Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Writing about Works of Art

The novel I'm writing is about an ex-priest who starts an art gallery, so I have to write lots of scenes about art with lots of works of art. In some ways, the art pieces are like characters. They have physical characteristics. The main character interacts with them. They have to be believable. Did I mention I have to write about a lot of art work?

Art critics describe art all the time. If you ever find yourself with my predicament and need inspiration for writing about art work, imagined or not, pick up some art books. I mentioned Albert Elsen's excellent textbook The Purposes of Art in another blog post. An art book Nawaaz Ahmed loaned (well, now gave) me is a more casual look at contemporary art called The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa by Michael Kimmelman. Whereas Elsen looks at art from a social and economic purpose point of view, Kimmelman looks at art in relation to his (and, by extension, our) life.

Here's a description Kimmelman wrote about Ray Materson's art:
... Ray Materson sewed portraits of ballplayers in New England. As a nine-year-old Little Leaguer in 1963, he idolized the great New York Yankee team of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, and Whitey Ford. Thirty years later, Materson was in prison in Connecticut, serving a fifteen-year sentence for armed robbery. He took up embroidery, of all things, improvising with the rim of a plastic plate to make an embroidery hoop. Materson embroidered with unraveled sock and shoelace threads, using scraps of boxer shorts for backing. He sewed sports logos, flags, a group portrait of his prison baseball team, but most strikingly, pictures of his former Yankee heroes. They're each about three inches by two inches, smaller than baseball cards, 1,200 stitches per square inch: miniature portraits of amazing delicacy, each of which took him about fifty hours to complete. He embroidered a picture of Mantle swinging for the upper deck; Tony Kubek scooping up a grounder at shortstop, the bleachers behind him packed with fans; and Clete Boyer crouching at third base, baked by sunlight, casting a shadow toward the outfield. In Materson's embroidered memories, it remained 1963. The Yankees were still facing the Dodgers in the World Series, which they hadn't yet lost, and Materson was not yet in prison but nine years old and playing in the Little League on a perfect autumn afternoon that seemed like it would last forever. Materson, a lost soul, became an artist not despite his difficult circumstances but because of them.
Kimmelman paints a complete portrait of the artist and the artist's relationship to his work. The short story in this paragraph makes the artist come to life through the description of the process of making embroidery.

The Accidental Masterpiece helped me find better ways to describe art work. It also informed some of the ways my main character looks at art in relationship to his own life. While you're anxiously awaiting the publication of my book, read The Accidental Masterpiece.

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