Defining Commonality: A Handmade Dictionary

A review by RCAH Center for Poetry founding director Anita Skeen

Earlier this October, Founding Director of the RCAH Center for Poetry, Anita Skeen, traveled to Oklahoma City to visit friend and poet Jane Taylor, who recently had a collaborative art exhibit with visual artist Jane Wheeler. Below is her experience with this exhibit, Defining Commonality: A Handmade Dictionary.

On Thursday evening, October 10, 2019, as I was on my way to teach in the annual Fall Writing Festival at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM, I stopped in Oklahoma City to visit with poet Jane Taylor, a longtime friend and fellow Ghost Ranch teacher, and to attend the opening reception for a project she had been working on for some time with visual artist Jane Wheeler. Jane 2 Jane, these two women called their work together. This project grew out of their desire to explore their separate art forms and to see what they might discover hidden around them in their neighborhoods. Jane Taylor explains: “The seeds and source material for this collaboration could have been any authentic neighborhood through which we drive, and perhaps, fail to look deeply. We chose to focus on the streets that make up Commonwealth Urban Farm because of its diversity, farm aesthetic, and food-sustaining routines, plus the swarm of love in yards and alley ways.” The project came to be called Defining Commonality: a Handmade Dictionary.

The opening, with a wonderful reception that included wine, varieties of fruits and pastries, and the actual art works themselves, was held at Full Circle Books, a labyrinth of an independent bookstore in Oklahoma City known for hosting readings and exhibits. When Jane (T.) said to me early in the evening, “I hope someone besides you and my family comes,” I laughed for two reasons, the first being that all of us who are artists and poets are always fearful that we will be the only ones at our reading or exhibition, and secondly because Jane and Jane are widely known throughout the Oklahoma City area for their remarkable creative talents and commitment to what Jane (T.) calls, “our communal eco-heart.” Jane (T.) and I arrived early at the bookstore to be sure that things would be ready to go at 7:30 when the exhibit opened.

Here I should stop and say what the exhibit consisted of, which were Jane (T.)’s poems and Jane (W.)’s photographs. Jane (W.) wrote in her photographer’s statement, “When photographing, I strive to slow down and notice, being open and receptive without bias. What appears may be order in an unordered place. It may be seemingly incongruent bits which together yield unexpected delights. It may be well-worn beauty. It isn’t, however, the eye-popping images which are traditionally defined as beautiful.”

I know that Jane and Jane pondered the many ways this exhibit could be mounted. Should they hang the photos and poems together, side by side, on a wall? Should the photographs be framed? What about the poetry? Should the works be placed on a table? Should they all be collected in a book? If so, what size?

What we found as we wandered through the exhibit and pondered the works was a true collaboration.  Jane (T.) had, over a period of time, collected old hardbound dictionaries and removed their innards, cutting out all the pages and leaving only boards and spine. When Jane (T.), a former reference librarian, gave her opening remarks at the gathering, she said that, as she held the box cutter in her hand and disemboweled the books, she was sure she would end up in Library Jail somewhere. Then, as you will see from the photos here, she placed the poem on the left-hand side of the book and the photo on the right side. Thus, you saw a book and an artwork at the same time. I purchased one of these creations. The cover stated it was An American Heritage dic-tion-ary of THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, black with gold lettering, and when opened, this poem faced you on the left hand side:

The Farm

From Middle English:  to fix, be firm

Let them know us by our structures

Mounds, rakes, bales, chips, pruning.

Driving by, may they look with fertile mind.

Frame us close or wide.

Hum along to our hoop music.

Hear us fiddle in the February wind.

On the right side of the page was a photograph of the hoop house at Commonwealth Farms, a grey winter sky spilling out overhead, the hoop house almost translucent in the winter light, a look through the open doorway into lettuce or some other bright green crop, tree trunks and sticks, and plywood and metal strewn around outside.  It was, as Jane (W.) wrote, “well-worn beauty.” Poem and photo were mounted in the boards with transparent photo corners, the kind that those of you my age will remember from the family albums we stored in or drawers or closets.  The poem and photo rose when the binding was opened, came off the page, unhindered by trappings.

Photo by Jane Wheeler

Exhibited throughout the bookstore were fifteen of these artistic collaborations.  Six were sold that first night, and all the chairs that had been set up were filled, with folks left standing by the strawberries and cantaloupe sampling them as Jane and Jane each spoke a few words about their collaboration before we, the audience, were free to wander to the fireplace mantel, library table, or wherever the dictionaries had been placed.  Jane (T.) read two poems and had two friends each read one of the poems. I wanted more. More poems. I wanted to hear all of the poems, and in Jane’s voice, before I wandered through the collection to see photo and poem.  Because the exhibit was crowded with people (yes, Jane, others besides your family did come!) it was hard to spend much time with each individual art work.  But after the talk and reception were over, chairs were folded, and leftover delicacies divided up and sent home, the dictionaries remained in place for patrons of Full Circle to view for a while in the future.

As a writer who values and actively tries to collaborate, I was so impressed with what Jane and Jane had done. I would encourage all of you who read this, regardless of your art form, to think of collaborating with another artist on a project. “The idea of collaborating with a poet had been simmering in my mind,” wrote Jane Wheeler, “before Jane Taylor and I started talking about the idea….  As I began to explore with the camera and the collaboration with Jane, I found that she saw things in the images that I didn’t see. And through her poetry she defined the melding of our media and highlighted how the minutia of a place is part of the bond we have with nature.” Finally, in the conclusion to her artist’s statement, Jane Taylor offered us this: “The life cycles on which we depend were always at the heart of my poems.  For that life-affirming energy, and the music/light of Jane’s photos, I am grateful and happy to offer this work.”

Published by cpoetrymsu

The Center for Poetry opened in the fall of 2007 to encourage the reading, writing, and discussion of poetry and to create an awareness of the place and power of poetry in our everyday lives. We think about this in a number of ways, including through readings, shows, community outreach, and workshops. We are at work building a poetry community at MSU and in the greater Lansing area. Contact: cpoetry@msu.edu (517) 884-1932 http://www.poetry.rcah.msu.edu

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