Poetry and Painting Combine for a Beautiful Show
by Elisa Turner
Turner, Elisa. “Poetry and Painting Combine for a Beautiful Show.” The Miami Herald 21 October 2007. M3.
For Miami painter John Bailly and poet Richard Blanco, home is a state of mind, a world packed with wild and wonderful memories, no matter its physical location.
Place of Mind is their haunting and quietly beautiful collaborative show now at the downtown Main Library of the Miami-Dade County Public Library System. It combines Blanco’s poetry with Bailly’s paintings and artworks on paper. Drinking buddies and friends in Miami for years, they worked together for two years to create this show, which bubbled up from shared bottles of cranberry vodka and spirited conversations about the meaning of home.
“We had a fun time doing this. It’s our journey, sharing this sense of not belonging anywhere and feeling that we could belong anywhere,” says Bailly.
‘I’m still waiting for someone to tell me, ‘Richard, your plane is waiting to take you home now.’ There’s a paradise out there somewhere. Or not,” adds Blanco.
Place of Mind is a show to peruse with the mind and eye. Poet and painter invite you to travel with their artistic imagination as a tour guide.
Bailly’s artworks on paper often describe bridges, such as in Guantánamo. It’s not clear what this bridge connects, and shadowy shapes of people and words layer this artwork. They are hard to identify and resist a logical explanation. If you squint, you may make out these futile words in Guantánamo: “I’ve calculated the world with x’s and y’s” — a statement brimming with false confidence.
Your eye can wander among the interlacing veins of color and map-like shapes in Bailly’s mixed-media painting, Los Hermanos Islets. Stare at this subtle painting long enough and you will find that your memories of world maps begin to merge with what you see in his layers of paint, color and texture. Shapely reminders of the Mediterranean Sea and the coastal edge of North Africa interrupt a dense network of criss-crossing lines. Red circles stamped with the letter “U” are bold interruptions. The scattered circles create ana odd, almost threatening reminder that you’re not really looking at a map.
“The U’s are a chain reaction of uranium when the atom bomb goes off,” says Bailly. “We build up a whole world and then destroy it for some reason.”
Like the red circles in Los Hermanos Islets, poems by Blanco add another layer of texture and meaning to Bailly’s art. Place of Mind is about these mutually illuminating connections. Visual art by Bailly gives library visitors another way to “read” Blanco’s evocative poems, which are mounted on large placards throughout the exhibit.
Lines in Blanco’s poem Crossing Boston Harbor reverberate in your mind as you explore this exhibit. He writes: “The ferry’s chine makes an incision across the bay, its churned waters bleed a wake of lustrous blue / behind us as we head west, scanning the coastline. So much of my life is spent like this — suspended, moving toward unknown places and names or / returning to those I know, corresponding with / the paradox of crossing, being nowhere yet here.”
For Blanco and Bailly, those contradictory feelings that home can be anywhere and nowhere arise from their very Miami, very multicultural backgrounds. Bailly was born in England and grew up in France. ‘When I came to the U.S., I could only read and write ‘cat’ in English. With my French family, I’ve always been the American. With my American family, I’m always French, never fitting in anywhere.”
Blanco’s personal experience echoes Bailly’s. “I’m a mutt like him,” the poet says. His mother left Cuba for Spain when she was several months pregnant. Blanco was born in Madrid, and after barely a month his family moved to New York and later to Miami.
“So by the time I was 45 days old I could claim citizenship in three different countries,” Blanco laughs. “I was 5 years old when I came to Miami. … I don’t feel Cuban, I don’t feel European, I don’t feel American.”
The fluid sense of identity shared by poet and painter plays out in the way this exhibit is organized. There isn’t a clear-cut relationship between poems and paintings mounted next to each other. “I never wanted to make a painting about one of his poems and I don’t think he wanted to make a poem about one of my paintings,” Bailly says.
Blanco concurs. Their collaboration was extremely casual. “It was very refreshing to see it visually, and reinterpret the poems,” says Blanco.
Place of Mind builds upon a rich tradition of collaboration between writers and visual artists. A handsome companion show is in the Main Library’s gallery on the second floor. Stargaze and Other Tales, or More Artist-Poet Collaborations contains remarkable books from the permanent collection of the Miami-Dade Public Library System, including books with Miami connections, like 17 paintings with details and text by Lynne Golob Gelfman and Amy Cappellazzo, and The Thorns are Green my Friend by Lourdes Gomez Franca and Pablo Cano.