My local arts group has just finished an ‘Ekphrastic Fantastic’ event where we have artistically responded, in series, to each others’ work.
So. Ekphrasis. What is it? Allow me to Ramonasplain.
Art can be described as a representation of reality. Ekphrasis is an artform but it is a little different. Ekphrasis is where an artist (you) produces an artistic response to another person’s artwork, producing [important part:] a representation of a representation.
The most well-known example of ekphrasis would have to be ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. You can hear it read to you at the great Poetry Foundation site which also has a nifty app for your iPad/iPhone, etc.
Try not to giggle at this cute line:
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Weirdly enough, on the subject of Grecian Urns, at about the same time as we decided to prosecute this ekphrastic activity, my church had a guest speaker who had just graduated with her PhD in Disability in the New Testament. She told us how people with disabilities were represented on Grecian urns as servers at the banquets of the rich, chosen because of their amusement value. And she told us how this degrading practice was turned on its head by Jesus when he told this story about a banquet:
A man once gave a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time for the banquet he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’ But one after another they all began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going out to examine them. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I just got married, and I cannot come.’ So the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’
The poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. All invited not to serve at the banquet as a grotesque form of belittlement, but invited to eat and belong.
Obviously, if you want to get a more nuanced understanding of the Grecian Urns and Jesus you are going to have to talk to the woman with the PhD. If anybody reading this blog wants to get in touch with her let me know and I will do my best put you in contact.
I don’t like to boast (since I have just written about attending church and all) but it was I who introduced the idea of ekphrasis to the arts group. At Macquarie Uni I was introduced to the term by Australia’s own great ekphrastic poet, Marcelle Freiman. She has produced some moving ekphrastic responses to some well-known visual artworks in her book White Lines Vertical. She was also one of my supervisors as I worked on the manuscript for Stroke the Tiger’s Tail.
The Arts Group has about fifty:fifty written word and visual artists. To kick off the Ekphrastic Fantastic I was sent a visual artwork by somebody outside the group and was given three weeks to write some ekphrastic poetry in response to the image. It was an impressionist painting of a French street scene. It was all cobbled streets, rain and umbrellas, and I was reminded of a similar artwork that used to hang in the hallway of my childhood home. That is where I went with my poetry. Here is an excerpt:

in our hall

the phone’s sole companion

is this story of storm and sanctuary, indistinctly worked in paint

a one-off, long-distance, Gallic call

I sent my ekphrastic poem to the next person in line and they make a visual artwork in response to the writing, passing it on to the person next in line. It moved on around the group  until we had all created a work in response to the previous person’s work. But we were only allowed to see the one artwork immediately before our own. The process was all mystery and intrigue.
It isn’t necessary to produce an ekphrastic response in series like our group. Just producing an artistic response to one artwork can be an enjoyable experience. Last year in one meeting we all produced artistic responses to a canvas of small birds. Each group member was taken in a different direction and it was great to create a “set” of responses to the one work – some visual, some in the written word.
Recently, we all got together and, in turn, unveiled each written or visual artwork  discussing the links that caused us to respond the way we did. It was a wonderful way to  experience how our own work made an impact on another artist. And now I am back to thinking about Grecian Urns and how they can teach us about Jesus’ radical subversion of our dehumanisation of vulnerable people. Perhaps they do deserve an ode, after all.

[I am flogging off my novel, Stroke the Tiger’s Tail to raise money for Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. Read some reviews here and buy it from Createspace or Amazon.]

It sneaks up on you in a gentle but real way. So beautifully constructed. It got right into me and at points brought me to tears.


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