To commemorate my 41 year tenure at Ouachita Baptist University, Dr. Doug Sonheim, Chairman of Ouachita’s Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages, asked me to pen a few words for the 2014 edition of “The Assayers,” the university’s literary magazine, and to submit an image of my choice for this year’s publication. I was deeply honored and greatly moved by his kind gesture and by his granting me permission to submit this essay (with minor emendations) to CounterPunch.
In 1993 I migrated across campus to chair the Visual Arts Department. Even though I became physically removed from my colleagues in the English Department, I have been, and continue to be, intellectually and emotionally linked to these outstanding colleagues and scholars in a just-expanded department that includes an equally outstanding modern foreign languages faculty whose scholarship makes this the strongest and best English and foreign languages faculty in our university’s history.
For years now the creative process has intrigued me. What, for example, inspires Johnny Wink and Jay Curlin to carry on weekly dialogues in the form of poetic compositions that delight and instruct? What inspires Amy Sonheim to write about myriad literary topics and to delve into the world of visual arts by enrolling in a drawing class on her sabbatical? What inspires Mark McGraw to continue his quest by delving into new interpretations of Cervantes’ Don Quixote? What inspires Julia Jones to bring three Spanish classes to the art department to view four original signed and numbered Salvador Dali prints and to carry on a discussion on Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro’s works? What muse speaks to and inspires Margarita Pintado and Jennifer Pittman’s scholarship? Which of the nine Graces inspires Doug Sonheim to venture into and engage his protégé in seminars and scholarly discussions on film by taking them to the Sundance Film Festival? Did Hermes, the God of translators and interpreters, and Ogan, the Celtic God of speech and language, perchance gift Irene Trofimova with the enviable linguistic gift and inspiring teaching skills? What inspires my colleagues in the Humanities to teach their protégé to hone their writing skills by first teaching them how to become better ‘readers’ and scholars? What inspires my colleagues in the Visual Arts to inspire their students to create compositions in a variety of mediums? What inspires my colleagues in theater to produce theatrical compositions and set designs that are stunningly pleasing? And, finally, what inspires my colleagues in the social sciences, science, and music to be creative in myriad ways?
Some critics have suggested that the creative process commences as a frenzy, a sort of obsessive “lunacy” inspired and conceived as a response to an emotional, visual, or intellectual stimulus, a type of fixated grip that takes hold of an individual and gnaws on the mind and the heart. The frenzy then goes through an incubation period, is tempered, and is eventually released in the form of visual, written, or auditory artworks that are launched into what one hopes would be receptive and appreciative world.
To find a partial answer to the afore-posed questions, I drew on the wisdom of the ancients. In their art, the Hellenic Greeks created perfect architectural designs and marble sculptures which portrayed their gods as men (humans), and their men (humans) as gods, and they depicted their “Mousai,” the three Muses, in a plethora of visual images in both sculptures and an abundance of amphora and vase handiworks. These discerning Muses, the goddesses of Music, Song, and Dance, were considered to be the source of inspiration and knowledge upon which poets drew from a metaphorical deep well in which the muses colluded with other goddesses including Kalliope (epic poetry), Kleio (history), Ourania (astronomy), Thaleia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), Polythymia (religious hymns), Erato (erotic poetry), Enterpe (lyric poetry), and Terpsikhore (choral song and dance) to produce lasting aesthetic impulses that delight and instruct.
In his treatise “On the Sublime,” Longinus, the 3rd century Greek rhetorician, outlined five points for good writing. These are: great thoughts; strong emotions; precise figures of speech; noble diction; and dignified word arrangement.
In 1993 and upon first venturing into the world of the visual arts (by immersing myself in on-site study of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque, and Mannerist art), I experienced first-hand the profound connections between word art and the visual arts. Architectural details, for example, are visual poetry suspended and frozen in space and time. Dentils, tri-glyphs, rosettes, capitals, egg and dart motifs and metopes are to architecture what rhythm, rhyme, meter, form, and punctuation are to poetry. Another opportunity afforded itself in 2003. I realized that in order to become a better art historian, I needed to immerse myself in the process of making art so as to experience and comprehend this creative process — from its inception to its final form. In my proposal for a one-year sabbatical, I proposed to write five scholarly essays, and to make five sculptures. Under the mentorship of the late acclaimed sculptor Mac Hornecker and for a whole year, I spent eight hours a day, six days a week, in the sculpture studio. By the end of that year I produced only one scholarly essay and over seventy sculptures. With a total of six sculpture classes and by now in my fifties, two years later I discovered a third professional paramour.
When I first started teaching art classes I had to rely on hand-me down and faded slides, some of which were 60 year-old glass slides. And, because digital image technology was in its nascent stage, slide acquisition was costly. Furthermore, most of the vendor-produced slides were of a generic nature, and the paucity of close-ups and detailed illustrative images was sorely wanting. As a result, on my numerous trips to some of the world’s famous capitals and greatest museums and monuments, I took my own slides and soon dovetailed them into my class presentations. A by-product has been my delving into photographic art. All of this to say the following: Whether it is in writing, sculpting, or photography, I somehow find myself drawing on the afore-cited requisites outlined by Longinus some seventeen centuries ago, and, on how Venice, Italy, inspired me to produce hundreds of photographic images.
