Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S10 E21 | FULL EPISODE

Imagine Van Gogh, Tracy K. Smith, and more

"Imagine Van Gogh" makes its debut in Boston at the iconic SoWa Power Station. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy K Smith discusses her latest publication, "Such Color: New and Selected Poems."

AIRED: January 07, 2022 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> When you look at all those details,

what you will see is that Vincent van Gogh was painting

with very straight brushstrokes.

>> BOWEN: I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,

we get immersed in the world of van Gogh.

Then Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith

processing our times in poetry.

>> You cannot see the mothership in space,

It and she being made of the same thing.

>> BOWEN: Plus the storybook career of artist

and activist Ekua Holmes.

>> Truth is always the right way to go.

>> BOWEN: And we meet an artist who literally connected the dots

as a pioneer in digital art.

>> He did more than anyone else to explore the parameters

of what was possible.

>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.

♪ ♪

First up, from starry skies to sunflowers,

Vincent van Gogh's paintings have long captivated art lovers

in museums around the world.

Now, we can virtually step into those works

thanks to larger-than-life immersive projections.

It's the concept of Imagine van Gogh.

For the last two of his brief 37 years,

Vincent van Gogh moved to the south of France.

There, in the blazing sun, and amid flower-filled fields,

his own life as an artist bloomed.

>> You can see in his paintings that there's a lot

of positivism, probably to balance with what he experienced

in his everyday life.

>> BOWEN: Speaking to us from France,

Julien Baron is the co-director ofImagine van Gogh.

♪ ♪

Illuminating a one-time subway power station,

projections of van Gogh paintings splash

across this cavernous space.

>> People can dive into van Gogh masterpieces.

It's a journey where they can discover a panorama

of the main masterpieces in vivid colors

and in a poignant, vibrant way.

>> I think it's a feeling experience.

>> BOWEN: Annabelle Mauger is the show's co-director.

In conceiving the installation,

she's concentrated on van Gogh's end-of-life work.

That's when, struggling with ill health, the painter produced

the bulk of his paintings as he traveled throughout Provence.

>> Those last two years was when he really decided

to be a painter.

He really was the painter of all those landscape around him.

You know, Vincent van Gogh paint a dreaming landscape,

but he also paint people like you and me.

>> BOWEN: Billed as an immersive experience,

Imagine van Gogh is comprised of 57 HD video projectors

rendering the artist's work on more than 20 towering screens

accompanied by a soundtrack of classical music.

♪ ♪

But what you won't see here are van Gogh's works

strictly as he painted them.

Instead, it's van Gogh in pieces--

faces rather than figures,

flowers rather than fields,

and just a sense of the sea.

>> When you look at all those details, what you will see

is that Vincent van Gogh was painting

with very straight brushstrokes.

Sometimes it could be very violent, but at the same time,

when you take just a little distance with those details,

you will see that this painting is curved all the time.

It's very soft.

>> BOWEN: So as you're doing this, are you mindful

of changing van Gogh's work?

>> I'm very aware of that.

I always remember that I'm not an artist.

I'm a director.

The artist here is Vincent van Gogh.

>> BOWEN: The show is one of a number of immersive

van Gogh exhibitions touring the world.

It's made possible because 130 years after his death,

his work is now in the public domain.

And it's made popular by social media

and shows like Netflix's Emily in Paris.

>> This is incredible.

I feel like I'm actually in the painting.

>> BOWEN:Imagine van Gogh can be a launching pad,

Mauger says-- a way to enter into the world

as van Gogh captured it before seeing the real artwork.

>> It's another way to experience art and culture

and then if you like it, you can discover more

like reading books, go to the museum, you know?

Yesterday I was in the Harvard Museum.

I saw one of the self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh.

It was such a surprise and I was very happy to discover it.

♪ ♪

>> Earth, forgive us.

Claim us.

Let us live in humble thanks and joy.

>> BOWEN: That was Pulitzer-Prize winning poet

Tracy K. Smith reciting her translation

of "Ode to Joy"at a Handel + Haydn Society concert

last summer.

You can now read a career-spanning collection

of Smith's poems, including her most recent,

in the new volumeSuch Color.

We'll speak with the former U.S. poet laureate in a moment.

But first, a selection from her poem

"My God, It's Full of Stars."

>> When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope,

he said they operated like surgeons:

scrubbed and sheathed and papery green,

the room a clean cold, and bright white.

He'd read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,

His eyes exhausted and pink.

These were the Reagan years,

When we lived with our finger on the button

and struggled to view our enemies as children.

>> BOWEN: Tracy K. Smith, thank you so much for being with us.

>> Oh, thank you.

>> BOWEN: Well, we just heard from some of your poem,

"My God, It's Full of Stars."

Tell me about that piece.

>> That was a poem that I wrote in 2009.

