On Saturday October 1, Art on the Boulevard in Fort Worth, Texas, will display the work of 12 writers and 12 visual artists working in silent collaborations with one another’s work for the FIFTH annual Art & Words Show. Holy shit, guys. I’ve been curating this thing for five years. I couldn’t be more proud and psyched.
Art & Words started out as a project for my MFA in Creative Writing from University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. As part of the requirement, I had to write an academic paper related to the project. I chose “A Brief History of Collaboration.” It’s a long, academic-style paper that no one really wants to read. Basically, the best part of the whole thing is when I talk about cool writer-artist collaborations. I’ll just skip the boring parts.
So there you have it. Below you’ll find what I think are the 7 Best Collaborations Between Writers and Artists. (With all those pesky caveats: there are so many damn cool collaborations I haven’t found yet. Leave links in the comments if you want me to check one out!)
1. Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson’s Agrippa
Agrippa is an artists’ book containing a semi-autobiographical electronic poem on a floppy disc programmed to encrypt itself after one use. The project was conceived and created by painter Dennis Ashbaugh and fiction writer William Gibson. The book pages were treated with photosensitive chemicals that faded when the book was first exposed to light.
In the Art Journal article “Interactions Between Artists and Writers,” Ashbaugh said that “the notion of preserving one’s own artistic identity on a project like Agrippa would…seem absurd in retrospect.” Gibson agreed: “In an optimal collaboration, the collaborators enter a territory influenced by (as Mr. Burroughs has it) ‘the third man.’ Like Mr. Burroughs, I regard collaboration as an inherently ‘magical act.’ If I felt that my ‘artistic identity was preserved during the collaboration,’ I would feel that Dennis Ashbaugh had simply illustrated my work. This was not at all the case.”
This collaboration is one of my favorites for two reasons: 1. how fucking cool is a book that destroys itself? And 2. I love this “third man” concept (though I prefer the phrase “Third Entity”) that collaborations don’t merely combine two (or more) people’s work but create their own identity.
Google it and see for yourself.
2. Salvador Dalí’s Alice in Wonderland Suite
When Dali illustrated Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice in Wonderland in 1969, it became one of the most sought-after Dalí suites. I’ve never been as pumped about Alice in Wonderland as I am about other children’s stories. I suspect that’s because the Disney cartoon freaked me out as a kid (it was the talking flowers that did it). But when I first saw this suite in person in Montmartre at Espace Dalí, I was mesmerized by Dalí’s Wonderland interpretation and his depiction of Alice.
Until recently, the suite was only available in rare, expensive volumes. Thanks to the 150th Anniversary Edition from Princeton University Press, you can purchase a copy for under $25.
3. Jeff Vandermeer and Eric Schaller’s “The Exchange”
In Jeff Vandermeer and Eric Schaller’s “The Exchange”—a short story pamphlet released as a chapbook in August 2008, reprinted in City of Saints and Madmen—the illustrations make the story.
Set in Vandermeer’s Ambergris city, “The Exchange” is told through the point-of-view of a stranger watching through a window as an elderly couple shares a meal and exchanges strange gifts. The narrative progresses through both the words and the subtle art: two squids decorating either side of images that appear at first to be ornamental and then reveal themselves as metaphors for the couple’s dynamic.
When asked about what challenges he faced during the production of “The Exchange,” Schaller wrote: “It took a little while for me to settle on what the actual images would be in the artwork. I am a firm believer that the artwork should work in tandem with the story, and not simply recapitulate information present in the story itself. The reason that this presented an initial challenge is that Jeff’s story is very visual, thus illustrations could easily be superfluous. What I resolved to do was to concentrate almost entirely upon the characters and have the illustrations reflect their emotional state and their responses to the environment.” (“A Decadent & Obfuscatory Interview with the Artist, Eric Schaller,” Oivas)
In City of Saints and Madmen, “The Exchange” appears accompanied by comments on the relationship between the fictional writer–artist pair whose names decorate the pamphlet cover. The academic-style text analyzes the story as a metaphor for the tumultuous relationship between the fictional writers which ended poorly.
4. Alexis Smith and Amy Gertsler’s Past Lives
Collagist Alexis Smith and poet Amy Gertsler admit to their own “Third Entity” experience collaborating together on the 1990 installation and related book Past Lives. In that same Art Journal article, “Interactions Between Artists and Writers,” (really worth checking out if you’ve got institutional access), Gertsler says of the installation that she felt her work took on a much more visual presence after working with the artist. In the interview they both state: “One aim was that neither artist would lose her identity, but that if we collaborated successfully, the piece would have its own, resolved, kind of third identity, almost like the way an offspring of two parents might resemble both parents in certain respects, and the other parent in different ways, but is actually a completely separate individual who has never been seen before in the world,” an apt description for the “Third Entity.”
Santa Monica Museum of Art, where the installation lived in 1989, describes it this way: “Combining text with found photographs and objects, Gerstler’s and Smith’s collaborative installation played off the notion that human beings can unknowingly bestow their essence on inanimate objects, and that these objects can therefore emanate some of the poignancy and radiance of human personalities.”
This is one of those that is fairly difficult to see for yourself, since it’s not up anywhere and the book is hard to find, but you can get an idea of the installation if you Google it.
5. Matt Kish One Drawing for Every Page of Moby-Dick
Matt Kish is such a huge fan of Moby-Dick that he decided to illustrate every single page of the Signet Classic paperback. In his subsequent blog and book, One Drawing for Every Page of Moby-Dick, some paintings work on a purely aesthetic level and others benefit strongly from knowledge of the novel. Kish’s Page 550 is one of my favorites for the way it works with or without the text.
The whole project is now compiled in this handy volume. Kish’s blog, where he now illustrates other favorite literary classics, is still in operation.
6. Danez Smith and Sam Vernon’s “fall poem” & Broadsided Press
Broadsided Press is a force for both collaboration and change. Founded in 2005 by Elizabeth Bradfield, every month they publish a literary/visual collaboration in beautiful broadside form. They encourage people to not only read and view the work but to print it out and spread the collaboration far and wide.
I’m particularly moved by poet Danez Smith and artist Sam Vernon’s “fall poem,” which plays with dueling definitions of fall; the saccharine cliche of a seasonal poem becomes a metaphor for the fall of black bodies. I appreciate how an unassuming reader may find themselves surprised by this turn of phrase, in the same way that people who don’t daily fear gun violence might be surprised by the fact that many people do. I also appreciate Vernon’s surprising visual interpretation. Broadsided Press interviews the collaborators of each broadside, and Smith says of what they expected color-wise from the interpretation: “I imagined something brown & red in my head when I thought of the poem…” Vernon went with an image that is black-and-white and, as Smith describes it, “impenetrable.” Read the full interview here.
7. Rebecca Campbell and Nicole Walker’s 7 Rings: An Artist’s Game of Telephone
There’s no one contribution to this mass collaboration that strikes me more than any other; instead, I’m highly impressed by the collaboration as a whole. Described as a collaborative game, painter Rebecca Campbell and poet Nicole Walker started responding to one another’s work in private before deciding that games were more fun with more people. They started off the collaboration then invited five artists–writers, artists, musicians–to respond in 24-hour turns. The project ended in 2010 but is still housed here. Take your time with it. There’s much to hear, see, and read.
If you’re interested in my own annual collaborative Art & Words Show, read about it here, submit here every March, or come see it in person in Fort Worth, Texas on October 1.