A while ago, someone wrote that my every project is A Happening. Over the years, my work has been described in similar terms. I love to incorporate spontaneity and improvisation in my public performances and recordings but also in my writing and photographic process. One reason so many of my projects are collaborative with other artists is that they bring something new to the work that I would not and probably could not. Serendipity. I love that magic.
There’s a lot to be said for collaborating with other artists to create joint projects. When a collaboration works well, each artist brings to the project something the other partners may not and the project benefits by becoming fuller and richer. Like the amalgum that binds concrete together, turning sand and gravel into something solid and permanent, this amalgum of artists’ ideas and skills brings any arts project strength and durability. For each artist, there’s an added bonus. The project becomes something very special that none of the participants could have created on his or her own and, in the process, each grows and diversifies as an artist.
For most of my career in the arts, I’ve been involved in projects that are collaborative to a greater or lesser degree. It’s been a very enriching experience to work with actors, other writers, musicians, visual artists, and a variety of artists working in other disciplines. I’ve learned a great deal from my partners in these projects and I believe the’ve also learned and grown in the process. Creating together, we’ve made some wonderful, exciting art. Let me give you some examples. (The included links will give you more details of each collaborative project.)
For just over two weeks in 1973, the Sarnia Art Gallery presented a visual-arts exhibition based on my poetry. Visual artists and sculptors from across Ontario were approached to select from and provide visual representations of my work. My poems were printed and displayed on the gallery walls beside the relevant art-works. A chapbook titled “Audio-Visuals” published by the gallery served as a catalogue of the poems and visual art in the show. Recordings of my poems, spoken and sung, played in the gallery throughout the exhibition. At the opening of the exhibition, musicians Cilla and Gordon Leigh played and sang some poems while I performed some spoken-word over music. As well, several live sets were played by a jazz band.
In 1993, three musicians, two other readers, and I performed a retrospective of my writing in the Baby Grand, a black-box theatre in Kingston, Ontario. When “Beyond the Light” completed its run, three of us decided to continue and formed the group Poem de Terre to perform poetry spoken and sung over music. From that point forward, Poem de Terre evolved a unique repertoire of original material as well as new interpretations of music and spoken word pieces previously performed or recorded by other artists. For 18 years, Poem de Terre performed in live concerts and recordings that transcend genre. As much as the music, words were central to Poem de Terre’s performances, presenting compelling stories and ideas in an exotic blend of sounds and images unique to this Canadian performance collective. Over the years Poem de Terre featured more than fifty artists, each artist bringing to the performance his or her own creative sensibility that subtly changed the performance and clarity of the message.
On Sunday, August 17, 2008, printmaker and letterpress publisher Hugh Walter Barclay brought together a group of like-minded artists, including me, to produce what he termed the One Day Wonder. In just one day, nine people – writers, graphic designers, printmakers, letterpress printers – wrote, hand-typeset, created illustrations, printed on letterpress, and bound a limited edition of 62 numbered copies of one book of prose fiction entitled “A Beautiful Day to Be Dead” (Thee HellBox Press). There wasn’t one thing about this collaboration that wasn’t just wonderful.
In 2013, I was at a poetry reading in the public gallery of The Artel, an artist cooperative in Kingston, where the paintings and charcoal drawings of Sharlena Wood were being exhibited. In her abstract images I immediately recognized the pine forests and burned out mountainsides I had seen travelling through The Rockies more than a half century ago. Though Sharlena’s work was not at all figurative, I recognized these images immediately. I needed to contact her and ask about her sources. Sharlena was as surprised as I was to learn I had understood just what she was painting: mountainside forests burning and burnt and greening. Like me, she had spent some living among our western mountains. A while later, I learned about an international competition for books about mountains and mountain experiences. Having been raised in and around Canada’s western mountain ranges, I felt the competition was a perfect fit for me. Immediately I thought of Sharlena’s work and contacted her. Like me, she was excited at the prospect of creating a book combining my poems and her images. We decided to go ahead.
Sharlena could have made images to illustrate my poems. I could have written poems to describe her images. She and I agreed neither approach would achieve what we wanted to accomplish. Neither medium should be descriptive of the other. Instead, my poems and her images should complement each other, each carrying forward the central theme of the story on a path parallel to the other. I explored my family’s travels and camping life in The Rockies and the mountain ranges of B.C. in the Fifties and very early Sixties of the last century. Sharlena selected existing works and created new ones that would fit the overall theme of the book. Throughout this creative process she and I shared with each other what we were doing and consulted with one another. When we both felt we were done, we got together several times and selected the final matches and layout together. We’re both experienced professional designers but Sharlena took the lead on the overall design of the book while consulting regularly with me. Ours was an ideal collaboration and in the end it produced a beautiful experience for both of us and a beautiful book.
If you are an artist in any discipline or genre, give collaboration a try. Create something special with an artist who makes a different sort of art than you do. I believe you’ll find it a very enjoyable and enriching experience. Even if you’re not an artist yourself, seek out and explore works created by artists working in collaboration with each other. You may discover something quite amazing.