Three mutual muses

A collaboration of artists on poems and paintings

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Collaboration is the mother of invention for poets Emily Wall and Alexis Easley and painter Elise Tomlinson.

Inspired by Tomlinson's vivid oil paintings, the two writers created a body of work for a collaborative show, "Tell Me What You See," opening Friday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. Tomlinson, in turn, also created several paintings inspired by her friends' poems.

"I've worked collaboratively before but never like this," said Easley, an assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast. "It was really fun. Usually writing poetry is very lonely business. This was very interactive - you don't feel like you're trapped in your own perspective."

"We really fed each other and a lot of energy evolved out of it," said Wall, who teaches creative writing, literature and composition at UAS. "I can get in a rut sometimes and they gave me such a wealth of things to work on."

Tomlinson will display a dozen of her colorful, narrative paintings in the gallery at the museum. Two poems, one by each writer, will accompany each painting. The writers also created five additional poems interactively.

The three began the project a year ago without any agenda or theme in mind.

"We said the only rule we had was that we could do anything," Wall said.

Tomlinson, an assistant professor of library and information science at UAS, has a BFA in printmaking and oil painting. She created several paintings to get the ball rolling, figuring it would be easier to write a poem based on a painting than vice versa. A theme quickly emerged.


"All of the paintings were of women and all the poems deal with fairly women-centered issues," Wall said. "We don't want people thinking this is a feminist man-hating show at all, because it's not."

Poems dealing with spirituality, body image, love, grief, mythology and stories of their mothers and grandmothers emerged. Tomlinson was surprised at some of the things the writers read into her paintings.

"People bring a lot of personal experiences into things," she said. "I painted one about a woman flying through air; they thought she was swimming through water. I like it when people don't see it the same way I do."

The artists were careful not to influence each other too much at first. Easley said the poets generated a ton of material based on the paintings and asked for feedback from the others only after a first draft had been created. They gleaned the best poems and then worked together on revising and rewriting.


"The writing started very descriptively and became more abstract and more like the essence of the piece, trying to capture a mood or emotion," Easley said.

Tomlinson said it was a real challenge to create a painting based on a poem.

"I tried to distill it into a snapshot," she said. "It was like watching a moving picture and trying to represent that in one image."

"It was kind of delightful to see how she would take a single image out of a whole poem," Easley said. "One (poem) had a person's hands with silver rings on the fingers, and she pulled that out."

Tomlinson said her work tends to feature figures, usually women, and she tries to paint scenes or stories that are open to interpretation - hence the term narrative painting. Many of her women have red, blue or orange skin, something that evolved as she developed as an artist.

"Being Caucasian I would paint Caucasians, but when I painted people of other ethnicities, people would ask, 'What are you trying to say here? Is this some kind of political statement?' " she said.


"I wanted to get away from realistic colors so it's not a factor," she said. "Now I just like painting bright, colorful women with undulating forms. I can paint very realistic portraits and figures but to me it's much more exciting to paint a different reality, a different spectrum."

Both of the poets have published work and read poetry aloud, but displaying poetry in a gallery is a first.

"It's an odd experience to put your poems up on the wall for the town," Wall said. "They are me, but I don't want people to take the stories literally. A lot of the poems are written in personas, so 'I' doesn't mean me or Alexis."

All three recommend the collaborative process and they're offering a free workshop on collaboration, drawing from their experience with this project, Dec. 8 at the city museum.

Easley said the experience made her look at where her ideas come from.

"Some (came) from the painting, some from things I'm reading and teaching," she said. "The poem was never just about the painting."

The exhibit begins with a public reception with the artists from 4:30-8 p.m. Friday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. The show will run through Jan. 5.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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