Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Art Objects

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Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art... is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar... We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.
          — Jeanette Winterson (Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery)


There has always been a correlation between artists of words and of images. It almost goes without saying that each art form and the individuals involved in the literary and visual pursuits of art most likely consider the two worlds as connected as they are distinct. There in fact are entire art movements such as Dadaism that see a seamless blending of each tradition in order to make a hybrid so visceral that it still inspires visual poems and collage to this day.

It is also curious when a poet is struck with a painting or a painter with a poem. Jeanette Winterson (a small fiction addiction that I had for a little while in the nineties), in her non-fiction book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, recounts being stopped in her tracks in front of a painting in a small gallery in Amsterdam by the painter Massimo Rao. In that moment, Winterson recognized the interwoven and psychic tie between human experience and the images that we create and thus began using her craft as a writer to pen a treatise and exploration into the visual language of painting.

The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message coloured through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die. All painting is cave painting; painting on the low dark walls of you and me, intimations of grandeur. The painted church is the tattooed body of Christ, not bound into religion, but unbound out of love. Love, the eloquent shorthand that volumes out those necessary invisibles of faith and optimism, humour and generosity, sublimity of mankind made visible through art.

Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhythms me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out…. If, in the comfortable West, we have chosen to treat such energies with scepticism and contempt, then so much the worse for us. Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art.

If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question 'What has happened to our lives?' The usual question, 'What has happened to art?' is too easy an escape route.

I did not escape. At an Amsterdam gallery I sat down and wept.

When I sold a book I bought a Massimo Rao. Since that day I have been filling my walls with new light.
          -Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects


I was thrilled to discover an exciting course being held at the Art Gallery of Ontario that was gearing students towards an exploration of Ekphrastic Poetry — poems constructed based on a response to another form of art. Here is a short description of the course from the instructor Sue MacLeod:

It's about art inspiring poetry; about art being celebrated in words. I'm really excited about how the two forms — visual and literary — come together in this course. For experienced poets, it's a chance to talk about poetry and art in a group, and a chance to be given exercises and assignments — to be challenged or inspired in particular ways they wouldn't have thought of on their own. I think most of us want this at times. For beginning poets, it's a chance to learn more about how poems work, and how to use poetic techniques, through the process of writing about art. And for everyone, it's a chance to enjoy hanging out together at the AGO.

The course embodies much of what Jeanette Winterson muses about in Art Objects and opens up the possibility for us as the viewer of art to consider a deeper interface with the visual and a verbal meditation on this interface, which in turn creates more art.

From musing over David Blackwell’s seas, to personifying portraits, to siphoning out strories from images, students of this course will be encouraged to face art and let it speak to them and inform them in their writing. Another opportunity to honor our experiences with the visual traditions that are, as Winterson points out, as old as the cave walls of our ancestors.


Art takes time. To spend an hour looking at a painting is difficult. The public gallery experience is one that encourages art at a trot. There are the paintings, the marvellous speaking works, definite, independent, each with a Self it would be impossible to ignore, if . . . if . . ., it were possible to see it. I do not only mean the crowds and the guards and the low lights and the ropes, which make me think of freak shows, I mean the thick curtain of irrelevancies that screens the painting from the viewer. Increasingly, galleries have a habit of saying when they acquired a painting and how much it cost . . .

Millions! The viewer does not see the colours on the canvas, he sees the colour of the money.
         -Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects

He insisted on Orsay as our time in Paris was limited, and I was not in the frame of mind to argue or cajole to go more contemporary. Michelange happens to love the impressionists and since Paris was more his town than mine, I acquiesced. The walk there was rambling and fills my mind with the affiches of the Paris Metro, the Seine with the strange shantytowns tucked along its banks, soaring gargoyles and my odd long-limbed Belgian lover pointing out attractions as they manifested like mirages all around us. Orsay loomed in front of me like a giant mother cat letting all of its kittens suckle from her. It danced like an anthill with all of the tourists wanting inside its folds and catacombs.

Part way through the main atrium, everything in me slowed even as the humans around me seemed to increase their pace to take in everything in the time allotted. Michelange sensed it in me — a complete urge to not take in too much. Our ramble through the rooms took on the quiet pace of the sailboats and water lilies and strange quiet meadows that began to slowly reveal themselves to us. I began to feel euphoric. There was one piece in particular that grabbed something in Michelange and made him forcefully stop me in front of it. With a rough hand and tongue he positioned me in front of the painting demanding me to take it in, to stand in a certain way, to look at the painting from a certain perspective. I wanted to slap him for his brusqueness, but strangely I found myself listening to his instruction. As my gaze began to see the painting from the perspective that he demanded from me, something utterly shifted in the painting, and its dimensions revealed themselves to me.

I am not sure how long it is we stood there, but every flower awoke for me, each blade of grass sprung to attention. I began to see things in the painting that I swore were not there before. It rose up to meet me, this quaint little painting of a woman and a little boy walking down a hill into a meadow. I felt like I was on acid. I felt like everything around me had disappeared except for Michelange’s heart beating against my back and the breathing and alive square of paint in front of me. I was given the gift of gentle catharsis born out of my engagement and mindfulness in front of a great work of art. Within the space of this experience: the violence of love, a struggle with patience and breath, miracles revealed, poppies springing out at me like explosions, the breath of my lover, and most centric, the art object as a causal force.

Here is an excerpt from Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson.

The photo gallery is of images of my metro ride and walk to Orsay, plus an image of our painting that changed us.

Do you have suggestion for a topic for Melanie for a future column? Send an email to with the subject line "Melanie Janisse."

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book, Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions), tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Photos by Melanie Janisse.

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