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Writings from "Step into Art,"
a Writing Workshop
by Ligonier Valley Writers and
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art

November 4, 2017

The Museum hosted LVW for a writers' workshop called Step into the Art. Joan McGarry, director of education and visitor engagement, took us on a tour through selected works of art, pointing out key elements and sparking our imaginations.

Five members of Ligonier Valley Writers served as mentors: Jim Busch, LVW's president; who also led the icebreaker exercise; Barb Miller, who has published 40 books and teaches in Seton Hill's MFA program on Writing Popular Fiction; Ruth McDonald, a teacher and poet who is also the editor of the Loyalhanna Review; Linda Rodkey, who has published five novels and designs book covers; and Judith Gallagher, LVW's publicity director.  Sharon Full was instrumental in planning the workshop.  LVW mentors were available throughout the writing process, from brainstorming a genre to advising on the final polishing.
LVW thanks the Westmoreland for hosting such an inspiring workshop.  We also thank all of the talented participants who chose to share their writing with us.

Two poems by Candace Kubinec
— Inspired by the sculpture Prismod by Gruber

My rainbow does not arch across
A gray sky – depending on
The whims of the sun
It does not wear stripes of
Yellow, indigo, or violet

My rainbow lies within a
Precious box with colors that
Swirl and curve in
Soundless joy

My rainbow glistens in the light
And its glow creates more
Shades and tints than
Nature can imagine

My rainbow is the touchstone
Reflecting the true beating
Of our hearts

Reclining Cat — Inspired by the sculpture Reclining Cat (1941) by William Zorach

I see them
Every one of them
Strolling or rushing past
Some stop to touch, stroke, pat
With the white cotton glove
That sits beside me – always
I long for the feel of human flesh
The smell of their hands –
The aftershave, the flowery lotion,
The ham sandwich, the chocolate cookie
They do not suspect that I can hear
Their thoughts
Their conversations
The confusion, the wondering,
Is that art?”
The laughter at their own
Paltry jokes
I sit silently absorbing all
Holding it closely
Never revealing their secrets

Vignette by Carolyn Cornell Holland — Inspired by Allegheny River (c. 1923) by Haley Lever

Mary approached Haley Lever’s painting Allegheny River, which included the bridges crossing the Allegheny River at its juncture with the Ohio River.  She looked over her glasses, examined the details, then stepped back to study it from a distance.

“The bridges, their arches rising high, are so impressive,” she said.  “Although the mills dominating the river banks created work, it must have been awful breathing in the smoky air and being surrounded by so much water, yet not being able to drink it or cook with it.”

“The pollution robbed the residents of freshwater fish, too,” her husband said.  “Once these waters were pristine, filled with sturgeons, perch, pike, and catfish.  Huge turkeys wandered the untouched banks and hills crowned with forests.  I was just reading how a Frenchman named Claude-François-Adrien de Lezay-Marnésia, who came to the United States to escape the French Revolution, hastily left Marietta just after St. Clair’s defeat.  He acquired about 400 acres of land between the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers with the intention of creating a French community.  It was at the end of 1792 when he described this area as a utopia, an Eden-like garden, where he intended to create a French community.”

“It’s difficult to imagine that vision when looking at this painting.  Just negotiating across the river back then — any of the three of them —"

"Yes,” said John.  “But hundreds of the original settlers managed.  Marnezia’s community, which he named Azilum, never materialized.  He ended up returning to France about 1794.”

“Some things don’t last,” Mary said.  “The collapse of the steel industry and modern legislation have brought the rivers back to their almost Utopian atmosphere, although now the view is much more modern.”

At that, Mary and John turned to the other pictures in the Westmoreland section of the art museum.  I suspect they enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed Haley Lever's painting.

