Thursday, January 14, 2021

The Open Door by Ruth Smullin


The Open Door

by Ruth Smullin

Fishing Line Press

Georgetown, Kentucky

ISBN 978-1-64662-356-3

The 26 poems of Ruth Smullin’s chapbook, The Open Door, arrived in the mail just in time to provide perfect biscuits to go with my wake-up-from-your-nap-and-face-up-to-the-afternoon coffee; they so absorbed my attention that I stretched out my arousal, compelled to finished the poems before I finished my coffee.

The poems of this collection, with its ekphrastic title poem on a painting of Bonnard, are life drawings from the speaker’s earliest memories until as a grandmother she places her grandchildren into a Bruegel composition in “Yom Kippur Under the Night Sky:”

On this eve of the day of atonement, it's hard

to feel solemn – the balmy October evening warm

and humid as a summer night, sky a blur of gray,

the moon fuzzy with moisture.

Twelve hundred chairs line the parking lot.

Sitting in the back row, listening to rush-hour sounds

from nearby streets, I watch families trickle in,

find seats and friends, catch up on news – children

of all ages and colors, jeans and striped socks,

tutus and leotards, Superman and Alice.

Intoxicated by the night air, the children, the moment,

I think of my two-week-old grandson,

born into a new moon, a new year.

Her strokes are sure, sometimes pointillistic and, when necessary, as fluid as these from the initial prose poem “Yellow,” which, besides being a dissertation on the color, “Sunflower, goldfinch, goldenrod, yellow jackets on a ripe peach,” is also an announcement of the time spanned by this collection from the yellow of “fat rendered from a chicken in Grandma’s kitchen,” to an impoverished present where “These day corn is too yellow, too sweet, watermelon yellow when it should be red; the seeds we loved to spit, gone.”

That mild complaint about seedless water melons provides a hint of an elegiac tone shared by many of these poems of which “Old Letters” (she has “saved every letter. … Six boxes full”) is a good example; here are its concluding stanzas:

Did you mean to sound so cold and hostile?

My mother writes. Dearest, his mother begins,

the phlox is blooming, we’re looking forward

to your visit.

Sarah is growing up at an alarming rate,

my now-dead friend tells me, she is thin,

complicated and moody –

Reading their letters an act of mourning

that sharpens the sense of loss.

I suspect Ruth’s favorite impressionist is Bonnard since, besides the title poem, the only other frankly ekphrastic poem is “Bonnard’s Nude in the Bath and Small Dog”:

In the bath, she floats, calmed

by warmth, wetness, a sensation

of lift. Around her, violet walls swell

blue-green tiles ripple. She drifts

like kelp on the open sea, the tub

holding her steady.

In addition to writing about painting she frequently writes as if painting a still life:


on a white plate, my own still life.

Fruit lavish as a rose colors the room,

pleases my eye.

For weeks I study its odd shape,

angles like cheekbones, skin taut

with the fullness of what's hidden,

the blossom and a tiny crown.

or an intimate landscape:

Raspberry Patch in Winter

Rising from deep snow, the canes stand spare,

naked – bright calligraphy in late sun.

Their long shadows – delicate, insubstantial –

reach out across the white expanse.

But regrettably, as my initial pleasure was interrupted upon reaching the final poem, I must stop my praise somewhere, so I shall do it by letting the poet speak for herself about loss with the first lines from “Lost,” a poem where she approaches grieving with humor:

Why do people say we “lost” him when he died?

as if we'd left them on the beach by mistake

like a forgotten flip-flop, after we packed up

towels, shovels, sunblock, and somehow overlook

our husband and father asleep in the sand where we

buried him up to his neck, face covered with a hat

to protect him from sun. If we’d glanced back

from the car before driving home, surely

we'd have noticed the hat, the mound of sand.

Now, when you have obtained your copy from somewhere other than Amazon, such as with an old fashioned mail order from the publisher (Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, Kentucky 40324) make yourself a cup of coffee or tea or hot chocolate, sit where you have good light, and have some good reading.

—Wendell Smith

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Somerville Artist Janeann Dill: An animated animator, painter, educator and filmmaker.


 Somerville Artist Janeann Dill: An animated painter, educator and filmmaker.

This city offers a plethora of choices of talented artists to interview. Janeann Dill, caught my eye and interest--so I managed to catch up with her for an ( online) interview.

Interview by Doug Holder

Can you tell us about your Somerville Experience?

After relocating to the Boston area in 2011, I made a conscious choice to establish my studio in Somerville. When attending an ICA retrospective exhibition and memorial for an important experimental animation artist, Karen Aqua. As an experimental animation historian, I had been well aware of her artwork for years. I understood how influential and compelling her art films were for the City of Somerville as well as internationally. At this exhibition, I had the pleasure to meet and speak extensively with Karen’s husband, Ken Field. Ken Field is also an internationally recognized and compelling jazz artist, musician, and composer. Longer story short, with Ken’s generous help and suggestions, I was led to my artist studio at Miller Street in Somerville. I have worked in my studio and resided in Somerville for some seven years now and still believe that my decisions to live here were good ones! To name only one example among the many opportunities Somerville offers its artists, the Somerville Arts Council is an impressive arts organization with numerous successful programs for its artists and for Somerville’s citizens at-large.

