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The creativity of responding: New book ‘Paint + Poetry’ celebrates collaboration

Bill DeYoung



Terry Brett, left, and Chip Webster. Images: St. Petersburg Press.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so will art suggest different things to different people.

Take “Two Dogs Waiting to See Me,” one of 40 poems by Chip Webster in Paint & Poetry: An Ekphrastic Journey, his book of collaborations with painter Terry Brett.

The book is a dialogue between two disciplines – abstract art and the written word. Brett and Webster would send their work back and forth, and each would then interpret what the other produced.

The word ekphrastic comes from the Greek language, meaning a poetic description of a work of art.

We can’t explain it all
The angles
The randomness
Of life
We go in one direction
We detect it is wrong
We go in another direction
It feels wrong
All of a sudden
It fits
It makes sense
It just feels right
We can’t explain it all

“The idea of the paintings was to do something that had a feel of immediacy,” Brett explained. “In other words, each one was created in less than five minutes. I do other, large paintings that take me weeks and stuff, but these were just quick little studies. Very, very immediate and impulsive, if you will.”

Some pieces in the new book from St. Petersburg Press began with the painting, some with the poem (there’s a handy key at the very end laying out the “chicken or the egg?” order of events).

“Two Dogs” was originally one of Brett’s untitled abstract studies.

“I sent it to him,” says Brett. “He texted me back and goes ‘I like this – can I flip it around? Can I turn it upside down?’ And I said ‘Do whatever you want with it!’ He turned it upside down, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look like two dogs, both looking in the same direction.

“And I told him ‘Chip, that’s a masterstroke.’”

In a separate interview, Webster described the process. “It really depended,” he said. “Some of them, I had to sit and let 24 hours go by. And others it was like ‘Wow! This is what this feels like.’”

The two friends have dinner together once a month, and it was in this context – around 2015 – that Brett told Webster about Painting Poetry, a collaboration between Tampa architect (and painter) Albert Alonso and poet Edward Mayes.

“I knew Chip was writing poetry – he had already done a book – and I started telling him about what Albert and Mayes did, a collaboration. And he was all over it,” Brett recalled.

It felt so good to think life was perfect
The whole ride would be smooth
But that was self-delusion
It has been a journey of collecting scraps
For my patchwork life
Sewing them together
With bright and dark threads
Joy of winning
Pain of losing
Reaching heights I never dreamed of
Then dreams fading into reality
Passion of love
Pain of loss
Sewn into a patchwork quilt
That keeps me warm in reflection

“Conceptually,” Webster said, “I was enthusiastic, but I didn’t know if we could get there. It just seemed like it would be a fun project. The first thing we did, he sent me five pieces of art, and I sent him five poems. We both interpreted them – is this going to work?”

The poems and paintings reflect light off one another in surprising and illuminating ways; “Moon Questions,” for example, queries a haunting grey universe, while others – “Vulnerability,” “Meeting Myself at My Own Door,” “Black and White” and “Lessons From the Interstate of Life” – are both intriguing and inscrutable. Depending on what the viewer, or the reader, is looking for.

Both men offer poetic paeans to their wives.

Brett: “I think it’s easier for somebody to put into words the feelings of intimacy, love or romance, than with a painting. But I will say that there’ a couple of them like the woman in gold that I did, or the woman in the steam bath. I’m not sure that I was trying to convey a sense of romance, per se, but more of intimacy.

Letting the moist heat penetrate her body
Penetrating her thoughts
What does she see
Others see a unique beauty
Intellectually brilliant
But what does she see through the fog on the mirror
What she sees is unimportant
What she feels says it all

“I just tried to come up with a very loose abstract, almost like a cloudy version – he came up with the steam bath, which I thought was very cool. I didn’t think she was in a steam bath, but it makes sense because she’s sitting down and it’s a little foggy.”

The process, both collaborators said, was anything but bumpy. They were both enthralled by the collaboration, what Webster calls “the creativity of responding.”

“We have refrained, big time, from judgement or critiquing,” Brett said. “I don’t claim to be an expert on the written word. I read poems, and I wish I had that part of my brain working better than it does, as far as really drilling down on the written word. I think Chip might say the same about painting.”

Webster laughed. “We were both kind enough to each other, and I’m sure he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Do I have favorites, and do I have some where I go ‘Eh, they’re OK’? Yes. But it was just the exercise. Let’s have some fun with this and see where it goes …”

Brett and Webster are planning a launch and book-signing this fall. Paint + Poetry: An Ekphrastic Journey is available at Tombolo Books, via Amazon or directly through St. Petersburg Press.

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