Creating Art From Art
American and Northern Irish students share unique poetic perspectives on Rembrandt’s artwork
Monday, February 7, 2022
a man reads a description of the "Unique Silence" exhibit, written on a large burnt-orange wall

At a time when a global pandemic ruined so many plans—including Jenny Browne’s Fulbright Distinguished Scholar Fellowship to Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland—the Trinity University English professor created a unique opportunity for her students to bring more beauty into the world.

Just four months into Browne’s nine-month fellowship, the U.S. Department of State suspended all Fulbright grants worldwide. She came home to San Antonio, but she wasn’t finished with her project just yet. Since her time teaching at the prestigious Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast was cut short, instead she brought her project to Trinity students as an upper division course of special topics in creative writing. The topic of her Fulbright research and the resulting student course? Ekphrastic poetry.

“Ekphrasis is a poetic genre, and the origins of the word mean to ‘speak out,’” Browne, MFA, says. “Traditionally, it’s a poem written in response to another art form and describes it so exactly and elaborately so as to recreate the visual.”

Browne views contemporary ekphrasis as an opportunity to address larger issues, such as politics, violence, gender, sexuality, and race, by considering issues of visual and verbal representation. She created the class for Trinity students because she recognized that it could be a useful poetic practice to express difficult feelings during a year full of uncertainties. Ideally, the class would have been in the field—students would visit museums and anywhere else art was on display. But the pandemic shuttered all those doors.

Jenny Browne (right) returned to Belfast, Ireland, in the summer to help Queen’s University Belfast students film A Unique Silence: Poems of the Ulster Museum.

Browne and her students found themselves on Zoom for Spring 2021 classes, and while everyone felt the loss of presence, they seized an unusual opportunity—located more than 4,500 miles away at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

“As I was leaving Belfast, there was a big show of six donated Rembrandt etchings, but when everything shut down, it had to be online,” Browne says. “I talked to the curator—wouldn’t it be interesting to have two groups of students respond to the etchings and then share their responses? We would be looking at the same thing, but the process of writing into what we saw, felt, and imagined was such an exciting way to enlarge the conversation about ekphrastic poetry. It brought together individual perspectives across the ocean.”

During the project, those two groups of students—one group at Trinity and the other at Queen’s—closely observed the Rembrandt etchings displayed at the Ulster Museum in an online exhibition called A Unique Silence. Browne asked students to choose one of the pieces: “Which one strikes you speechless? That intake of air when you encounter something—that’s a different kind of unique silence.”

 

Then, both groups of literary students responded to the visual art, interpreting the etching for themselves as much as for others.

“Ekphrasis is a practice that really makes one think: What does it mean to be in your own body looking at a piece of art?” says Ciara Keogh ’22, an English major who wrote the poem “Study of a Female Nude,” (read Keogh's poem below) reflecting on Dwight C. Sturges’ etching of the same name. Keogh also appreciated looking at art through other people’s eyes. “Some of the Queen’s students’ experiences are drastically different from mine, so they had unique perspectives that I could compare to mine when looking at the same piece of art,” Keogh says.

Mackenzie “Macks” Cook ’23, an English major, wrote “& Even the Cows,” responding to Rembrandt’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds: with the lamp” etching as well as Gwendolen Mary Raverat’s “Nativity.” Like Keogh, Cook also appreciated the non-American lens the Queen’s students provided in their feedback to Trinity students.

“Now I realize how much of my perspective on the world is informed by being an American and living here,” Cook says. “These students were informed by a different history, and they had questions about my work that I had never questioned before.”

Culminating the project, all the students recorded themselves reading their poems to create a short film called A Unique Silence: Poems of the Ulster Museum. To accompany the readings, Belfast computer artist and animator Glenn Marshall provided an additional interpretation—that of the visual image. Marshall had developed a text-to-image generator that manipulates a piece of art to reflect words, either written or spoken. The computer program used artificial intelligence to listen to the students’ poetry and then visually transform the corresponding art, animating the image to reflect the words in each poem.

For example, in Cook’s poem, the repetition of the words “twin eyes” and “twin heads” was reflected in the animation—showing dual cow faces again and again. In other poems, the words “shadow” or “light” would produce certain contrast changes in the image.

