In the 1970s, when I first met John Warren Travis (b. 1932), all evidence pointed to his being a Bay Area theatre costume and sometime set designer. But I couldn't help noticing that his renderings stood on their own as some of the loveliest drawings I'd ever seen. There was an unusual whoosh or panache to the line, and the colors weren't imposed but seemed to emerge from the lines in a most striking manner. And his costume designs were suspiciously painterly—that is, achieved with the particular eye of a painter rather than with the clunky designer-ly eye of many designers I had worked with.
When J.W. Travis designed my costumes for the role of Natalya Petrovna in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," in 1985, we fell into a conversation about acting. Acting, we agreed, was the process of "painting" yourself on the stage: characters, relationships, stories are shown in compositions of line, mass, color, texture, rhythm, weight, contrast, focal point—both literally and figuratively. I remembered that: an actor is a painter. It's a conversation I still find inspiring today.
In 2011, it was not surprising to learn that J.W. Travis was exhibiting paintings in San Francisco. Or that some of his paintings referred to the theatre world, or to plays. At one of his openings, we fell into a conversation: the painter is a kind of actor; a painting is a play; the canvas is a stage; an image implies a text and collaborates with a text. So, all these years later, we finally had it: an actor is a painter, and a painter is an actor.
The discussion turned to "ecphrastic" art—works of art inspired by poems. That painting-and-poetry combination: my cup of tea! Here is some of our correspondence about John Warren Travis's ecphrastic painting:
Lissa Tyler Renaud: Tell me about the "ecphrastic" in your work.
John Warren Travis: "Ecphrastic" refers to a work of art—a painting, installation, or performance inspired by a poem or by lyric written words. Or by other works of art. It is a harsh word, not used much. Google it. Wallace Stevens gave a lecture at the Met and talked about it, I think it was in the '50s. He used the word. Research that. [Read about the lecture here] What I do would be called contemporary ecphrastic. I find the word ecphrastic unpleasant. Let us only use it sparingly. Kind of a knockout punch.
I believe my awareness of a painter inspired by a poet began when I was preparing a talk on Joan Mitchell for the University Arts Club. Do you know her? She admired Rilke and was a friend of many artists and poets in the '50s. I prepared a projector slide that was entitled: "Pop art, op art, flop art and slop art, I fall into the last two categories." This is a quote from Joan Mitchell herself. There was a palpable hush over the audience when Mitchell's "Hemlock" came on the screen and I read portions of Wallace Stevens' poem, "Domination of Black."
Domination Of Black
At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.
The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry -- the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?
Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.
Then I talked about some of my own work. When I ended, a well-known critic exclaimed: You are good!" A friend ran up and said, "Well, you got what you came for." All went well.
And I remembered an earlier lecture I gave on "Pericles" when I designed the costumes for the show in the '90's, and when I quoted Shakespeare, again there was this hush: people listening, not just looking. Later, a friend did some sleuthing and found the word "ecphrastic." Much ensued.
Joan claimed her paintings were inspired by poets. Her mother was editor of a poetry magazine; her first husband was an editor. She claimed not to be illustrating the poems, but rather allowing her prowess with paint to express her feelings.
What do you understand by Joan Mitchell's "prowess with paint" expressing a poem?
Her prowess, her technique served her emotive and intellectual persona. She emphasized emotion in her interviews, but there is too firm a hand behind every stroke for it all to be intuitive. The majesty of her hand mixing hand-ground paints and varnishes: loose and intrinsic to her feelings.
Do you know the work of Frank O'Hara, the '50s poet? Close friend of Joan Mitchell's and Jean-Paul Riopelle's. "To the Harbormaster" was his masterpiece and one of her most successful ecphrastic paintings. (There's that word again.) His masterpiece and hers. An expression of her feelings and not an illustration. The delicate balance between feeling and telling, narrating!
Well, this is all really interesting because I love Mitchell's work, and now you bring her up, I'd say that in a way I love your work for many of the same reasons I love her work. I know "Hemlock," and also "Harbormaster." That period of art is one of my favorites overall, and yes, I've seen the same quality in your work since I started seeing it. But I also see something else in your work, and that is the theatre. I see painting and poetry in her work, but I see painting, poetry and theatre in your work. A response in painting to the theatre, its world, its light, the people who inhabit it, its gestures. Even in the paintings that have no literal reference to the theatre. The spatiality, the sense of gesture. And your way of handling extremes of experience is different, your "handwriting" is different, and very, very appealing to me.
"Dolores, After Murillo"
In the early 1980s, during the reign of Michael Smuin, John McFall asked me to design a new piece he was doing for the San Francisco Ballet's Stravinsky festival. "Badinage," nine minutes in duration—Balanchine had choreographed it once upon a time. Our piece premiered at the Opera House, toured Europe; photographs of the dancers in costume were used for the poster (now in the Performing Arts Library and Museum collection in San Francisco).
The reason I am talking about this project is that it contains the seeds of all we are talking about. Costumes moving under lights, no scenery. It truly was about painting the stage, about a moving painting. Under lights.
I am a painter now and all the past work was leading me here. I am trying to pinpoint the move from plays to poems. Away from the theatre, I ran headlong into poetry.
I am personally elated you caught the Joan Mitchell ball.
So you encountered what you've called "ecphrastic occurrences."
Yes, there were other paintings. "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"—people usually say it's by Breughel. William Carlos Williams based a poem on that. And W. H. Auden did, too. Rubens also based a painting on the Icarus myth. There was Cy Twombley, who writes words from Greek tragedy on his paintings. He would put actual words from ancient poems in his paintings. Howard Hodgkin. Titian.Then I went to the Whitney in 2012 and saw a large, contemporary tapestry by a woman artist, Elaine Reichek, reproducing Titian's painting, "Bacchus and Ariadne." Below were embroidered letters of some lines by T. S. Eliot.
