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Artist-Writer-Artist: Words + Art = Joy

For this latest post in the Artists-Writer-Artist series, I am pleased to present an interview with three artists who have been conducting an ‘Exquisite Corpse’ collaboration on Facebook and a blog. The project is called “Analogue Narratives,” and it relates to Mount Analogue, a classic Surrealist novel by Rene Daumal that was unfinished at the time of the author’s death. In 2010, a group of visual artists, illustrators, and film-makers decided to write their own version of how the novel might continue. Each person would write something in turn, picking up where the previous person left off, adding to the composition in sequence. Being visual artists, they also began adding drawings, paintings, and videos to some of their writing. I asked Mara Thompson, William Evertson, Lee Goldberg, and Susan Shulman about how their creative practice changed during the course of this collaboration.  

Mount Analogue is a classic surrealist novel by Rene Daumal, unfinished at the time of the author’s death. The method you and your collaborators have chosen to ‘continue’ the novel is the ‘Exquisite Corpse’, a form which was also invented by the Surrealists. Can you explain the project, and the notion of ‘exquisite corpse’ creativity?

Mara Thompson: This project's prequel was a shared reading, like a book group but on Facebook, of "The Artist at Work", the short story by Albert Camus.  We enjoyed that so much that I suggested we read Rene Daumal's “Mount Analogue,” which has been a favorite book of mine since the early 70s.  The idea of continuing the story seemed to rise of its own accord, which is the best sort of collaboration.

William Evertson: The artists involved in this collaboration were loosely networked on Facebook and began commenting on threads concerning authors who wrote about artists. If there was enough interest in a particular work we would stay on it, unpacking the meaning and even the author’s relation to the visual arts. 

One of our artists, Mara Thompson, suggested we delve into Daumal’s “Mount Analogue.”  Daumal’s unfinished work uses the work of mountain climbing as a metaphor for the search for enlightenment.  In our case the discussions centered on the similarities to artistic practice as well. It seemed a good fit, and at one point Ria Vanden Eynde from Belgium posted: “We should finish the story ourselves, seriously. Someone starts with a sentence. The next one adds a sentence and so on, ‘till we get a whole damn book."

So off we went, more or less in the manner of ‘exquisite corpse’.  To clarify a bit, if we were strictly working within AndrĂ© Breton’s original surrealist format, the participants would not be privy to the entirety of what the previous author posted.  In our case, we are interrupting our usual narrative process by having to react to how the previous writer has changed the story arc. 

from "Analogue Narratives"
Was this the first time you have worked extensively with writing? If so, what did you discover about the process of writing as you went along?

Mara Thompson: I have long been interested in using words with my art making.   Words inspire me, as does the concept of mail art.  Using Facebook made the flights of fancy easy and instant. Adding illustrations arose like the story did, naturally and celebrated by all involved.

William Evertson: I’m a tentative writer at best, and this is certainly my most prolonged effort.  I’ve made artist’s books that have included small fragments of writing as well as small works that have been submitted to Matthew Rose’s ongoing A Book About Death series of exhibits.  These were short stories or poems tucked into the middle of a double-sided postcard.  I’ve also written on the subject of art.

The experience of writing Analogue Narratives is very different precisely because we are all visual artists trekking into another creative realm.  The work here, if you can call it that, has given me better insight into my creative process in general.  I call attention to the word “work” because I’ve discovered that the writing actually revolves more around play or freedom.  In fact this creative fictional writing approaches the way my visual art making works more than anything I’ve written in the past.  Certainly the deeper and more involved I get into this project, the more I appreciate the actual nuts and bolts craft involved in writing as a creative pursuit.

Lee GoldbergI did participate in one other group writing project many years ago that was not finished. This was a different kind of challenge because of the nature of including visuals along with the story. I became less intimidated by my lack of skills as the story progressed.