“What I loved about that aspect of the film is the way these animations evoked the experience of looking and thinking,” Browne says. “If you’re writing ekphrasis, part of what you’re doing is paying attention to what you see—your eye is the camera. What was so beautiful about these animations is the way they echoed the original experience of encountering and taking in the prints. It was an experimental ekphrasis experience.”

Keogh agreed that the images were an incredible addition to the exhibit.

“I thought the idea of coming full circle with these images felt satisfying and cohesive,” says Keogh, a self-described visual learner who appreciated the intersection of literary and visual art. “I looked at a piece of art through the lens of my life experiences and created poetry with just words and spaces. Then an artist took those words and went back to turning the shared conception of this art into an image again. Overall, the process to language and back again enriched the experience of the piece of artwork.”

Students from Trinity University and Queen’s University Belfast discuss poetry and visual art via Zoom.

 

A Second Voyage

With support from the Trinity Public Humanities Fellows program, Browne was able to travel back to Belfast for a month this past summer. In addition to assisting in the recording of the Queen’s students’ poetry for the film, she also focused on finding ways to make art, particularly poetry, more accessible to the public. She worked with the Ulster Museum to create public programs and curriculum to give non-artists the tools to creatively respond to works in the collection. It’s a project she’s continuing to develop to help museum visitors “dip their toe in” to the poetic tradition.

“So often we ask: What does it mean?” Browne says. “We look for an expert, but part of the question of ekphrasis is, what does it mean to you? What you see in a certain image is determined by who you are and how you see yourself. That question is available to people who aren’t necessarily poets and artists.”

This understanding—that “art is a conversation”—was Keogh’s biggest takeaway from Browne’s class.

“Art hanging in a museum is not static; it is being interacted with by viewers who come with their own realities that the artwork fits into. Or maybe it won’t fit with their preconceived notions, so they have to interrogate both their own thoughts and the art itself,” explains Keogh, who says she now has new creative tools to use to experiment with form and convention in her writing. “Ekphrastic poetry allows viewers to become part of the artistic world and explore their conversation with an artwork.”

Through this exploration of ekphrasis, Cook also gained a new perspective of what it means to be original.

“I get hung up on originality sometimes,” Cook says. “If it doesn’t come fully from me and my brain, is it really mine? Through this project, I learned to seek inspiration from other sources.”

Students discovered, too, that those sources could be anything and come from anywhere—at home or abroad—even when travel was next to impossible.

“The pandemic was a lonely time, but through this project, we got to talk to these people who were doing this in a different place and a different context,” Browne says. “It was exciting to have an international exchange element to it, especially when our lives felt really small and condensed and shriveled. I’m proud of my students and thrilled with the product and also with the practice we made together.”


"study of a female nude" triptych evolution of artwork

left: “Study of a female nude,” Dwight Case Sturges (1874-1940), ink on paper. ©National Museums NI Collection: Ulster Museum
right (3 images): AI interpretations of “Study of a Female Nude” by Dwight C. Sturges, based on Ciara Keogh’s poem of the same name.

 

Study of a Female Nude

by Ciara Keogh ’22

 

Empty space filled with
Shadow the dark outlining
her form she stretches

Ghost of a smile
A stray lock of hair, soft curves
Observe quiet dark

Face value or worth
Lies without the hand that shades
Only reflection

She lights up a room
Dusk following in her wake
A step from darkness

In mind, body, soul
What does it mean to be dark?
When is it allowed?

Empty space filled with
Shadow the dark outlining
A form on the floor

No longer sleeping
Twenty-six, we say her name
Still seeking justice

Where can we find them?
Justice and sanctuary
Here, they are missing

We lose the ones who
Are absent from our museums
Their stories untold

Names immortal on
Lips curved, wet with saltwater
Not enough to save

Empty space filled with
Shadow the dark outlining
The artist, missing

Pencil left behind
Destined for a show unseen
For a year long gone

Remembered fondly
Why do some deaths matter more?
News story gravestones

Mural monuments
No scholars devote to those
Their studies narrow

Choosing instead a
Study of a female nude


 

View the collaborative student film, A Unique Silence: Poems of the Ulster Museum, as part of the Seamus Heaney Centre Collection.

Ashley Festa is a higher education freelance writer. Visit her online at www.ashleyfesta.com.

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