It was part of a project of poems that were thinking about

science fiction as a device for thinking about America

in the present tense--

you know, distance between people, disconnection.

I was asking the question,

"If we don't change, where will we be

in, you know, some unforeseeable future?"

And the poem starts out thinking

in what I imagine are even larger terms than that,

because as I was working on this body of sci-fi poems,

my father became ill and passed away.

And suddenly the future got really big to me

and it became the afterlife.

And I was trying to come up with a satisfying version

of where my father was,

what the meaning or the function of the afterlife was.

And I think, of course, I was also looking for inklings

about what this life might be about

>> BOWEN: So there's writing in that time.

What is it to write in this time,

which is such a fraught time?

>> Well, it's really funny to me

thatLife on Mars is a book

that was really trying to pitch itself...

its, its imagination out, you know, out far in time

in perspective or dimensions.

And the other poems that I've written since that book

have really turned toward history and the Earth,

the planet, you know, the everyday textures and frictions

that we move through and create.

In a way, history feels like another distancing device

that allows me to grapple with the present.

It also feels eerily useful because so much of the tension

and so much of the conflict that I feel we as Americans

are caught up in has to do with terms of the past

that we have refused to address properly.

Questions that are rooted, as I see them, in racism

or racial difference, and the conundrum of freedom

and equality in a nation that is also culpable of,

you know, this terrible, dehumanizing institution

that was slavery.

>> BOWEN: How difficult is it for you to write

about these issues?

Or perhaps I'm also hearing that it's somewhat cathartic

to try to process them through history

and understand these times.

>> Yeah, I wonder if catharsis is what I would use.

I feel my poems, even my happy poems,

begin from a feeling of imbalance or unrest.

So even a love poem for me begins with,

"This is so powerful.

How can I get a grip on it?"

And I'm also asking language and association

and whatever else art is drawing upon

to help me get something that could feel like revelation.

You know, something that could show me

it's not just other people.

You, too, need to shift in some way

if you want to help make things better.

>> BOWEN: How do you find that?

I'm also mindful of asking you that

because I saw aNew York Times piece with you

where you went through your schedule,

you logged your schedule for theNew York Times.

>> Oh, gosh. >> BOWEN: And I thought,

how does she have any time to do anything,

let alone be an astonishing poet?

>> Time is wild, right? (both laugh)

And lately it feels so very fast.

But as we become more willing to pile and heap things

in our schedules, I think we also become a little bit

more efficient, or at least that's my, my hope.

So I'm trying to work on making art,

even if it's just building questions or reading

or dealing with material

that can help me grow as a, as a person.

>> BOWEN: Well, I'm always so interested in process,

and I wonder where that balance comes in.

Does it just build and build and build

until you have to sit down?

>> Well, it's different in different times.

Sometimes, I mean, I look back sometimes on my phone

and I see that I have actually the first drafts

of many of the poems I've written

were written in the Notes section,

maybe while I was on an airplane or something like that.

Or sometimes an idea will wake me up

in the middle of the night.

And I know now that if I don't write it down,

it will go to somebody else. (Bowen chuckles)

But then there are periods built into my life as an academic

where I have luxury of time--

you know, a sabbatical every, every few years.

And those are full days of feeling like I'm just

in the space and writing.

When you're writing that much,

other poems almost feel called by the ones

you've just finished, they come in on the wake.

And that's really exhilarating.

>> BOWEN: You mentioned something just a moment ago,

which I think plays off what you just said,

which is if, "I don't write down

"those thoughts I have on the plane or at night,

it'll go to somebody else." (Smith chuckles)

What do you mean?

>> Well, I, you know, I have no proof of this,

but I imagine that there are there are trends, waves,

instincts that many of us have,

many of us are, are nudged by, and, you know...

Well, here's an example.

I wrote a poem called "Declaration,"

which is an erasure of the Declaration of Independence.

And when it was published, I got an email

from my friend Morgan Parker, who is a poet,

and the email said, "You will not believe I wrote a poem

"that's very, very similar to your poem

based on the same text. Here it is."

You know, those were poems that were written during a time

when we were witnessing a large number of, you know,

violent acts committed against unarmed Black citizens.

But I feel like that, that awareness,

I want to believe there's a voice or a wind or a,

I don't know, a tug

that is making certain things more perceptible.

>> BOWEN: We asked if you would read us another of your poems

to lead us out of the segment.

What have you chosen? And, again, why?

>> Well, this next poem is called "Mothership."

And I wrote a lot of poems in 2020 sitting in my backyard

feeling, you know, the weight of the ages--

I think many of us did in different ways--

and asking for help and courage and clarity.

And that became a meditative practice for me,

and in some ways I felt like there was something

that was speaking back to me.

