Tuesday, August 21 , 2018, 11:47 pm | Fair 64º


Susan Miles Gulbransen: Mixing Art and Literature

One of my favorite classes at Mills College in Oakland was American Art History. The well-known art critic and reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Alfred Frankenstein, taught the class in a darkened room right after lunch. Talk about the perfect nap environment.

A small, older man with a quick smile and wonderful sense of humor, he managed to give his lecture, show slides and keep us wide awake.

One day an intriguing slide of John F. Peto’s still life "My Studio Door" came up on the screen. The detailed, artistic rendering of an everyday scene added to my take-away from the class: high appreciation of visual art.

“This hangs in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art," Dr. Frankenstein said. "If ever you're down there, be sure to stop by. It’s a jewel of a museum.”  

Having grown up taking an art class at SBMA and as an adult attending some of its many talks and events based on art, those words have stuck with me.

This year the local “jewel” has gotten even brighter with an innovative program combining art and literature called Parallel Stories. Patsy Hicks, the museum’s director of education, coordinates these talks by well-known authors. She is one of those women with a creative mind that moves in various directions and comes up with superb ideas.

Last year, she brought in Colm Toibin, the Irish author whose novel Brooklyn became an Oscar-winning movie. He spoke at SBMA about how a Titian painting in part inspired his novel, The Testament of Mary.

When he finished, I was aware that the audience in the museum's nearly-full auditorium left talking with animated enthusiasm and involvement about what he had said. His success has led to more such programs.     

One afternoon Hicks took a break in her busy schedule to explain her intent of bringing literature into a visual-art venue.

“We have always believed in and championed the connection between word and image, between visual literacy and literacy so this was a natural connection point," she said.

"We also realize that people come to art from different access points. Stories and language are among those. There is a richness that comes when language illuminates some idea in a work of art, and when art inspires or is a starting place for writing,” Hicks said.

She also beleives these events “function as a multidisciplinary lens through which to view the museum's collection and special exhibitions and as a springboard for thoughtful conversation.”

This year Hicks brought Toibin back in late June and coordinated discussions between Pico Iyer (The Art of Stillness: Adventures of Going Nowhere) and Lewis de Soto (Empire: Photographs and Essays) on “Working Through Stillness” in early June.

She also organized a talk between Andrew Winer (The Marriage Artist; A Novel) and Geoff Dyer (White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World) on “Longing and Disappointment” in October.

Hicks describes these events.

“Geoff Dyer frequently writes beautifully about photography as well as his thought provoking early work on the battle of the Somme, which resonated so deeply with our current exhibition of British art," she said.

"Of course Pico is a long-time connector of art and the world. He and Lewis deSoto share an interest in stillness as part of the creative process so their pairing was a natural and arresting exploration of mind and spirit. In so many of these it has felt like we were eavesdropping on an intimate conversation between friends,” she said.

I asked Hicks if she has run into any surprises when organizing these talks.

“These writers have been most generous in their response. I think, in part, because they share the same love of the back and forth that happens between art and language. In some cases it was art that inspired them,” she said.

The next Parallel Stories will feature popular local author T.C. Boyle in conversation with Charles Donelan of the Independent at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, in the museum's Mary Craig Auditorium, 1130 State St.

Boyle began publishing in 1979 and has just come out with his 26th book, The Terranauts. He will speak about “The World We Imagined is Really Something Else.”

“He is always a marvelous fun, a performer really as well as a brilliant writer and provocateur in the best possible sense. He gets us thinking,” ” Hicks said.

It amazes me how Santa Barbara can attract so many top artists and performers. Since Parallel Stories fits into that category, I asked Hicks why it works in our relatively small town.

“We are a city of readers as well as supporters of the arts. A significant part of the series has been the question-and-answer portion following the reading. I have been impressed and surprised by the questions asked. And am equally impressed with the candor with which the authors reply. Our intimate scaled auditorium invites this,” Hicks said.

The last question was obvious: What’s next? No hesitation in her answer.

“I have a few requests out which I hope will come to fruition.," she said. "We are in conversation with Colm Toibin about the possibility of returning this May to do a reading from his new novel, House of Names. It is a retelling of  the classic tale of Clytemnestra. Lots to look forward to. It makes this former English teacher’s heart glad.”

Here's a separate literary heads up: SBMA will bring in an author who died 400 years ago. Well, Shakespeare won’t be there, but several creative interpretations of his work will be performed in the Pop-Up Shakespeare evening, 5-7:45 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17.

A while back, my husband, friends and I attended a similar event called Pop-Up Opera.

First we wandered through the galleries looking at favorite art pieces and checking out new exhibits. When we entered a large gallery toward the back, it was packed with people. Before we could ask why, a group of costumed musicians entered the room and began singing a popular opera melody.

Talk about a magical combination: My eyes studied the hanging art and my ears took in fine music. The image remains strong and exciting. Something the Santa Barbara Museum of Art often offers.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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