ALL art is conversation. At the very least, it is the conversation between a painter and the resonance of color, between a poet and the chain reaction of noun and verb. There is the quiet speaking between the individual and his ``inner'' self that points him in the direction of greater mysteries. Then there is the determined exchange between artists - sometimes like a harmonious duet, other times like a duel with blunt instruments. And there is always the conversation between artist and audience. But the very stuff of communication has been, is always being, worn away, robbed of its power to carry the freight of human experience. Lazy, we grind our words and images into the ground with clich'es. Greedy, we corrupt them for the sole purpose of selling mouthwash and automobiles. Dead imagery deadens our senses and forces us to live within counterfeit moments, robbed of vitality and insight.
Hasn't this become one of the hallmarks of life in the 20th century: The haunting sense of being an actor in some vaguely remembered film or, more terrible still, television commercial. So we are, each of us, charged with the responsibility, generation after generation, of making language new.
Both a new conversation and a new language began for me four years ago at an arts conference on a small island off of New Hampshire. It started when I met Marty Cain, an artist and sculptor. She was exhibiting an extensive series of colored pencil drawings, ``portraits'' of smooth beach stones. The rocks were arranged in various groupings so that their white quartz stripes were aligned, creating patterns and surprising relationships.
Beyond the draftsmanship of the pieces, there was both a curious intimacy about the drawings and an expansive feeling to them as well. It was as if these small handfuls of nature hinted at much broader mythologies of our planet. I especially admired the artist's persistence, the way that with each successive drawing she propelled herself forward and uncovered new possibilities in her tiny subjects.
The following afternoon, another artist was conducting a kite-making workshop. Using garbage-bag plastic and balsa dowels, he showed the conference participants how to build a guaranteed-to-fly design, and soon the lawn was covered by would-be aerialists. ``The kite'' is a prosaic, even sentimental subject. Yet, I found myself fascinated by the intensity of emotions involved: determination, desire, frustration, exaltation. And suddenly I had the beginning of a poem. I went quickly to my room, repeating the opening lines so I would not forget them.
After two hours of work I had not one but the first four ``kite poems'' sketched out. While my kite ``designs'' were also instructive in nature, my materials were somewhat unconventional: The poems showed how to build a kite out of an old woman, a seagull, an artist, and the Pentagon. The writings were playful, extravagant and, more important to me, a pure gift. They seemed to have risen up in me from an unidentified source and were towing my thoughts off in unpredictable directions. And I experienced the curious pleasure, not of leading the expedition, but of simply following.
As the kite poems developed, I had the impression that someone beyond myself was conversing with me, using a symbolic language I could not quite decipher. The only way I could come to terms with the intensity of these thoughts was to hold up my end of the dialogue and write poems. My subjects, ranging far afield, began to include all the sweetly obsessive experiences in my life: from basketball and rainy weather to childbirth and the death of my father.
Within the new lexicon of these poems - supple kite and rigid frame, spool and string, gravity and lift, control and release - I found myself investigating my relationships to the people and places around me. Sometimes an artist's job is to rename the world, to draw startling new connections; to strip away old habits of seeing and thinking. For me, this became the process of the kite poems.
Marty Cain and I began a friendship that week that led us to search for a two-sided language of kites that would include her visual vocabulary as well as my verbal. In our talks, we found so many common questions, so many provocative examples of agreement as well as counterpoint, it just seemed natural to want to make an artwork together. And we were determined to find a new way to unify our separate voices and styles. It was our intuition that, if we held no preconceived requirements for our project, the harmony in our conversations would eventually be reflected in our creations.
A collaboration is a marvelous concept for artists even if it is, on the face of it, somewhat absurd. After all, if artists are anything, they are captains of their own ships. It is by their singular authority and judgment that their creations are steered. How could two captains chart a course for one ship - especially if the ship was still in dry dock, the construction just under way?
We met several times every month to talk about the project, share recent work, and experiment with ideas. In a collaboration, each person must listen to distinguish the freshest impulses from what is only the easy way out, to hear what your partner is really saying and what insight he or she brings to the work at hand.
Even when Marty and I were apart during the solitude of work, I was aware that there was a committed listener out there waiting for my next question or reply, someone who would not accept anything but my best efforts, who was willing to challenge my self-deceptions and applaud the breakthroughs. As time passed, our sharing sessions became much more like play. I would experiment with the visual mediums of art and sculpture and challenge Marty with my what-if's. For her part, Marty became an excellent reader and critic, helping to make each new opening clear and to rid the poems of excess or distraction. We had created a new language we could slip into instantly. And when we were speaking ``kite,'' our conversations shifted the world a half turn, exposing new shapes and possibilities.
Early on, Marty experimented with drawings, paintings, and woodcuts, searching for a medium that would allow her work to be more than illustration, more than derivative and secondary to the text. After many false starts, she settled on a style and a ``voice'' that she knew would work with my poems. I was surprised to learn that she'd decided to match my kites with granite and quartz. Rooted in her earlier rock drawings, the new work was comprised of small assemblages of individual stones paired with natural objects (like feathers, sticks, shells) or found items (things like an old shaving mirror, a torn shoelace, or a child's baseball glove). Rendered again in delicate colored pencil, these drawings gave you the sense that, if rocks could dream about their lives, this is how their dreams would appear.
As her series developed, I could see that Marty's objects were somehow the very embodiment of my human kites, their longing for lightness, escape, transformation. They felt to me like the essential elements of human character, stripped of all costume and posturing, planning their tentative or foolish or glorious schemes for flight. Though radically different ``languages,'' when the poems and drawings were set side by side, a spontaneous translation took place between them. The wholeness of our work was finally shaping itself before our eyes.
Our project, entitled ``Thirty-Three Kites,'' is nearing completion and I am only beginning to appreciate the human design it contains. The kites describe that most primal of territories within each of us where the stories of our lives are constructed from the raw material of experience and memory, where the convergence of the inner and outer worlds produces an upsurge of response: We speak. And in our renewal of the long human conversation, we defy the gravity of isolation and, between us, give voice to the new possibility of our lives.