And I remember one day sitting out there,

I was thinking about a friend who had lost her mother,

and my mother's gone.

You know, 2020 was a year when I needed her.

And so I was wondering, maybe my mother and Aisha's mother

know each other now, and if they can help us, that's great.

They understand what we can't yet fully understand.

And that gave me a little bit of, like, hope.

And then I said, "Oh, but wait,

"what if it's true that everyone's mother who's gone

"sits at a vantage point to the rest of the world

that allows them to get what we can't get?"

This poem was a way of saying, "Oh, okay, what do they see?

Maybe it's very simple."

>> BOWEN: Well, Tracy K. Smith,

thank you so much for being with us.

The book isSuch Color.

We appreciate it. >> Oh, thank you.

You cannot see the mothership in space,

It and she being made of the same thing.

All our mothers hover there in the ceaseless blue-black,

watching it ripple and dim to the prized pale blue

in which we spin--

we who are Black, and you, too.

Our mothers know each other there, fully and finally.

♪ ♪

>> BOWEN: It's a birthday for Jesus Christ Superstar.

That and more in Arts This Week.

All this weekend, dive intoMoby Dick

as the New Bedford Whaling Museum presents

a virtual edition of a marathon reading of the novel

over two days.

Actor Sam Waterston is Ishmael.

Sunday is your last chance to view the thousands of lights

on display at the Stone Zoo inZoo Lights,

a festive way to encounter feathered and fury creatures.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays

at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Tuesday.

This 50th anniversary production received raves in London.

Follow the Bard to the screen as Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

teams with Coolidge Corner Theatre Thursday

for a look at the new film The Tragedy of Macbeth.

End the week with a trip to the Fuller Craft Museum

to enjoyGlass Lifeforms 2021,

an exhibition showcasing life in its many delicate forms.

Next, artist, illustrator, and activist Ekua Holmes

is a lifelong resident of Roxbury.

Her bold, colorful work reflects the vibrancy

of the African American experience.

This is one of the final weeks to see

a Museum of Fine Arts exhibition

that places her award-winning and boundary-pushing

illustrations on view.

So we're taking another look at this story

we first brought you in July.

These are depictions of joy,

of history,

of family.

It's the work of artist Ekua Holmes,

whose children's book illustrations

are the focus of the new exhibition

Paper Stories, Layered Dreams

at the Museum of Fine Arts.

>> Children's books-- that's where I saw my first art.

That was my first gallery, going through those books

and looking at the different styles of illustrators.

>> BOWEN: We met with Holmes at her studio in Roxbury,

where she works in a space filled floor to ceiling

with paper, sculpture, and paintbrushes--

stitching together collages from a lifetime

of collected material.

>> When I started out,

I was using a lot of found material, ephemera, magazines,

newspapers, and things like that.

As I've moved on,

I'm doing more of making my own papers

and building collages from that.

>> BOWEN: Holmes has built her life and career in Boston--

finding inspiration in childhood from educators like Elma Lewis

and local artists of color, including

Gary Rickson and Dana Chandler.

Their large-scale murals throughout her neighborhood

spurred a young, impressionable Holmes

to delve into art as a teenager.

>> They have inspired generations of artists

through their work, people who maybe

if they hadn't seen those murals, maybe they would have

done something different, but when they saw

that imagery, so large and so colorful

and so proud, they said, "I want to do that.

I want to speak to my community in this way."

>> BOWEN: Her collages often begin with a photograph,

one she's taken herself

or found, and they are often deeply personal.

Two of the works on view at the MFA

depict members of her own family-- an aunt

and her grandfather, inspired by a box of old photographs

he handed down to her.

>> Those altarpieces were from photographs in that box.

If you'd given me a million dollars,

it wouldn't have meant as much to me

as that box of photographs.

>> Her works are very rich and layered.

And the more you look, the more you see.

Each one tells a story of its own.

>> BOWEN: MFA curator Meghan Melvin

says through Holmes' illustrations

in award-winning children's books,

the artist paints a vibrant portrait of Black history,

with scenes of familial love, joy, and resilience.

InSaving American Beach, published this year,

she depicts the history and restoration of a beach

designed in Jacksonville, Florida,

for Black Americans during the Jim Crow era.

>> So here it's depicted in its heyday.

And what's wonderful for

this exhibition is to see these illustrations

and to see how large some of them are,

because when you're looking at a book, and you see the scale,

but here you see it's almost twice the size,

and that's a way that you can

get all that wonderful detail.

>> BOWEN: Even though these are ostensibly children's books,

Holmes doesn't pull punches in pictures.

As in this work depicting an enslaved family

working in a field.

>> We want to be truthful, but we don't want to traumatize.

Truth is always the right way to go.

Now, how you express that,

how you talk to children about that, I think,

is the, um, the secret sauce.

