Hedy Fischer will be the first to tell you that she’s no poet. But for several years in the early ’90s, the Pink Dog Creative co-owner worked for Poetry Alive, teaching and performing classical and contemporary works. The form, says Fischer, “has a special place in my heart.”
So, when local poet Laurie Wilcox-Meyer approached Fischer about hosting a poetry exhibit in Fischer’s River Arts District space, the former performer was intrigued. Rather than focus exclusively on the written word, though, the two decided to pair 15 poems with 15 works of visual art.
On Friday, May 10, In Times Like These will open at Pink Dog Creative. Immigration, greed, race, religion and the presidency of Donald Trump are among the topics explored on the page and captured on the canvas through the exhibit’s blind collaborations.
For participating Pink Dog artist Joseph Pearson, the process of creating a work inspired by a poem was a unique, challenging and introspective experience. Assigned Meta Commerse’s “Black Echoes,” the artist says he spent many nights considering the work before deciding on a visual representation.
Ultimately, Pearson focused on the poem’s fifth stanza to guide his work: “To be black/is to douse the flames/of your pride/constantly,/and to invent new ways/to look hatred in the face/for your child’s sake.”
Pearson, who is African American, says the stanza brought to mind an encounter that occurred more than 30 years ago, when his then 4-year-old daughter was initially denied access to the bathroom inside a gas station. Only after an extended exchange with the clerk, wherein Pearson pointed out that he had just purchased gas from the location, was his daughter admitted.
“It was one of those situations where if you get nasty, if you get ugly — well, that’s not something you want to do in front of your child,” Pearson explains. “So that was one of those instances that came to mind as I was thinking about this poem and the need to ‘douse the flames of your pride.’”
In response to the poem and his own personal association with it, Pearson has created a drawing of a black father consoling his young daughter. Love, says Pearson, was one of the principles behind the piece. The work is also a deliberate and direct challenge against the negative stereotype in popular culture that often portrays African American males as absentee fathers. “I particularly wanted to show a black father showing tenderness and love for his child,” the artist explains. “Because that’s who we are.”
Commerse, who is one of three participating poets reading work aloud during the exhibit’s opening, considers poetry her first means of expression. Born in Chicago, she says she began writing at the age of 9. “This is an African American tradition — using the written and spoken word to put and keep our concerns and needs on the table,” she explains.
Raised in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Commerse remembers listening to her elders debate the meaning of creative expression. “Most of them believed it was the lifeblood of our community,” she recalls.
Now an elder herself, Commerse shares in this perspective: “There is no such thing as art for art’s sake. … Where would we be as a society … without our artists and people working from their hearts to try to interpret as best they can the world that they live in?”
Participating poet Jessica Jacobs echoes this sentiment. Along with interpreting current events, she believes, “art plays an essential role in making sure that we don’t just retire to our separate silos and think about ourselves as us versus them.”
Her poem, “Beauty in a Broken Time,” juxtaposes the natural wonder Jacobs encountered during a 2016 trip to Greece with the events that unfolded back home. Police brutality, the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., and the emerging possibility of a Trump presidency were among the major headlines.
“My job [as a poet] isn’t to debate someone to the point where they agree with me,” notes Jacobs. “My job is to ask questions and to listen to what someone with a different opinion has to say. And hopefully, in the act of doing that and making someone feel like their opinion is valuable … maybe it creates some kind of opening in them, some curiosity.”
By the end of Jacobs’ poem, readers are left grappling with these two disparate realities — one of exotic beaches, the other of American turmoil and uncertainty.
In many ways, the questions Jacobs raises are echoed throughout the featured works of In Times Like These. The poets and visual artists want to know: How do we process the existence of so many contrasting realities? How do we hold onto individual joys in the face of social injustice and political upheaval? And how do we go about making sense of a world capable of so much beauty but seemingly hellbent on destruction?
WHAT: In Times Like These
WHERE: Pink Dog Creative Gallery, 348 Depot St. avl.mx/5yh
WHEN: Opening reception Friday, May 10, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Exhibit on view through Sunday, June 9. Free