Extraordinary writers find new meaning in Stanley Museum of Art collection

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Extraordinary writers find new meaning in Stanley Museum of Art collection
“In a Time of Witness” cover. Courtesy of the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

IOWA CITY, IOWA.- The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art merges visual and literary arts to generate new knowledge with “In a Time of Witness,” a book of original poems and short stories responding to artworks in the Stanley’s rich collection. The book, slated for release Sept. 22, brings together 31 celebrated authors, including multiple Pulitzer Prize winners, U.S. Poets Laureate and National Medal recipients. All of the contributors are alumni of the University of Iowa’s renowned writing programs: the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the International Writing Program and the Literary Translation Program. Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winner and recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal, writes the foreword.

“The list of Iowa Writers' Workshop alumni who contributed to 'In A Time of Witness' exemplifies the Workshop's distinguished legacy. It also includes some of the most exciting new writers in the world," said Lan Samantha Chang, contributing author, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Elizabeth M. Stanley professor in the arts at the University of Iowa. “Seeing the alumni discover new forms of interpretation as they respond to works of art in ‘In a Time of Witness’ has been truly exciting and reinforces the unlimited potential of literary and visual artists working together.”

The book is edited by Derek (DK) Nnuro, curator of special projects at the Stanley. Also an author, his debut novel, “What Napoleon Could Not Do,” was published by Riverhead/Penguin Random House in February 2023 to wide acclaim and was recently featured in former President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. “Illuminating works of art from across time and around the world, ‘In a Time of Witness’ offers a timeless collection of writings that, through interpretation of artworks’ present-day significance, suggest a more promising future,” said Nnuro.

“In a Time of Witness” removes the barrier between artist and scholar, showcasing a powerful vision for art interpretation. A work of art in its own right, the book’s themes are inspired, in part, by words once spoken by the late Toni Morrison: “Each generation has a kind of love.” The book is organized into three parts – Homeland, Sacred and Freedom – with each section symbolizing the different themes of love that are most important to this generation.

In Homeland, writers explore the complicated associations of the theme, from imagining safe havens where romance blooms to stories of immigration, escapism and recontextualizing the body. Carmen Maria Machado interprets Ana Mendieta’s 1977 work “Thesis Triptych (Imagen de Yagul, Silueta Tehuana, and Ix-Chell),” which was part of Mendieta’s Master of Fine Arts thesis at the University of Iowa. In her story “¿Dónde Está Ana Mendieta?,” Machado characterizes Iowa and its brutal winters as a challenging environment that takes its toll on a young Cuban American artist.

“I have long been obsessed with Ana Mendieta—the intensity and singularity of her work and the horror and injustice of her death. When I realized I had a chance to write towards and about her, I knew I had to take it,” said Machado. “I found a wonderful book about her work that included a lot of biographical material, and I was struck by a detail about her and her sister coming from Havana without their family and having to live as near-orphans in the frozen Iowa winter. It was such a potent detail. I wanted to run with it, so I did—creating a fictional story in that space.”

A.M. Homes responds to Andy Warhol’s “Mick Jagger” in “Eating Oysters with Andy – A Fictional Interview Based on Real Events.” In the work, Homes imagines a conversation between the famed singer and artist. She finds inspiration in an interaction between The Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol when the band rented Warhol’s Montauk, New York compound to rehearse for their upcoming tour in 1975.

The Sacred section offers a global exploration of the theme, examining incidents of violence in the name of religion, interpretations derived from an ancient Sanskrit text, reflections on death and a Yoruba praise song with its translation adding an additional layer of response. In “Rise, holy, then bloom,” Tameka Cage Conley presents part prayer, part poem expressing human loss and resilience in her response to “Harlem Woman” by Elizabeth Catlett.

Juan Felipe Herrera offers new perspectives on Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” the most monumental artwork ever completed by the artist, famously commissioned by gallerist Peggy Guggenheim for the entrance of her New York townhouse. Herrera’s poem “Future Forms Future Worlds” argues that the sacred, and even the miraculous, is best found in the creation of art itself.

“There are various layers of influence in motion between Jackson Pollock and the three great Mexican muralists Siqueiros, Rivera and Orozco. Perhaps the most influential is the slippage of the figure and line of the painting breaking out from the canvas,” said Herrera. “I am inspired by Pollock’s timelessness and see his work as a future form signaling a future world. I view this new poem as a Pollock poem, a formless future that appears with unknown words, zigzags and pop-pop-pop!”

In the final section, literary works explore hard-won freedoms, shining lights on the global struggle for Black freedom, the ongoing challenge of Indigenous freedom and perspectives on freedom through a feminist lens and in the eyes of a child. The book concludes on a hopeful note with the poem “Yellow Embracing Spring” by Rita Dove. Her response to “Spring Embraces Yellow” by Alma W. Thomas denotes the defeat of hindrance, celebrating life and all its possibilities.

Conceived as a teaching resource, “In a Time of Witness” is designed to bring people together and spark conversations. The book will be used as a tool for university and K-12 students, including a University of Iowa graduate student seminar that will utilize the Museum as a classroom.

“Poetry is deeply involved with visual arts, and the outstanding, wide-ranging collections of the Stanley Museum of Art lend a crucial dimension to my students’ search for enrichment, inspiration, provocation and growth,” said Mark Levine, contributing author and professor of poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The most basic exercise—standing in front of a painting or sculpture with a notebook and pen and responding in language in the moment of encounter—opens amazing opportunities for imaginative flight and for considering the affinities and differences between verbal and nonverbal media, modes of representation and cultural and historical positions of the poet and the artist.”

“In a Time of Witness” will be published by the Stanley Museum of Art and distributed by University of Iowa Press.

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