Susan Shulman: A few years ago, I wrote extensively for a project called In Our Memories Forever. It took about five years and consisted of a solo exhibition, a book of my reflections and creative process, nine original oil paintings, and the translation of about eighty letters that my grandfather sent my grandmother in 1900 from Russia to New York and Montreal. You can say this was my lead into mail art without being aware of it. I painted, researched and wrote my thoughts about the letters. It has become apparent to me that my art is a way of story telling. My work is very biographical and as I paint or draw, I write my thoughts and weave the story. The writing becomes the extension of the medium I use. It is part of my process. Until you posed this particular question, I was not even conscious of my process. I feel at times like a scribe but with the addition of new technology.

What would make you decide to include a visual element in some of your written contributions, and not others?

Mara Thompson: Mood and humor can be expressed succinctly with images. Some turns of phrase seemed to invite the visual, and eventually we began to create visuals in advance of the story. We made the illustrations first and then wrote the  story to match them.

William Evertson: The art arises very spontaneously. It’s certainly not required, but since all our writers are artists first, certain passages seem to evoke a desire to emphasize a passage with a visual element.  Quite often we are providing a visual comment on someone else’s written passage.  This is one of the few things that we feel comfortable adding at a later date to the blog. 

Lee GoldbergThere seemed to be some things that were a bit beyond my scope but with all the others involved there has been no problem with visuals. My ideas would come from my entries and also from the others. The people in the group are very good writers and paint pictures with their words.

Susan Shulman: A word or sentence would turn a switch in my brain and I would immediately see the idea come to life. Not clearly, but there’d be a hint of colour or imagery and off I would go. Most of my writing is accompanied with a visual. It could be a complex painting or just a simple sketch, but somehow that is how I make my mark or stamp. My contemplations are visual, and necessary to imagine and work out the final piece.

from "Analogue Narratives"
Was the writing process purely spontaneous, or were you ever tempted to revise or rewrite?

Mara Thompson: Sometimes my contributions were worked out first, and copied or pasted into the Facebook Note which initially captures our story.  But this was done only for the ease of working outside of Facebook and its sometimes annoying habit of posting things before you are done with writing them.  Sometimes I'd type directly into the Note.  I liken this writing to how I approach mail art -- using the spontaneity as a loosening of the inner critic, a way of circumventing the tendency to edit.

William Evertson: The writing is very spontaneous and despite some of the completely deus ex machina resolutions to situations we simply move forward with the understanding that we are completing a Surrealist’s tale.  Very little re-writing is done.  To back up a moment: the story still continues to be written on the same Facebook Note where it started. Periodically, it gets cut and pasted into a blog post.  The blog was begun simply as a way to archive the work on Facebook as well as to place the visual elements that are created along the way.  Spelling is sometimes corrected, although with our group puns and deliberate misspellings seem to be common.

Lee Goldberg: Mostly spontaneous, though there were times I'd get an idea and work it over in my mind until it was ready to enter the story.

Susan Shulman: My writing is usually spontaneous. I may check some spellings and I have to admit that in "Analogue Narratives - Tales of the Blues" I use the thesaurus more than I ever did! It has been a great excuse to enhance my vocabulary. I am always writing about my symbolism and ideas in most of my creations. Another example would be the current exhibitions of "A Book About Death," which you can say is a global collaboration of artists from around the world united with the theme of death. I have been a contributor since 2009, since its launch in New York City and have contributed to over 20 shows. All the original mail art pieces that I create have imagery on one side and text on the reverse. Again, this is part of my process to express my art and my world to others figuratively and literally.

What did you discover about collaboration?

Mara Thompson: That it's incredible fun!  We all met, or most of us did, through the project "A Book About Death" by Matthew Rose.   After the initial ABAD show in New York City there were lots of extra postcards left.  I volunteered to take those cards and stage a Los Angeles show with them.  This was the beginning of the multiple ABAD shows around the world.  Many close artistic friendships arose from that involvement.

