community. It's a thought echoed by several of the artists, including Portsmouth "eco-artist" Tim Gaudreau, who combined with his poet wife, Lesley K. Gaudreau, to create "Borderlands," an interactive sculpture with six multi-sequential stanzas of poetry.

In order to read the poems, the viewer must turn one of the large discs to be able to read the poem through a circular window in the front disc, exposing one stanza at a time.

"One of my things is how to engage viewers in art … it's really important that artists create works that are relevant to culture," Gaudreau said. "I do believe that all art work is attempting to communicate some point, some idea, to communicate a message. I've chosen in my work to have that message be a little more that of an activist. I view artists as being in a role of "cultural instigator."

Image by Russell Aharonian, text by Elizabeth Knies.

The Gaudreaus were one of three "family" pairs. Poet Marie Harris and photographer Charter Weeks are also husband-and-wife. Visual artist Jeanné McCartin, known for her sculptured masks, solicited her daughter Jennifer Belkus to be her partner poet.

The other poet-visual artist partnerships chosen to have six months to produce their collaborative original are: Julia Older and Rachel Lehr (fabric artist), Charles W. Pratt and Kit Cornell (potter), Elizabeth Knies and Russell Aharonian (painter), Mimi White and Sarah D. Haskell (fabric artist), Rodger Martin and Victoria Arico (painter), Kimberly Cloutier Green and Cappy Whelan (painter), James Rioux and Peter Flynn Donovan (mixed media), Rick Agran and Sarah Margareth Mazur (graphic design), and Pat Parnell and Brigitte Keller (painter).

The manner of the collaborations and the work created varied greatly. Harris and Weeks both studied a subject called, "Working the Piscataqua." Weeks, a photographer, distilled images of men and machines at work along the waterway. Rather than write specifically from the frames, Harris focused on a different set of workers — the birds. In this way the efforts of an osprey to use whatever particles it can find in its area of inhabitation to build a nest atop a bobbing buoy is paralleled with a crane operator aboard one of the lumbering cargo ships docked along the pier.

Cornell and Pratt found their inspiration in Cornell's ancient tool — the potter's wheel. Pratt came across a line, found on a piece of Egyptian papyrus, that read, "The land turns round as does a potter's wheel." As he made his beginner's attempts at shaping the formless clay, the thought expanded to clay as a metaphor for universal endeavor of humanity: a search for meaning. Pratt writes: The clay is thrown. Now let the clay reveal How to tell the darkness from the day, To find the form that formless mists conceal The poem is attached to the wheel's platform. Above it in a handmade wooden case are 12 of Cornell's mugs in three rows. Each row has a different color tone, the top a sandy base with a swath of ocean blue, the middle reminiscent of a forest's deep blues and greens and the bottom row featuring earthy browns and reds.

"I think we had a lot of common ground," Pratt said.

"This was just a delight," Cornell added. "It was going deeper into what we already shared."

Other pairs stepped out of their normal comfort zones. Belkus describes her poetry as "minimalist" and "surrealist." McCartin's private work is "very often angst-ridden," she said. Together, though, they knew almost immediately that the emotional element of their work would be one of joy. Because of its eventual public display, they also wanted the art to be "accessible to all ages at some level," McCartin said.

Image by Tim Gaudreau, text by Kimberly Clutier Green.

"In hindsight, not having thought of it at the time, it was rather appropriate that a mother and daughter tried to reach an entire family," McCartin said.

The finished project, a three-quarter relief called "Flowers, Birds and Us," incorporates Belkus' poem directly into the work. The first third of the poem is in relief, giving the impression that one or more of the three figures in the relief has drawn it on a window. The latter two-thirds is etched across the windowpane.

Belkus admitted that if her poem had been intended solely for publication on its own merit, she might have felt the urge to work it a little more, to tweak it a few more times. But as part of the whole, she is proud of her effort. She also makes a suggestion that the Voice and Vision poems, while shaped by their assignment, will have a lasting impact because it will always be directly linked to its creative context.

"When you divorce work from its context you lose a lot of its soul," Belkus said. "This project had a purpose and one of the reasons I'm proud of our work is that the two pieces are married together."

Image by Russell Aharonian, text by Elizabeth Knies.

As with any successful marriage, there has to be a balance between the two halves. The visual arts, by their very nature, have ample opportunity to overshadow the poetry. White and Haskell have been collaborating for more than 10 years. They created a program called "Clear Lines; Common Threads," which they taught at Portsmouth High School for three years and now teach in residency programs.

While recognizing the project as a "great opportunity to work together as artists," White said it wasn't easy to figure out how to integrate her poem into Haskell's woven tapestry.

"How was the poetry and her art form to combine so each would shine and not obscure the other? And that's really hard to figure out," White said. "I must say, sometimes as a poet, it's really easy for the words to be overpowered by the material, the material is so seductive."

Together they created a somber piece titled "Who Count the Dead." White says it is political in its anti-war message but it has a message of hope. White said they used the notion of a created "third language," — comparing it to a peace treaty — to help them find their own common ground.

They broke down some barriers and formed a greater whole. Which is exactly what Perrault had in mind when he came up with the Voice and Vision project.

"It's a great project. Think it's going to stimulate a lot of people," White said. "Artists are thrilled when they're asked to create art, but the point is, it's public art and that's really the best part to me. You want somebody else to get it."

Voice and Vision is produced by the Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program and supported by the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation, New Hampshire State Council for the Arts, New Hampshire Humanities Council, Fleet Bank, Ocean National Bank, Spruce Creek TV, Ahlgren Perrault & Turner, Morgan Stanley, Marple & James, and other community members.

The Nov. 1 unveiling will be accompanied by an extensive question-and-answer period with the artists. Before the Q&A, local jazz musician Larry Simon and his band will react to the individual pieces with improvised music, further adding to the theme of cross-pollinating artistic concepts.

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