Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: AGO brings together poets and artists!

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The Art Gallery of Ontario has joined forces with the League of Canadian Poets and Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke to create one of the most unique art classes in the city: Portraits of Poets. This eight week long portraiture class has an unexpected twist: all of the models are Canadian poets. Participating poets include bill bissett, Myna Wallin, George Elliott Clarke, Adam Sol, Dionne Brand, Rudyard Fearon, Ayesha Chatterjee, Sachiko Murakami and Olive Senior.

Clarke, who is one of Canada's most widely acclaimed poets and who has been taking an active role as Poet Laureate, pitched the idea for the class to the gallery, where it was well-received and added to an already extensive art class programming list. Each week, a different poet visits the class, where they get the creative juices flowing by reading or performing their work for the artists. During the reading, the student artists sketch, prep canvases or simply take in the inspiration of the poet's work. Afterwards, the poets pose on a raised platform (fully clothed, for inquiring minds) for the artists.

The night Open Book visited, we saw a huge variety of artistic styles and approaches, with a range of mediums. The visiting poet was Rudyard Fearon, who got the class started with a brief reading from his newest collection, Lost Tongues. One piece included the line "A window that only I can see", which seemed an appropriate tip of the hat to the visual artists. Despite the noisy room (where several classes took place in a temporarily divided open space), the student artists appeared to enjoy Fearon's reading, which he delivered as memorised performances rather than from-the-page readings. As he spoke, students sketched and ruminated, applauding at the end of the set.

After reading, Fearon took his place on the raised platform, where he held utterly still for two periods of about an hour each, broken up with a brief intermission for the model to stretch and walk and the artists to rest and evaluate their progress. Artist-instructor Aleks Bartosik, who had introduced Fearon, patrolled the canvases, offering individual feedback and guidance as well as general advice, including "you don't have to centre a portrait — think about composition". She added tips on creating lips ("don't outline them!"), measuring and positioning facial features and more. "Remember to step back and look at your work," she reminded the students.

When asked about the experience of posing Fearon was positive. "I'm thinking the way I would think while writing," he said. Bartosik mentioned that some poets even chose to read while posing. On the decision for the poets to remain clothed, unlike traditional life drawing classes, she explained that life drawing normally separates the model from the personal, while in this class, the personality and individualism of the poets is part of the inspiration.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the students and the varied and interesting work being created, the course is shaping up to be a great success. For poetry and art lovers, a student exhibition of selected works from Portraits of Poets and a reception in the AGO’s Community Gallery will take place on on Wednesday, April 16, 2014 to celebrate poetry month. This event is open to the public.

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