William Evertson: For the most part this group is used to the trust involved in collaborative work.  Or perhaps there is no dominant ego driving the project in a particular direction.  This particular group came together as a result of group shows or a prior history of collaboration.  Three of us (Susan Shulman of Canada, Ria Vanden Eynde of Belgium and myself) already collaborate as The Seeking Kali Artist Collective.  I think of particular interest here is the fact that we have collaborators of different nationalities and countries working with social media platforms, including Facebook, Skype and now G+ to create this body of fiction.

Lee Goldberg: Collaborating can be a very rewarding, creative process. It could also go all over the place and become very disjointed at times. The surrealistic nature of the story allowed the narrative to take many twists and turns that would not work in any other format.

Susan Shulman: I discovered that collaborating with the right people is exciting and gets my creative juices flowing! It is so exhilarating to share ideas and express art together in a warm and inspiring environment with authentic people whose only modus operandi is the sharing of art and creativity. The biggest collaboration I have is with William Evertson and Ria Vanden Eynde in the Seeking Kali Project. We have been collaborating from Belgium, USA and Canada for over a year seamlessly and with passion and vim. The creative energy between us is electrifying.

from "Analogue Narratives"
When you returned to your studio work after contributing to this project, what did you notice about your process of making visual art?

Mara Thompson: My ideas that arise in the story are continued in longer form in my studio work.

William Evertson: Lately I’ve been much more aware of my role as part of the ecosystem of art making.  Personally I seem to be moving in a direction where, while I’m satisfied with my own practice and the products of my own hand, I am learning to embrace the random and chance elements that creep into projects that evolve over months and years. 

Lee Goldberg: I've changed many things for this work and in some of the other work I'm doing. I'm learning (slowly) to use the computer to do more of my work. My printer has always been an important tool, now it is even more so.

Susan Shulman: I notice that there is overlap. That now when I am creating new art, I am influenced by the creativity of other artists. I am thinking of how each piece can be seen in different lights and the impact these other artists have had on my world. I am constantly exploring and learning about new mediums and media as well as my own artistic transitions.

What are some things you have learned about your own creative process (written and visual) and the creative process in general as a result of this project? 

Mara Thompson: To trust the muse even more, to stay loose in the process of creation.  I am a process artist, enjoying the making as much as or more than the finished project.

William Evertson: "Analogue Narratives" has proven to be a wonderful escape hatch.  I think it’s important for our growth as visual artists to look around the rest of the creative landscape and see what’s out there.  Try a different medium, combine different media, explore and keep a beginners mind to our art practice.

Lee Goldberg: I've learned that I'm more compulsive than I'd previously thought. I believe that's a good thing, as it allows me to get a lot more work done, and it'salso leading me to other avenues in my work.  As far as my writing goes, I still do not consider myself a writer -- there are just things I need to say that I don't have images available to make the same point.

Susan Shulman: I am eagerly involved in the "Analogue Narratives" collaboration. I am testing my creativity each week in words or visuals. It is a rich experience. It pushes the envelope for me, edging me outside my limitations. I feel like I am going to the school of Mount Analogue and it’s amazing! I can draw, animate, create videos, oil paint, use Photoshop, write, and experiment. That is the key word for me: experimentation. We all give each other encouragement. We are comrades in art. Analogue Narratives is a creative platform that we all bounce off of safely. The other collaborators are the nets. I look forward to writing twists and turns and waiting for the other artists to direct it into another place. It is exhilarating and full of surprises. There is never a dull moment on the mountain.  It is stimulating and uplifting to be collaborating with such a versatile and generous group of artists. This collaboration has created positive endorphins for all of us in the group. I feel that this project could be classified as my performance piece. It crosses all mediums and uses all parts of the body, as if I am artistically dancing with a new art form. It feels like I have transcended into a well-crafted virtual world, where I can play with the process of art in visual presentation as well as storytelling forms, granting me the greatest gift. Words + Art = Joy

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