Many years ago, when I was revising a novel, I spent a week at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.
This wonderful artist’s haven was in its infancy on my first visit. Originally, the center provided studio space for fine artists only, but one winter, they decided to include writers for a retreat limited to Vermont residents.
Jane Bryant and I, the two writers, bonded immediately. But it was also a thrill to write in companionship with visual artists whose work influenced my writing in unexpected ways. While the artists had spacious studios, we writers worked in our bedrooms—which was fine, since we only needed a desk and chair. Mealtimes gave us the chance to share ideas about art, the artist’s life, and our sources of inspiration. I learned that all artists would share their work in open studios on the final day of our residency. Jane and I offered to give a reading one evening and we announced that our “studio bedrooms” would also be open for visits.
Beyond the words on paper or on the screen, Jane and I didn’t have much to show our visitors. I laid out drafts of my novel on the floor, to illustrate how the placement and structure of scenes had changed during revision. The artist Emily Bissell Laird, whose work I admired, opened my door and stared at the pages on the floor. “Where’s the color?” she asked.
Emily was referring to the bland palette of black ink on white paper, but her question struck a strong chord. Where was the color, indeed? Her own work was—and still is—fanciful and highly colorful. After she left, I thought about my novel. Had I included color in my descriptions of character and setting? I spent time in Emily’s studio, then went back through my novel to add varying color tones, as if I were choosing from her multi-colored tubes of paint.
During that week, I also visited Kathleen Kolb’s studio. She was working on a series of landscape paintings focused on rural houses at night. In her paintings, the yellow glow from the windows cast interesting shadows on the snow and suggested warmth in contrast to Vermont’s bitter cold. Like Kathleen, I had often wondered about the people behind lit windows as I drove down lonely roads in the dark. Who lived in those houses? What were their hopes, dreams, fears, and troubles? Studying Kolb’s work made me want to take a deeper look at the interplay of light and shadows in my characters’ lives.
When we meet in our residencies at Hamline, or when we share work in a writer’s group, we focus on writing as an isolated form. But the week I spent on that retreat reminded me that the membrane between fine arts, music, writing, and other art forms is porous. The rise in graphic novels is an exciting example of this blending.
Like Laura Ruby and Jackie Briggs Martin, who wrote in recent posts about the need to get the Butt Out of the Chair, I also work through writing problems when I take a fast walk, swim, or work in the garden. But if I’m in search of ideas or inspiration, I often discover it in other art forms. On a visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I stood in front of Gauguin’s enormous painting entitled, “D’où sommes-nous? Qui sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?” The painting suggested a way into a lecture I was writing for a Hamline residency on setting.
Although I need silence when I write, I hear music in my head that often ends up in my fiction. A few nights ago, my husband and I heard Boston’s Symphony Orchestra play Steven Stucky’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, After Purcell.” The piece opens with a funereal march, the deep-throated boom of the timpani joined with the lowest notes plucked on a harp. As the hair rose on the back of my neck, I knew how to deepen a scene where my novel’s narrator learns of his father’s death.
My novel about vaudeville, a long-time work in progress, was inspired by the story of my grandmother, whose parents eloped to become vaudeville performers, and by the songs my grandparents used to sing. Now that books can be read electronically, I hope that future readers might link to the songs I mention in my stories. I’d like them to hear Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” as my character might sing it. (Check out this beautiful rendition by YoYo Ma and James Taylor.)
On Sunday night, I sat glued to the television, watching the tribute to the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What struck me—in addition to the stunning musicianship, the quality of the performances and, of course, the brilliance of the songs themselves—was the interplay between words, music, and art. The haunting melody of “Yesterday” is beautiful on its own, but the union of lyrics and tune brings the song to perfection. The linked artistry of lighting, sound, and visual effects brought the audience to its feet many times. And in fact, the sparks from that performance lit a small fire in my mind, giving me the idea for this blog post.
Liza Ketchum is the author of seventeen books for young people, including The Life Fantastic (F+W Media, 2016), Out of Left Field (Untreed Reads, 2014) and Newsgirl (Viking, 2009), nominated for the Massachusetts Book Award and a Boston Authors Club “Highly Recommended” book. Her novel in two voices,Where the Great Hawk Flies, won the 2006 Massachusetts Book Award for Children’s Literature and the Boston Authors Club/Julia Ward Howe Prize for Young Readers. Visit Liza’s website for more.
Liza is retired from Hamline’s faculty.