Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Nance Van Winckel and the Art of the Photoem

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I recently used a poem by Nance Van Winckel as a prompt in my Poetry Newsletter. When I requested permission, Nance told me about a new project of hers called Photoems. I checked out the Photoems website she sent me to and immediately was intrigued by this new art form. I then asked Nance to do a Q & A with me so that I could learn more about her project and spread the word about it.

Nance lives in Spokane, Washington. She is married to the visual artist, Rik Nelson. She is the author of 5 books of poetry, most recently No Starling (U of Washington P), and three books of short stories. She is also the recipient of two NEAs, a Pushcart, and several other prizes. She has taught poetry at colleges, festivals, and writing conferences, and has served as poet-in-residence at various universities. She also served as editor for the journal Willow Springs. She currently teaches in the MFA in Writing programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

According to Nance's website, "She melds photography (her own) with small poems she 'graffities' onto the photographic surface." Let's take a look first at two samples of this cross-discipline art.

Kid You Not Was How We Loved You Best

 Giddied-Up Was How You Liked You Best

DL:  Many people consider graffiti defacement of public or private property. But at your Pho-toems page, you say, "And as with poetry, graffiti tackles the big emotions of love and grief and, perhaps most of all, of sheer being, unequivocal presence." How did you come to regard graffiti as an art form?

NVW:  The path by which I came to graffiti and the one by which I came to photography are themselves entwined. My husband is a visual artist and he has always loved looking at graffiti when we travel. Since I'm usually the one carrying the camera, he'll often turn to me and say, "Shoot that wall, would you, honey?" And later, after I'd get these pictures on my computer, I'd find myself admiring the graffiti too: its color, its passion, often a wild abandonment, and a crisscrossing of conversations taking place on an edifice as people tagged back to one other.

Over the past seven years, I've been experimenting with digitally adding my own little textual responses to the walls I liked. A wall speaks to me. To stand and look at such a wall is to recognize that there are others who aren’t like me and/or don’t like me. From early times of wall-writing, people have had that basic urge of “graffiari,” to scratch, to say, I am here too. I live among you. Read this and remember me.
I do, however, try to keep gang insignia out of my work. If some appears in a photo I've shot, I often bury it under some other graphic image. I don't want messages of violence in my work.

Interestingly, the graffer is often staking claim to boarded-up buildings he or she perceives as wastelands. Unclaimed walls as unclaimed spaces. In other words, I’m thinking about the graffer as a kind of urban pioneer. Of what’s unoccupied and/or abandoned in the urban landscape as frontier. Open to its next use. A reuse. My musings have to do with the American impulse to go out and take that which seems to be available. It’s how many of us came to be here, and it may be deeper down in our psyches than we can know.

The French writer and poet, Michel Butor, talks about a too-rigid division between visual and literary art. “Painting,” he says, “is also something we read… literature is also something we look at. The [physical] presence of words ruins…the retaining wall our teaching constructs in between literature and the arts.”
DL:  Tell us how you got into this new form. Has being married to a visual artist played a role in your work? How did you move from poetry to photography and at what point and why did you decide to fuse them together?

NVW:  I'm sure I wouldn't have made much progress with this photo-collage work without my husband's feedback. He has been a full-time working artist for the last 20 years. He occasionally offers some responses to my pieces. Sometimes he'll say simply, "Next, please." You may think this is harsh, but I am keen (with poetry and stories too!) on just letting go of probable failures as soon as possible. Move on. And especially since I am still relatively new to visual composition, I know I have much to learn and am grateful for help in pointing me toward what holds potential. Most of all, Rik has helped me figure out what skills I need to acquire. These have been many and studying them should take me right up to the time of my demise. I'm talking about basic elements of graphic design, visual composition, photographic lighting, lenses, exposures, and on and on! I'm talking about freakin' perspective!

What I have brought to the table are a few Photoshop skills. I confess I am old enough to have learned Photoshop before it was Photoshop. When I worked as a literary magazine editor (Willow Springs), I used a desktop publishing program called Adobe PageMaker. When this evolved into Photoshop, I followed it along. Finding cover art for the magazine and laying out pages were parts of the editing work I especially loved.
DL:  Describe for us the process of creating a pho-toem. Is it similar to the way you compose a poem? Does revision play a role?

NVW:  Roo N Boom Love More Than You was graffiti I found on a crumbling tavern wall. Those words seemed to me, as I clicked the shutter, an absolutely lovely poem. Later when I saw the photograph on my monitor, I decided I could not improve upon the piece with additional language. So I chose to augment that facade with faces from a Victorian photograph album; the page in the album had itself been a collage. So there was a collage within my collage. I'm quite aware that the work I'm doing is, at heart, collage. Often as I work on a photograph, I will think of some text for it, or sometimes when I'm working on a regular poem, a line or a small phrase will hit me as right for a particular photoem in progress. I generally work on about 4-6 photoems at the same time. I move around between them. I may take off a text layer from one wall and try it on another. I aim to see what a wall needs and what might live upon the wall naturally. I like how digital layers are easy to delete and move and alter in seemingly endless ways.

