The following guest post is by Katherine Blood, curator of fine prints in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division.
In our ongoing exploration of intersections between art and poetry in the Library’s graphic art collections, I’d like to share a fascinating, recent donation of somberly enthralling images by Texas artist Alice Leora Briggs (b. 1953). Her 2015-2016 portfolio of 12 woodcuts with chine collé, called The Room, was inspired by the eponymous poem by former Poet Laureate Mark Strand (1934-2014) with whom she had a longstanding correspondence beginning in the early 1990s. Each woodcut is accompanied by a line from Strand’s poem, which begins:
It is an old story, the way it happens
sometimes in winter, sometimes not.
The listener falls to sleep,
the doors to the closets of his unhappiness open
Briggs’ layered, hallucinatory imagery is at once highly specific and purposefully open-ended. She explains: “Strand leaves the front and back doors of The Room wide open. I hope my woodcuts offer this same freedom for viewers to wander through and explore these spaces on their own terms.”
In the first image, we see a portrait of the poet as protagonist and storyteller, gesturing toward an unseen audience. He sits in an armchair in front of a dreamlike space that oscillates between inside and out, intimacy and distance, comfort and unease. A tree trunk curves behind nets holding birds snagged in flight. More birds lie prone near the storyteller’s knee. Beyond his shoulder, Bruegel-esque workers seem to move toward a distant landscape interrupted by a wall of netting that begins to look more like a chain link fence. Briggs, who is also known for her sgraffito drawings, enhances the sense of multidimensional space and time with her masterful use of hatched and curving woodcut strokes (black ink) and chine collé (applied paper in pale yellow/tan) against the white paper support. Though first in the visual/poetic narrative, this was the last wood block Briggs carved for the portfolio.
Once the symbolic doors open in Strand’s poem, our journey continues with Briggs’ woodcut “and into his room the misfortunes come.” Here, we witness the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, in a scene recalling Renaissance portrayals by Masaccio and others but set in a modern context: the backyard of the artist’s friends Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden in Las Cruces, New Mexico. It was Bowden who wrote the text that accompanies Briggs’ images in their 2010 book Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez about drug cartel violence in the Mexican border town.
Next is Briggs’ “death by daybreak, death by nightfall,” which visually quotes a horrific scene recorded in a 2008 photograph by Alejandro Bringas showing seven slain men in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The artist shows them huddled near the edge of a cracked earth precipice, below falling figures based on a detail from Albrecht Dürer’s circa 1496-1497 woodcut Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand. Briggs visited Juárez on multiple occasions and spent time volunteering at a mental asylum and refuge called Vision en Accion.
As in several other images in the portfolio, “their wooden wings bruising the air” mingles interior and exterior elements. We spy a couple, nestled in bed with piles of books stacked between and beside them. Strand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Blizzard of One tops the center pile. Both Briggs’ and Strand’s names appear on the books’ spines along with Rumi, Dorothy Parker, Van Gogh, Kepler, and others. The warm shelter of the couple’s blanket is belied by the cavernous warehouse around them. Its ruined roof of crisscrossing metal braces conjures associations from Piranesi to 9-11. In this crowded scene, the artist leaves space for viewers to explore and activate the narrative with personal experiences, questions, and ideas. Is the figure on the left yawning or snoring, grimacing or shouting?
The Room‘s dark and light weaving of image and word came at the end of a 20-year correspondence between Briggs and Strand until the latter’s death in 2014. They first met when Briggs (writing under her alias Alice Brown-Wagner) reviewed Strand’s artist’s book with Bonnie Sucec, A Poet’s Book of Influences, while serving as visual arts critic for Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune. Strand himself was a visual artist as well as poet who studied with Josef Albers at Yale and worked as a painter, collagist, and printmaker. He also published works of art criticism focusing on such American realist artists as William Bailey and Edward Hopper. So both had spent time speaking the other’s languages as writer and artist, with Briggs recalling, “I wanted to introduce my images to his words, to see whether these strangers would get along … I once wrote to Mark that I did not understand his poems, but could not stay away from them. He replied that this was reasonable, ‘that love comes first, then understanding.’”
In creating The Room, Briggs says, “I built a little house with lumber Mark provided, the place where I live, a patio addition for Adam and Eve, a garden for the much loved poet, and a bridge to Juárez.” The full suite of 12 woodcuts completes Strand’s poem, all available for viewing in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, along with over 100,000 artist’s prints, including numerous examples in dialogue with poetry and literature.
(Katherine Blood thanks artist Alice Leora Briggs and Flatbed Press master printer/director Katherine Brimberry for generously answering a barrage of questions during her research and toward preparing this post. Many thanks also to Jill and Stephen Wilkinson for gifting The Room to the Library.)
Read “The Room” and other poems collected in Darker: Poems by Mark Strand (New York: Atheneum, 1970).
View other “From the Catbird Seat” blog posts featuring artists’ prints from the Library’s collections in dialogue with poetry: The Visual Poetry of Grace Hartigan, Ingenuity and Homage: Poetic Lotería by Artemio Rodríguez ,and Radical Form: Lesley Dill’s Poem Dress of Circulation.