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Artist-Writer-Artist: Helen Ferguson Crawford

Helen Ferguson Crawford is another artist-writer I discovered on Google Plus. Her biographical information describes her as an artist, registered architect, and visiting professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. I was first drawn towards her paintings, with their strong sense of form and sensitive touch. When I went to her blog, I found that these qualities were clearly evident in her writing, too -- with the addition of a strong narrative element. In this interview, I asked Helen to describe what happens when she works with word and image in such close proximity to each other.

Philip: On your blog, there are various kinds of writing: extended memoir (The Lure of Empty Places), short memoir (Doubling), word lists (Hands That See), journal entries (River Eggs). Sometimes the images are visibly, directly related to the words (Vein), or there is a more oblique connection (The Lure of Empty Places). When and why did you start writing as a form of creative expression?

Helen:  Here is a story: When I was a four year old our family went camping with friends. After careful observation, my mother agreed that I could play with the children in the camp next to us. They had a camper, and being attracted to any kind of enclosure that I could explore at an intimate scale, I really wanted to join them for lunch. I told the children and the children’s grandmother that my name was Alice. And I pretended to be this girl named Alice all throughout the peanut butter sandwiches, tag, and the coveted tour of the camper. My mother watched from our camp. I made up semi-fictitious stories about our life in New York as we played. I liked mixing real life observation with fiction. I mean, we were playing ...

After two hours of being called Alice I was outed by my dad. He just laughed and laughed. I can still see him, with dark hair and a striped shirt, holding his stomach with laughter and looking down at me, saying: “So, Alice, huh? I thought your favorite name was Cindy.” I remember this day vividly and truly think this is when I started writing. It was also that summer that my parents figured out that some mixture of an artistic practice was essential for me as I grew up. I was a lucky kid.

from Helen Crawford's blog (full link here).

Philip: In the examples cited above, did you write first and then create the visual element? Or paint/draw first, then write? What did you notice about either activity immediately after moving from one into the other?

Helen: Writing is parallel to drawing and painting. "The Lure of Empty Places" is an ongoing piece about growing up on a dense, urban island two blocks away from the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean salt marshes, and estuaries. The line between the city owned concrete and beginning of the sea was so sharp. Once we stepped into the tall grass, there was a freedom, and yet a foreboding sense of violation. We weren’t supposed to be there, yet we could not help the curiosity. The cadence of words and imagery in the writing influences the mood of my abstract landscape paintings. A string of fast words may become an image of red in my mind, and then it takes on a new life in paint. This story has generated a whole series of paintings.

Moving between writing and painting is a strange activity for me. Sometimes one phrase or sentence from a story will stick in my head as I paint. I will sing it as a whisper inside my mind over and over again like this: the lure of empty places.... then maybe just the word "lure," and then "lure" gets stretched out like a line, and then maybe makes a color. Like purple. Right now it seems a light, translucent violet, slightly grey, and medium cool.

New stories come to me while painting, too. My notebook is always next to me in the studio and I write a few words down each day. Lately, the music is off when I am working because I want to catch the story when it comes without distraction, and that is so tough for me because I am a music nut.

Philip: The Lure of Empty Places seems to be drawn from previous written entries, implying a process of revision, or at least re-seeing. Do you revise and reconsider the writing? And how does that compare to similar processes in your visual work?

Helen: They may share a cadence, a color, or a mood. The writing, like paint, builds up over time. I do not paint or write in a linear fashion, meaning the final goal of the writing or the painting is not completely set. I think this is where these two separate acts are the most similar to me. Yet in the end, the painting is meant to stand without the writing. The painting becomes something else, and the writing becomes something else.

 from Helen Crawford's blog (full link here).

Philip: I see a lot of physical description in the writing - colors, objects, textures, quality of light - which one might expect from an artist. But there's also dialogue, gesture, place, a sense of scene. What are your thoughts on how these elements are or are not present in your paintings and drawings?

Helen:  Small bits of dialogue between characters in writing helps set an overall mood for a whole series. Sometimes, I think that is where the pencil comes in to the work. After the few weeks of painting, and completing a work via the paint, I draw on the painted surface with soft, black 8B graphite. Sometimes I use water to soften the lines. But they are sharp, and do not erase. I like this danger. I like this form of writing on the work. It’s like the process comes full circle through drawing. Also, it’s wonderful to hear what someone feels when standing in front of a finished, painted work. It always sounds like some awesome piece of rock and roll starts playing out loud when one person sees something in the work that may have a parallel component in the writing. 

Philip: In this back and forth movement as artist-writer-artist, what have you learned about your own creative process in particular? And about the creative process in general?

Helen: I’ve learned that my process is a slow process and that I must always give into the work and listen to it. That means that everything I do on a daily basis is part of the work.  It means I have more than four canvases in progress at all times. Words flow all day. I write them down, and keep doing other things. Colors come to mind, and I try to figure out what paint mixture that would be, and write it down. I’m sure all this will change, and grow in different ways. I really hope for that.

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