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Shelley-Horton Trippe describes her process of making paintings from poems as feeling almost like alchemy – taking the words, the sounds of the words, the rhythm and pace in which they are recited, and “transubstantiating” all that into something physical.
“In a way, pulling up the visual context of these very emotive words … it was like creating a spell in a way,” she said. “Almost an incantation. And then bringing it into the material world.”
The Santa Fe-based artist’s most recent collection of poetry-inspired paintings opens at the Center for Contemporary Arts tonight.
“A Greater Sublime” will be up until Jan. 6.
Horton-Trippe first started creating this “cross-sensing,” collaborative type of work in 1990. The current exhibition took Horton-Trippe several years to create. It took so long, she said, because she wanted to work with a variety of poets, both longtime friends and younger voices who she met through creating her paintings. Some of them, she noted, she still hasn’t met in person.
The poets whose work inspired her paintings include Will Alexander, Richard Greenfield, Jon Davis, Catherine Meng, Ken White, Sherwin Bitsui, Jennifer Foerster and Sonja Kavanja.
Horton-Trippe worked with the poems by listening to them rather than by reading. The writers sent in tapes or did in-person readings at her studio. Many of the poets provided small collections of their work for her to listen to.
“I listened to them thousands of times,” said Horton-Trippe.
In the exhibition space at CCA, she plans to display and play the audio of a poem or an excerpt next to each painting.
She considers all of the work to be abstract. She said that while some of the paintings have fairly direct interpretations – for example, in the artwork inspired by poet and screenwriter Ken White’s “Though Our Mouths Be Taken From Us,” she painted several open mouths – her paintings are not illustrations of the poems. She said everything, from the images she created to the materials she used, was based on the feelings that the poems evoked.
“It’s not necessarily what the poem is about literally,” she said. “It’s much more about the deep, emotive touchstone of the poem.”
The largest painting in the show, “A Greater Sublime,” is based on work by Jon Davis, former Santa Fe poet laureate and founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA Creative Writing program. Horton-Trippe’s piece is divided into two by a diptych, because Davis referred to a seam in a book in one of his poems.
She described interpreting his poetry as compelling while describing everyday situations. One of his pieces titled “Grail” ends with the line, “Wholly in the grail of your own cupped hands.”
“And I loved that,” she said. “In the end, that’s what this is about. It’s about the glory of the natural world.”
The reason she named the exhibition after this painting’s title, she explained, was that each of the poets’ works had references to the world around the writers and what’s happening to it.
“Their work was taking the everyday experiences, the mundane possibly, and allowing it to realize some sense of the sublime,” she said.
Discussing other works in the show, she described visualizing the subtlety and “vastness” she felt from the poetry of Jennifer Foerster, who is on the faculty for IAIA’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, by leaving exposed canvas in the painting.
In her work inspired by New Mexico State University professor and writer Richard Greenfield, she took inspiration from the fact that he recorded himself reciting one of his poems while at the beach. “You could hear the wind and almost the grit of the sand hitting the microphone,” she said. “And that all became part of my listening to the work.” In part of the painting, she used a more watercolor-based paint to bring viewers into that same space.
Though still abstract, she said viewers may see a multi-colored face of a human or animal in her painting “Loxodrome.” It is based on pieces from Los Angeles-based poet Will Alexander’s book “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome.” She views his poetry, which he read to her live over the summer, as “other-wordly” or like “going to another planet in another galaxy in another consciousness.”
“Loxodrome is not an animal,” she said. The word defines an imaginary arc that crosses meridians in spheres, like the Earth.
“But the word for me, or the sound of that word, I see this form that is both mammal and sea creature. Why? I don’t know.”
Alexander told the Journal his references to areas in Southeast Asia and Eastern culture are like “poetic cartography,” likening a sailor’s intuition and voyaging to the work of a poet.
“The poet is a lone sailor, the poet is a lone carrier of energy,” he said. “Like a solitary sailor going across the unknown. This is one of the interests that started me on this.”
He also described his book as a result of “automatic writing,” or his practice trying to find a higher state of consciousness when creating.
“The poem itself is about expansion,” Alexander added. “That’s why I’m in contact with Shelley and (other) painters. I’m interested in art as a fluidity and a convening, not a separation.”
“I don’t work from other people’s ideas unless I’m doing this work with poets,” Horton-Trippe said. “It was a really difficult experiment to take on. For me, as a painter, it was ‘OK, I have to embody the poet more than the painter, essentially.’ Their voice was what needed to come through me, not necessarily my voice. But then, as the experiment continued, developed, and as the paintings develop, there was this coming together and morphing.”
“A Greater Sublime” will be up at the same time as CCA’s “Three Image Makers” show, highlighting the work of three photographers and photo-based artists.
Readings featuring poets whose work inspired the paintings will take place at CCA on Oct. 19, Nov. 16 and Dec. 14, from 6-8 p.m.
The first reading will feature Alexander and Greenfield.