So, which is more powerful: words, pictures, or both?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 18, 2012

Lots of positive response to last week’s column on the power of image to go places inaccessible to language. But don’t discount the power of words, most agreed.

From Ontario, Thelma Rhynas touched on that very column’s blend of word and image:

“Your column is so exciting,” she wrote. “I've spent the last hour devouring info about each artist (mentioned in the column) and viewing their fantastic paintings made available through links herein. Am shaking my head in wonder as I recall them, the talent of each artist, feeling blessed.”

Then there’s the relationship between story and the visual arts.

Jim Hillson, pastor of Cochrane’s St. Andrew’s United Church, wrote that my opening quotation from Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded him of something Ursula K. Le Guin said in connection with The Left Hand of Darkness.

He noted that, when the award-winning science fiction novel “was released in paperback, Le Guin wrote a forward which said something like: People ask me what the meaning of my story is. I can only respond that if I could tell you the meaning of my story, then I wouldn't need the story.

“As a husband of a visual artist I was definitely aware that if she could tell you the meaning of her work, she wouldn't have needed the work.”

About the power of word and image to revive the soul, local HR consultant Lori Craig wrote from Disneyland, where she was a conference speaker:

“The sun is streaming in the window of my room; I have coffee in hand as I enjoy your words and Murray's images – both sooooooo rich. Thank you for fanning me with the words and images of light and air and everything this new day brings.”

This power shared by word and image is about metaphor. Metaphor is any expression that points beyond its literal self to something else. Metaphor is an invitation to imagination. It can take many forms, such as a painting, a novel, a word, but especially a poem.

About the vivid, imagination-engaging power of poetry, for example, I was struck the other day by a few lines by Java Jamboree barista Emily Claire Axelson:

When I think of happiness,
I think of paintings
that look like photographs
of fogless fields
with dying grass
which somehow still manages to look

Emily’s experience of “fogless fields with dying grass” relates her first to paintings, then to photographs, and finally to the written word as metaphor for evoking a sense of happiness.

This is an example of esthetic response, the translation from one form of esthetic experience to another – reality, art, music, dance, drama, writing, etc. Dara Dines of Cochrane, an expressive arts therapist, holds workshops in this creative area. Dara wrote:

“Your article is aligned with my deepest beliefs: creating for people opportunities for expression and discovery. I love it!

“I invite my workshop participants to experiment with how to respond to an art piece, an event, a feeling, someone's performance, an election, anything at all, really, with another art form.

“For example, after a hike in Kananaskis together, we have made group drawings, collected words for a group poem, etc. The beauty that comes in people's responses is amazing.”

And then Dara said something very humbling: “I think this is what you do with your column, actually – a series of esthetic responses to the community you live in. You just happen to use words!”

Certainly, it is esthetic response simultaneously in two media, image and word, that underlies an email I received from fine art photographer/essayist Jack Blair, of Cochrane:

"Some visual artists will say that if you cannot communicate your message or the emotions you want to bring forth with your image, then the image is lacking,” he wrote. “Some writers will say that if you cannot communicate an image to your readers through your written work, then your writing isn’t good enough.”

Jack absolutely disagrees with this polarization.

“In order to help viewers feel a consonance with my art,” he wrote, “I’ve found it useful to blend my fine art photography with my writing to create an integrated, whole art form."

And on this point, I’ll close with a vivid assertion by a master at blending word and image:

“Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent” —Dr. Seuss.


© 2012 Warren Harbeck

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