You are a painter and filmmaker. Which came first?  And do they inform each other?

I love this question! Thank you for asking. My first long-lasting professional career was as a painter of works on paper and paintings on canvas. Experimental animation came into my view years later when I realized that I wanted my paintings “to move in time” when an Artist In Residence at the American Center In Paris. Little had I realized the profound conceptual influence the animated film, FANTASIA, would have on my paintings prior to living in Paris. I was, however, quite aware of the influences of music, poetic literature, and choreography on my paintings.

You are a conceptual artist. You deal with the "action of thought"   Can you explain this?

I teach my students in higher education how vital it is to at least try to understand their singular creative process as a disciplinary strategy in addition to being a medium or craft. I teach the importance of understanding what a concept is, and how to have one.

A concept is an idea. An idea comes into view through research. When research merges with intuition, creative intelligence informs and balances an artist’s output. In other words, one must take action when a thought arrives to reveal itself to an artist. It is a fleeting moment and comes quietly. Thought is ethereal. The act of hearing/seeing/sensing thought leads to another action, i.e., research. Research is meant to discern the impulse for idea. This takes work. Research is are acts of investigation to clarify an idea. For example, making a film is an arduous and laborious pursuit. Keeping a North Star of Idea in view during a lengthy creative process is essential to “remembering” why and how the artist decided to commit to this particular work of art in the first place. This is true for composing music, choreography, experiments in science, writing poetry, theatrical performances, and any visual works of art. I hope this is helpful …

You directed an award-winning documentary about the noted experimental filmmaker Jules Engel. Can you talk a bit about his work and your relationship to him? 

I am the Authorized Biographer of Jules Engel (1909 - 2003). The biographical components yet to be distributed are a feature cinematic essay film (documentary) and book. The short film, “An Artist for All Seasons,” is in many ways a seven-minute introduction to the enormous and largely unknown art historical legacy of Engel and his art students. A consummate arts educator and mentor to four decades of artist-students, Engel was the Founding Director of the first animation program in America to award a higher education degree in Animation, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). As one of his students and Engel as my Mentor at CalArts, Jules Engel’s teachings are not only visible and tangible in Los Angeles, his far-reaching influences are evidenced in New England as well.

I read he was also a poet.

Jules Engel approached his experimental films and animations as a form of art founded on the principles of timing, rhythm, and personal expression. In much the same way, Engel’s poems are extensions of capturing a gesture of sound and motion in words.

Looking at your work on canvas it seems you use an orgasm of vivid colors--and they seem to project a certain energy--like the formation of a distant galaxy.

I am blushing! I suppose remnants of my Southern upbringing are responding! Hahaha

I’ve never framed my paintings as ‘orgasms’ of color; in this same way, I’ve never considered the Big-Bang an orgasmic event of our universe. That said, I understand how my paintings can be described in this way. I’m not offended by the comment. I did wonder, however, if this description would occur if these paintings had been created by a male artist? I ask out of curiosity. Do you think of the formation of a distant galaxy as an orgasm of color?

The formation of galaxies has been described to me by an astrophysicist to whom I showed my work early in his career and mine as “a kind-of colorful soup.” I am, indeed, creating an animated short film that involves the combining of NASA images (Harvard website) and my original images in which I imagined what is on the other side of the sky. This series of paintings were created in the South of France prior to the launching of the Hubble Telescope for deep space exploration. These pre-Hubble works may be viewed virtually on my website.

Is it hard painting intangible things rather than, let's say, having a bowl of fruit in front of you? You must be very intuitive.

As mentioned, my view is that the intuitive is informed by intelligence, i.e., research! I teach a philosophical approach that is grounded in the discipline of an actual creative process … after years of experience (or no experience at all) the challenge for any artist, young or old, is to remain committed to seeking new fields of inquiry (for themselves) when blockages show up. I can say with certainty, blockages or plateaus or detours and distractions will present themselves to the creative process. In terms of external or internal stimuli for an artist, the distinctions of painting a bowl of fruit in front of me and intangible evidence are both a kind of grappling with the blank canvas, or the piece of white paper in front of a poet. One learns to “kill the white” (canvas or paper) with differing strategies attached to outcomes. Idea is intangible but a bowl of fruit is not just a bowl of fruit. Not even in Photorealist art works. Lighting, placement, and choice of spatial relationships all exemplify the grappling of an idea. Skillful execution imposes a demand whether or not the object is seen in actuality or in the mind’s eye.

Why should people view your art?

Why not? My paintings offer a sense of the mysterious and my experimental films offer a sense of inquiry and curiosity of the “in-between” of rhythm, timing, and pacing. Both challenge prior assumptions and evoke the viewer into the presence of the now - this is not something I consciously intended when emerging as a young artist nor do I consciously intend it now as a mature artist. These are simply responses as the art work’s first viewer.

The text, philosophies, information and defining descriptions written, composed and authored by (c) Janeann Dill are reserved rights. Citation and written permission directly from Janeann Dill is required to publish beyond this one-time use for online and print publication granted to Doug Holder and the Somerville Times.