For centuries now the Doge’s 14th century barge, accompanied by a flotilla of boats and gondolas, departs from Venice, Italy’s Piazza St. Marco Pier, and heads east towards the Lido Island and the Adriatic Sea. To commemorate Venice’s marriage to the sea, the centuries-old ritual of casting a gold ring into the lagoon is a reenactment of the marriage vows between Venice, “The Bride of the Sea,” and her mate, the azure blue waters of the lagoon with which the Venetian Islands are associated. Venice is, without a doubt, one of the most historically rich and perhaps one of the most romantic cities in the world. (And didn’t George and Amal (Hope) choose this city as the locale to seal their wedding vows?) Every canal is a tantalizing interplay between water, bridges, gondolas and architecture whose ocher, terra cotta, pastels, and fiery reds weave lasting visual tapestries rich in color and shadows. Call this Longinus’ Great Thoughts (the plot, setting and characterization).
The city that is associated with Bellini, Casanova, Canaletto, Tintoretto, Titian, Marco Polo, and Vivaldi became a famous maritime power whose control of the silk and spice trade in the Mediterranean basin made it one of the richest and most powerful Italian city states. Not only did Venezia become famous for its Murano Glass, but it also became the world’s printing capital in 1482, a legacy that lasted till the 1800’s, and its trademark opulent and ornate Italian typeface is duly noted and cited to this day in graphic design classes. For centuries the famous Carnival has been celebrated in a setting where Byzantine, Arab, Renaissance, Ottoman, and Baroque architectural styles conspired to create a plethora of elegant churches, palazzi, villas, elegant loggias , galleries, drawing rooms, and piazzas. And to this day Venezia is recognized for its cuisine, fashion, film festivals, theater, concerts, art, interior design, lacquer work, masks, porcelain, glassware, and chinoiserie. Call this Longinus’ Strong Emotions (the exposition and point of view).
The numerous islets of the City of Canals are linked with hundreds of bridges in all styles and of all dimensions. And across this maze of meandering canals one delights in seeing smartly dressed gondoliers steering their sleek gondolas across the ever-rich bluish green waterways as they compete with each other in the singing of Italian arias or romantic serenades. Call this Longinus’ Dignified Word Arrangement (trochees, iambs, and dactyls).
Taken during the summers of 2009 and 2010, the hundreds of photographs I took celebrate the mesmerizing effects of the interplay between light, color, and the shadows created by a magical Venetian Serenissima. Serenissima also happens to be the name of my favorite Venetian hotel, a hotel whose 86 year-old señora serves coffee to her guests in a breakfast area abundantly rich in delectable treats and all of whose walls (dining area, rooms, hallways, stairway, lobby) are graced with original art works fitting for gallery displays. The photographs I took depict the canals, bridges, architectural structures, and tunnel-like narrow alleyways (more like floating sidewalks) that recede into mysterious backgrounds and dark planes. By experimenting, I employed two techniques. Utilizing the lens, I cropped and framed the images in a type of visual parenthesis, or a blocking off of the scene so as to highlight, define and lead the eye to the focal point (the equivalent of narrowing the topic in the writing process). The manipulation of light and shadows and the visual stimuli elicited from these bracketed shapes and forms was intended as a perceptual framing device whose intention was to convert conceptual shapes and forms into meaningful cognitive realities and aesthetic interpretation. Call this Longinus’ Certain Figures of Speech and Noble Diction (imagery, similes, metaphors, and connotation).
One thing is certain: while the actual scenes are permanent, the time of the day, the season, and the angle of the sun are in perpetual transmutation, so that even if taken on the same day, and only one hour apart, no two images are alike in their tonal qualities. Not only do the geometric and organic shapes and forms create their own contour lines, but they also evoke multiple sensations, each of which creates its own unique tableau rich in mono and polychromatic tones, hues, and shades. The combination of sunlight, water, and shadows make the bridges, windows, doors, balconies, street tiles, street lamps, window boxes, balustrades and gondolas, to name but a very few, come to life, and morph on an hourly basis in a tantalizingly mysterious transformation. I like to consider the photographic journal of my sojourns to the city of canals and light as an ode to the harmony between nature and man-made objects and an extended visual love poem addressed to “Venice, the Blushing Bride of the Adriatic Sea.” Call this the denouement.
The French essayist Michel Montaigne and his English counterpart, Francis Bacon, are credited with breathing new meaning into the terms “Essais” and “Essay” (to attempt, to try) in French and English, respectively. My hearty congratulations to each of you for “Assaying” and for succeeding in seeing your labor of love come to fruition in the form of a prose or poetic composition, and my challenge to you is to keep assaying for the rest of your lives by honing your creative pursuits, by tapping into your God-given creative gifts , and by exploring and venturing into the world of word art, a world that delights, instructs and transforms us, and a world that takes us to unchartered realms beyond our physical reach.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a writer, sculptor, photographer, avid gardener, and a peace activist. firstname.lastname@example.org