Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Tom Smart

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Tom Smart

There are writers and artists who work in both text and visuals, and then there are those who directly combine the two forms, like Tony Calzetta. Calzetta's "visual lexicon" fascinated gallery director, curator and author Tom Smart. The final result of that fascination is Tom's newest book, Fabulous Peculiarities: The Art of Tony Calzetta (Porcupine's Quill), in which Tom explores Tony's work with poet Leon Rooke, and the blending and bending of the line between book and artwork.

Today Tom speaks with us about Fabulous Peculiarities, telling us about Calzetta's unusual artistic lineage, his own writing space and some suggestions for those interested in further exploring experimental writing-art hybrids.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Fabulous Peculiarities.

Tom Smart:

This is a book about a book — Tony Calzetta and Leon Rooke’s collaborative livre d’artiste entitled Fabulous Fictions and Peculiar Practices. I wanted to understand the process that led to its production, and this resulted in a fairly deep study of Tony’s artistic development. So my book contextualizes Tony and Leon’s work, while telling readers something about the sources and influences, and ideas that inform this marvellous object.

When I first saw it I also thought it needed to be performed, too. And about a month ago a workshop production of a piece of the project was previewed at the annual Pages Festival in Toronto.


What drew you to write about Tony Calzetta? What has your own experience with his work been?


Before this project I had never met Tony, and actually knew very little about his work, beyond the fact that he was at York University while I was also a student there, although a few years behind him in the Fine Arts program. My introduction to him and his work came through Tim Inkster, who suggested that we might get along (which we did and still do!). After a lovely, stimulating first studio visit, I urged Tim to consider devoting an issue of the Devil’s Artisan to Tony. Fabulous Peculiarities is a result of the introduction, our meeting, the DA, and an ongoing discussion about his art. I find Tony’s work fascinating as much for its unique iconography as for its sources and artistic genealogy. Tony brings a very fresh perspective to Canadian art, and the intersection of painting, printmaking, drawing and poetry.


Calzetta’s attention to the narrative aspect of visual art has created a unique body of work. How do you view the intersection between the written and visual arts? Is there a fluidity between the two forms?


Absolutely. Tony’s work comes from an artistic lineage that is unusual in Canadian art. Essentially he has developed a singular, unique pictorial alphabet, or iconography, that shows a debt to American antecedents such as Philip Guston. His collaborations with Canadian authors and critics such as Rooke and John Metcalf also explore the fluid exchange between the visual and the literary in ways that harken back to the Renaissance practice of making emblem books as collaborative projects between poets and printmakers. He is coming out of and developing a very rich tradition of visual arts and book production.


In the book, you discuss God Talks in His Sleep and Other Fabulous Fictions. How would you describe Rooke and Calzetta’s collaboration, and how did you approach it?


As I said above, when I first saw the book unfold in front of me in a kind of pop-up stage, I thought immediately that it should be performed. It was a book that wanted to be “out loud.” Tony and Leon’s collaboration shows the miraculous results of two gifted artists, and the hands of master printer Dieter Grund and bookbinder Keith Felton, all working together to produce a multi-faceted object — part book, sculpture, theatre. I approached my book as a kind of decoder ring that will help the viewer of their book read the signs and symbols and hopefully enlarge them in the process.


Tell us a little bit about your writing space. What would an ideal writing day look like for you?


That’s a good question because there is no “ideal” day or space. I’m writing the answers to these questions on a tiny corner of the kitchen table because I don’t have any so-called office space. I just set up my laptop wherever I am when I have some time to write, and I hope that the muse visits me on my carved out corner of a table when that time arrives….


What other artists and writers might you recommend to someone interested in visual narratives?


I’d start with Philip Guston. Canadian artist George Walker is doing very interesting work developing the wordless narrative tradition, and he is influencing a new generation of younger artists in that form.


What are you working on now?


I have just finished editing a series of journals that Christopher Pratt wrote while he was driving around western Newfoundland. He calls them his “Car Books.” This book is being published by Porcupine’s Quill this coming summer, and hopefully will be adapted into a performance/reading during this August’s Woody Point Literary Festival. I am also writing short pieces on Canadian artists Stephanie Rayner, Joanne Tod and Michael Thompson. Writing is also about to begin on a project with a group of First Nations artists at Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island.

Author, art gallery director, curator, columnist and special advisor to art galleries and museums, Tom Smart is especially noted for his award-winning critical biographies, catalogues and monographs on Canadian artists, including Foreword IndieFab Silver winner Jack Chambers’ Red and Green. To date, Smart has written about painters Alex Colville, Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, Tom Forrestall, Miller Brittain and Fred Ross; graphic novelist George A. Walker; and sculptor John Hooper. Smart has worked in art galleries and museums across Canada and the United States, among them the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Frick in Pittsburgh, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection where he was Executive Director from 2006–2010. Smart’s essay ‘The Wood Engravings of Rosemary Kilbourn’ was recently published in the Devil’s Artisan. His bi-weekly column ‘The Curator’ appears in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal.

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