"From Many Angles" by J. Wynn — Inspired by the sculpture Foursquare by Kevin O'Toole

Love from many angles.  Sometimes it starts like an explosion of unexpected emotion and builds to an overwhelming sea of calm, beauty and might.  Other times it grows from a pea-size, initially unaware nugget that waxes and wanes like cool ocean breezes.  Sometimes it seems to course through your veins with each breath.  You are so aware of its presence.  Other times it is so undercover that it appears as hints of shadows that you think you see, but when you look you can't distinguish it from the darkened background.
Alternating colors, some plain, some with striations.  Is that why some think it is located in the heart?
Sometimes so faint.  Could it be crosses, windmills on a hill?  Conductive strands that stimulate the air?  Is it possible that you feel it too?
Does it make you hear the music?  Is the music somehow electric?
Whydo we call it love?
Wood.  Marble.  Stone.  Air.  What is it made of?
Silver, gold, light?  Ethereal.  Infinity.
Conductive to eternity?  What is this?  Love?

Essay on the life of Jerome Myers by Jim Busch — Inspired by Self-Portrait with Feathered Hat (1927) by Jerome Myers

They say the lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client.  Does that mean the artist who paints a self-portrait has a fool for his subject?

At least the lawyer can justify defending himself as an exercise in frugality, but a self-portrait is a blatantly obvious exercise in vanity.

But I am an ARTIST!  It is the only thing I know how to be.

My father wanted me to be a haberdasher like him, a good, steady, reliable business.  He used to say, “People will always need clothes to wear.”

Well, I countered, “People will also need art!  They will always need beauty in their lives.”

My father didn’t agree.  He understood braces and spats, not perspective and color theory.

Fortunately, while my father wanted me behind the counter with him, my mother just wanted me to be happy.  As usual in our home, she got her way.  My parents scrimped and saved and on my eighteenth birthday they presented me with a steerage ticket to France.  They also promised to provide me with a meager living allowance to support my study of art.

I was living the young artist’s dream.  I was in Paris … wide boulevards … sidewalk cafes … Montparnasse … the Louvre!  I was in Paris and I hated it!  I just couldn’t wrap my Yankee tongue around the French language, I detested the food — except for the bread, which was delicious.  I felt like a gasping American fish floundering and flopping around on the banks of the Seine.

Ashamed to admit my failure and ask my long-suffering parents for the return fare, I worked my way home shoveling coal in the belly of a rusty freighter.  At home my father mouthed words of feigned sympathy for me, but he was happy my adolescent dreams had evaporated and I would spend the rest of my life with a yellow tape measure draped around my neck like a priest’s vestment.

I hated France … but I still loved art!  I had learned that I didn’t want to be a French artiste; I wanted to be an American artist!  I took a job as a sign painter, the only paying job that would allow me to spend my days with a brush in my hand and the smell of paint in my nostrils.  I spent my nights using “borrowed” sign paint and scraps of signboard to paint scenes of my neighborhood.  When I could spare an extra dollar, I took nighttime art classes at the YMCA.

One sunny Sunday afternoon I was painting the steeples of St. Michael’s Church when a well-dressed man interrupted his stroll to watch me work.  We talked about my picture and he offered me the lordly sum of $3.75 for it.  That chance meeting was the true beginning of my art career.hat first sale stoked my smoldering interest in painting into an unquenchable desire to devote my life to art.  Had he not happened along, I might be measuring inseams today.

The rocky start of my art career explains why I am a “bad” artist.  My paintings are easy to understand.  The eyes, the ears, the arms, the legs … all the parts of my paintings are found in their accustomed places.  I don’t even act like an artist.  I prefer a beer and the free lunch at Clancy’s to wine and some smelly imported cheese.  I have to admit, I’ve never suffered for my art; I’m never happier than when I’m standing at my easel.  I am not a rich man and I guess I never will be, but at least I don’t have to lie and tell portly clients, “This pinstriped suit is really quite slimming, sir!”

Is sitting in front of a mirror, palette and brush in hand, swathed in gaudy silk robes with a feathered turban on my head, self-indulgent?
Of course it is!  But perhaps a little self-indulgence is the artist’s reward for bringing beauty into the world.

Thank you to all of the participants who chose to share their writing via publication on LVW's website.