Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thoughts on Inspiration

©Janice Mason Steeves 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Helen Hagemann, an Australian poet who was in residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at the same time I was, emailed to tell me that she had written a poem  inspired by one of my paintings she saw there.  A section of that painting took her eye.  I am honoured by this. I was also delighted at how my work was interpreted so differently than my intention as I created it.  I include her blog post here with her poem:  Her Blue Dress and encourage you to check out her website to read more of her poems and see the books she has written.

Helen's writing this poem,  makes me consider sources of inspiration:  what inspires us, keeps us creating?  Maybe it's different for everyone.

I have just finished reading "The Aran Islands", written in 1907 by J.M. Synge, the famous Irish playwright.  He spent time on each of the three Aran Islands, mainly, Inish Mann where I visited in early October. Synge was clearly inspired by the islanders, especially by the folktales, songs and stories of fairies, told him by these simple, rugged people. But he was also inspired by the remoteness of the place, the difficulty of making passage there.  The sea, a very powerful living being, played a pivotal role in the lives of the islanders, dependent as they were on it.  Their only boats (the same kind used today for fishing), were small canvas-covered currachs, each rowed by four men. Today though, ferries ply the channels to move passengers and cargo.  Synge's experiences there and the folktales he collected were to form the basis for many of his plays.

I am also inspired very much by place: In my last series of paintings that I exhibited at Agnes Bugera Gallery, in Edmonton, my thoughts were about the prairies where I grew up.

In Ireland, at my artist residency, it was interesting to find that the colours of my paintings became so much more muted than at home.  Often when I travel, I don't paint.  I only photograph and absorb and write my thoughts.  When I get home, and after some weeks, or months, I find that my paintings begin to take on the feel (at least to me) of the place I visited.  And what surprised me in Ireland, was how quickly those changes were made while I was still there, like this painting that Helen was inspired by.

So thanks very much to Helen, and with her permission, I am printing her poem.
Her Blue Dress
                      for Janice

You will want to know
the season
how a gown can slip itself over nose and cheek
and be visible from art
how Emily Dickinson stood by a window
pressing her pink hips
through a passage of time
lifting a blue taffeta dress
over her shoulders
to reach
cool, upturned toes
where poems lay like stepping stones
on the hardwood floor.
The long blue dress
was too big for this slip
of a girl
but she proceeded down the hall
where a mirror
motioned her to look
at the poet she would become.

(3rd draft)

I was instantly drawn to Janice's artwork at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Ireland where we met and were housed in rather large cottages.  Her series included separate paintings joined as one.  I have used one panel only from her work titled Thoughts of Stones to represent a mirror and a blue dress. I saw Emily Dickinson's blue dress inside the painting (and, I guess, I was also inspired after reading Billy Collins' poem Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes

So there we were ( including Rebecca Crowell from Wisconsin- another fine artist!) each in our separate units, inspiring each other, and both encouraging me to visit the Megalithic art at Loughcrew.  I have many more poems to come!  Janice's Thoughts of Stones and her full art work can be viewed at Janice Mason Steeves


  1. oh my, I enjoyed this post so much. What a fortunate convergence of poetry and painting; you brought home so much more than can be easily told.

  2. Hi Judy,
    What a lovely comment this is! I did come home feeling full with the experience! Can't wait to go again next fall to Cill Railaig in County Kerry.

  3. I love the merging of words and paint. I will look up more of Helen's poetry.
    Jane in Guelph

  4. The merging of words and paint...that is is wonderful way to put it Jane!

  5. excellent post. your painting is beautiful and Helen's poem lovely too--Emily as a child. Dont often think of her that way. I love the way visual art and writing inspire each other back and forth. the reverse might occur, a poem inspiring a painting. be well, suki

  6. Thanks for your interest in our collaboration & all the great comments. I don't get any from Australians!

  7. How tender and beautiful Helen's poem is -- and I love the way it so wonderfully and abstractly references your painting. I know for me, poetry is a major influence in my work -- the way a turn of a phrase can conjure up colors and shapes, or how the poetic description of the natural world can enthrall me and connect me to a more spiritual relationship to my own paintings. Mary Oliver, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, and Rumi are always a source of inspiration for me.

  8. I agree Diane, about Helen's poem being so tender and sensitive and how it references my painting in that way. Poetry indirectly is a big influence on my work too, and some of the same poets that you love, as well as David Whyte...and others. It was wonderful being in Ireland in the midst of so many Irish poets at the residency there.

  9. It seems you and Helen absorbed much of the literary history that makes up Ireland. Sometimes I think words issue forth from stones in that lovely land.

    Helen's poem evokes the subtle brushwork of your painting beautifully as well as the presence of Emily--who lives on in her words...

  10. Hannah, what beautiful words you've written. I am so loving all of the poetic responses to Helen's poem. Thanks for this.