Harvey Dunn described art as “relating tones to create beauty—like chords of music—not the faithful copying of the model.” It stands to reason, then, that Dunn the artist—beloved in his native South Dakota for his depictions of the prairie, and in particular the strong women of the prairie—would have to appreciated the cross-artistic collaboration that culminated in performances last week at South Dakota State University, “An Evening with Harvey Dunn’s Feminine Images.”
The production, a result of several years of collaboration among faculty from a number of the University’s departments, from English to Theatre to Music to Visual Arts, was created around a dozen of Dunn’s paintings which were brought to life on the stage of the intimate Doner Auditorium through ekphrastic poems written in response to the images, woven into the sometime soothing marimba and other times jarring roar of the South Dakota prairie winds. The poems, written by English Department lecturer Darla Biel, include these, from “The Prairie is My Garden” and “Fixing Fence”:
Mother, you stand guard
among the prairie flowers:
Phlox, Scarlet Milkweed,
Wild Roses, Spiderwort,
your arm held back
(as a hen gathers her chicks) protecting
these young children—your best things—
with shears too dull for mending.
Leaning close, Sister knows your fear;
she’s learning the art of watchfulness.
Mother, tell us what you see as
you slant-eye the horizon.
Is it something there or something
past that’s tracking you?
Fire? Fever? Storms before the cellar’s dug?
Gardens of mothers and sisters left behind?
Bare, tiny graves you rolled past
on the slow way west?
Mother . . . tell us.
Woman fixing fence,
I love how you lean away from that post,
nothing holding you up but the force of your pull and
your boots dug into the dry prairie sod.
You are your own anchor:
your weight a ballast to hold you in place,
hair flying in the wind as the storm picks up
and you not even needing a coat.
Not that anyone’s offering . . .
that rap-tap, wrist-tapping man driving nails.
Woman, if you had that thing
you’d have your arm cocked back overhead
ready to deliver a blow worth nothing.
With flowing skirts that could as easily have been cut from Dunn’s landscapes as from a bolt of fabric, dancers carried out the artist’s vision of the woman, as he taught his students to “paint her more strongly. To be feminine is to be strong, not weak.” The paintings themselves formed a powerful backdrop, animated with such subtle movements as the lifting of a woman’s chin, or the gentle floating of a lock of her hair in the breeze.
I sometimes labor under the absurd illusion of being a lone artist, working on my craft in some inherent solitude of the prairie. And then, I drive to a nearby town and witness the work of nearly 200 students and faculty each bringing their own craft and artistry together in an audacious collaborative effort, successfully inviting an audience into one artist’s images not as a “copying of the model, ” as Dunn discouraged, but by creating a thing of beauty both outside of and within his work.
Painting by Harvey Dunn “The Prairie is My Garden, ” courtesy of South Dakota Art Museum. Poems by Darla Biel, used with permission. Post by LW Lindquist.
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How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
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—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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