Like any collage artist, I have drawers (computer files really) of parts. Many parts! I am in love with the public domain. Much of the graphic material I use on walls comes from open-use sites (like WikiCommons). I have files of old ads, of etchings and line drawings from old books (some of which I've hand-colored), of old photographs (my family and friends' families), of ex libris bookplates and postcards. Then, of course, I have the photographs that I've taken of the walls themselves (and several trains too!). I've done a whole series set in Butte, Montana, of the tumble-down but still hauntingly beautiful early 1900's buildings. I spend much of my time interacting with the photograph itself—as a visual composition—before I begin to add text and other elements. I want the text to be one element, not necessarily the focal point.

DL:  You've said, "I have not left poetry. I'm just putting it on walls." Are you still writing regular poems, that is, poems that appear on a piece of 8" x 10" paper? And where do the short stories fit in? How do you manage your creative time? Can you juggle several forms at the same time or do you go back and forth among the various forms in which you work?

NVW:  I'll have a new book of "regular" poems, called Pacific Walkers, out next year. I certainly have not left poetry! But I am interested in other ways of getting it out into the world. Yes, I still like the page, but reading—and writing on!—walls has a certain stealthy excitement about it. I like how succinct the wall makes me be. I like the idea of text as physical thing, having paint chips and plaster flecks, having bird shit mixed in with the ink.

It's been helpful to me to teach workshops lately in this field, a class called "Text Off the Page." I teach in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I have some wonderful faculty friends there who have wise and intriguing ideas on this subject and are moving in their own off-the-page directions: Jody Gladding with her ecological emphasis (language among rocks and trees!), Mary Ruefle with her erasure books and much else, and Jen Bervin who integrates text and textiles. But we all learn so much too as we work with our students and the various aesthetic issues that surface. For instance, does someone viewing a certain piece in a gallery really want to stand in front of it and read a 100-word poem within it? A question I often pose to students: what does the text you're putting on that shoe (as an example) have to do with its shoe-ness? (I put a link to a video of some of my students' work on my website too.)

As for creative time, I confess most of my day is devoted to making. I work on poems in the mornings, then lunch, a walk, and then I spend most of the afternoons on the visual art. Stories are an altogether different beast. Stories mean clearing the deck. I wait until I feel I have several of the story's dramatic pieces (again with the "parts"!), then I start writing: generally a scene a day. I keep a notepad for scenes to get to . . . eventually. I don't worry initially about the scenes' order. I'm just trying to stay with the people and what is going on dramatically. But when I'm working on that first draft, everything else in my life comes to a halt. I've always loved that poems can weave so much more easily in and out of my day. I am lucky to not have a full-time job, no children, and a very small abode to keep clean.
DL:  How are you getting this new work out into the world? Is there a commercial aspect to your new work? Are the pieces for sale?

NVW:  I have only just begun to tiptoe a bit into the art gallery (and juried shows) world, and I have had some beginners' luck. My first solo show is up right now! (There's a link to a video of that on the website.)  As with beginning to venture into literary publishing, it's been helpful to me with the visual art to begin to get some reactions and feedback now from gallery owners and show curators.

I have just this past month collected some of my work for this new Photoems website, and it is possible for a person to purchase work there. I'm also going for a little cross-over with literary journals, which comes mainly in the form of the "altered ads" I'm creating. These are ads (now in the public domain) which I partially rewrite. A few of these have been published, and others are about to be.

Mostly, I have just appreciated having this site as a way to share my work with friends and especially with others who are also working in the visual-verbal realm.

Readers, I encourage you to visit Nance's personal website where you'll find a good deal of additional information about her work as well as a gallery of Photoems. Then also be sure to visit the online gallery where her Photoems are displayed and available for purchase.


  1. Great interview, Diane! Thank you! Nance's work is the cover of the Fire On Her Tongue Anthology. I loved learning more about this new art. Absolutely wonderful! I'll be sharing this. Thanks so much for sharing it with us!

  2. How cool is that! I probably read that somewhere but it didn't register in my brain. Nance is also a wonderful poet--it was her poetry that led me to her art.

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  4. Diane and Nance, thanks so much for this wonderful interview. Nance, I love what you say about the impulse behind graffiti: "I am here too. I live among you. Read this and remember me." I think that will change the way I look at graffiti now. So much rich insight here about the nature of the creative process, too--I will share it with my students.

  5. Fabulous interview. Nance is a lovely soul and I admire her off-the-page work. I'm excited to learn more about your poetry, too Diane!

  6. Thanks, Emily. I first fell for Nance's poetry. Then she introduced me to her new project. I love the project and admire the new direction her poetry is taking her in. A bold move.

  7. Thanks to all who dropped by this page! I appreciate the kind responses. It was a delight chatting with you, Diane, and congrats on the new book!


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