>> BOWEN: The art can shed light on painful histories.

Some elements are ripped right from the headlines of the day,

as in this illustration for the book

Black Is a Rainbow Color.

>> So you see this image of people walking,

and you see also that there are children walking with them,

but in the collage are embedded snippets

of contemporary journalism, and so it takes you deeper

and makes you realize

that this is not just an interesting picture,

there is real history behind this.

As an artist inspired

by children's literature at a young age,

Holmes says she's cognizant of the impact she's having

on the next generation.

>> For me,

thinking of today's children,

maybe looking at a book that I've illustrated

and engaging with art that way,

it seems really important now, you know,

that I understand that that's, that was my gateway.

That I'm part of creating a gateway for the next generation.

>> BOWEN: And it's that sense of responsibility

that informs everything Ekua Holmes does

for her Boston community.

Just outside the MFA,

Holmes has planted a garden of sunflowers

as part of her Roxbury Sunflower Project,

in which she has called on people

to plant sunflowers all over Boston--

another effort to bring joy to the city she calls home.

>> I would like for you

to know that you are a sunflower,

and that what you do,

how you live your life, is planting seeds.

Your life itself is a seed

that's going to feed the next generation.

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> BOWEN: We're off to New Mexico now for a look

at the work of abstract painter Frederick Hammersley,

the earliest of early adopters.

In the 1960s, at the dawn of the computer age,

he logged on to an IBM and rebooted his career

as a digital artist.

And it all began with Art1,

a computer program developed at the University of New Mexico.

♪ ♪

>> The movement that started with computers at UNM

was really cool.

♪ ♪

The program Art1 becomes the medium that the artist uses

and it's an entirely new medium.

♪ ♪

What happened was,

a whole bunch of artists took over technology

that was meant for other purposes,

like payrolls and nuclear weapons,

and they played with it.

They made something visually interesting

and completely unexpected out of it.

♪ ♪

Hammersley was the kind of an artist

who functioned well within limits.

Over the course of several hundred works,

he did more than anyone else to explore the parameters

of what was possible with Art1.

He was very interested in, within, within a boundary,

if the boundaries were clear,

his type of art was to move all around to every possible corner

of that sort of walled garden,

exploring the possibilities up and down, in and out,

back and forth.

♪ ♪

It's reducing a visual idea to a set of instructions.

And, and computers that-- this is still true--

computers are very stupid.

They have to be told exactly everything,

down to the last parameter.

And so this kind of thing appealed to Hammersley,

working through a language like that.

He was... that was his kind of thing.

He flourished under it for the better part of two years.

He devoted almost all of his attention

to creating artworks with Art1.

♪ ♪

Hammersley had a great sense of humor.

He was always making jokes.

He, he often gave the his works titles that were...

that had a sort of a play on words in them.

♪ ♪

LikeTake a Moment for You.

And then in a prominent place in, in the work

would be the letter "U", you know.

And so he was always... he was, he was looking for ways

to use humor to kind of demystify art

and make it more user friendly.

♪ ♪

What's going on is that they're taking a line printer

that prints numbers and letters and math symbols,

and they're using those symbols in a new way

to take the old meaning out of them and give them

a new purely visual meaning

within the framework of a page of computer paper.

The big discussion back then was the two cultures.

We have a scientific culture and a literary culture,

or an artistic culture,

and they have nothing to say to each other.

After World War II, this was,

this was the cultural debate back then,

because you have avant-garde art that very few people understand,

and then you have avant-garde science,

some of which is, like, top secret.

Where's, where's the meeting point?

Guess what?

Art1 is the meeting point.

♪ ♪

What I loved about Hammersley's art

is it's, is it's originality, basically.

He had a show of these works in Albuquerque

and the reviewer said,

"It's sort of interesting to see something used for tax forms

now becoming art."

And that's the biggest surprise of this whole thing.

You don't expect it.

You're like, "What's this?"

And anytime an artist gets you to sort of wonder

where you are at that moment, then they've succeeded.

They've challenged the way you look at stuff.

And Hammersley, he accomplished that.

♪ ♪

Art1 can expand our understanding of what art is

because, look, the computer that they used

did the payroll for UNM.

It participated in the Manhattan Project making nuclear weapons.

It did the scientific and mathematical calculations

for the science departments.

And guess what?

It made art.

It, it was something...

it was a, it was a corner of creativity in a very esoteric

and even top secret world.

That's, that's inspiring.

That's a cool thing.

♪ ♪

>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.

Next week, the California artists with a finish fetish.

>> These are atmospheric, ethereal works,

but they're also very serious and very complex.

>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.

Thanks for joining us.

Remember, you can always visit us online at GBH.org/OpenStudio.

And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,

@OpenStudioGBH.

And you'll find me @TheJaredBowen.

♪ ♪

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