All this excited me, this tracing backwards: a tapestry of a painting depicting an ancient myth, and the Eliot. Seminal. I saw more than just works inspired by poems; I saw the grand crossover. I am mindful of the potential for this as a kind of stage—a postmodern stage: prose, painting, tapestry. Mind you, there are many artists working in performance art, in installation. My own tools are some ability to draw and paint, and a capacity for work. The "tracing backwards" made me look ahead, look forward to finding my own scenarios.
I began to try and think this way, but seldom succeeded. I attempted "Lana Turner has Collapsed," by Frank O'Hara: it was a significant failure, a blunt illustration.
Yet! It was alive! Alive with idea, with inspiration. Back when I was designing costumes or scenery—well, this was a sort of a "coming home": a new kind of text for drawing, for painting. No more plays: some poems, some great. Well, some of my own work was not so good… but I did a painting for a poem called "Blues So Bad." And I began to see.
What did you begin to see?
To see… the collision between images and words. Why do I say that? I had been making a living designing costumes, and I found painting and drawing very freeing.
But I could see a weakness in my work. The poems gave it spine. I realized that a lifetime of doing plays was easily moved to poets. From play to poem: this can be very good. Like the theatre designer working in service of the play. Jean-Louis Barrault said: we do the classics to serve the modern author. The past servant to the future. I felt a happiness.
It is interesting how many painters founder when their works have no story. Yet why do they need a story? Yet it seems to me all great paintings have a story.
Maybe it started with putting on plays in church. The wise men, Mary: blue crepe paper. Yes, I've always been involved with storytelling.
Well, increasingly, I have been conscious of exchanging plays for poems, and this has been the major thrust of my work. At first, simply grabbing one word or line, then trying to give expression to the whole poem. Making up my own rules.
The ecphrastic is always what is behind, what is needed to work. A musical text. Another painting. Not just poems. Titian's "Bacchus and Ariadne" inspiring T.S. Eliot. A text rules, guides, even if it is only in the mind, or theoretical.
To me, when you were designing in the theatre, you were already painting. Using actors, color, light, space to paint. But now you've gathered—concentrated—all that energy, sensibility and discipline onto canvas. What used to occupy the larger stage space is now occupying the focused space of the canvas.
I don't mean you are "theatrical." Theatre in the best sense—and why we bothered with it in the first place—contains rhythms and gestures that touch a very deep place, and it's meaningful that those rhythms, those patterns of gesture are arrived at with other people, as collaborations.
When you paint now, your paintings are still collaborations—with the poets you respond to, with the painters whose work inspires you, and with everything that means anything to you, really. In this sense, I always find it odd when people talk about writing as a "solitary occupation." Are you kidding?—every second of writing is attended by so many people, sounds, impressions—writing seems noisy and crowded to me. A collaboration! In this context, I am interested in the responsiveness in your painting to work in other media.
Now I am going to retrieve my books on Joan Mitchell, which I gave away. By the way, I find something outré about the word ecphrastic; Mitchell never uses it.
Part of her appeal to me is that she maintained her own style, in the shadow of all the giant men: Kline, Hoffman, Guston, Pollock, etc. Then it was all over when Frankenthaler, Warhol, Rauschenberg and Johns took over Pop; then there was the abstract in Pop—well, all this was in New York, and Joan: away to Paris! She described Frankenthaler as a "tampon painter"!
The brush was an extension of her, of Joan Mitchell. Her feelings, actions, emotions, love of poetry, for titles, for using poetry for titles. I think good titles are vastly important.
She was friends with many poets. For example, she did an exhibit with the poet James Schuyler. Pastels with poems on the page. In her interviews she defined herself as: not an impressionist. She never caved to Pop Art.
Clement Greenberg hated Joan Mitchell. He loved Jackson Pollock. Their work is alive and no one knows or cares about Clement Greenberg today. I relish thoughtful, good criticism. Sadly, Clement thought he was more important than the artists, that he wasn't just a reviewer.
Why should one, after years of hard work, need to explain himself. The human condition? Questions still to ask. Importantly, it applies to my painting. Hard lessons learned and relearned.
What story are we telling here? The story is one of surrender and salvation. The story is about giving up to get up. The story is about people who do odd things. Paint, write, find a starship.
Show me three examples of your ecphrastic painting.
Now I am more interested in Wallace Stevens than in Mitchell. I worked with a Mitchell-esque approach, but always different from her style—with some of her techniques, but now I feel my own.
Stevens is the poet who wrote "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." My blackbird drawings are based on his poem.
With "Blackbird," I just barged in. Sinister bird, simple and humble. Scary. I just started drawing. Stevens is, I think, actually talking about death?
I worked as a craftsman, struggling to bring more to the work than paintings as décor, over-the-couch paintings.
My respect for Stevens is for his use of language, his struggle with his limitations, both rational and intuitive. He succeeds by merging them. I would try the same, in my own way. He is using words for emotive effect in many instances, not to put over intellectual ideas. My major key to understanding the dense use of language is to see it as an espousal of early paganism and a free worship of nature. He uses words akin to rocks piled like Stonehenge.
I felt good about the lines, the marks and the renderings. You know how, in acting, someone is "indicating." I felt in these drawings that my lines were real. I was not flourishing, or "ruffling"… The poem spoke to me and I tried to answer.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
"13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," series
Howard Hodgkin was famously inspired by A. E. Housman and his poem, "The Land of Lost Content." It was an early foray for me. I was painting the park across from me at the blue hour. When I found this poem, it all clicked. I did a series, called "L'Heure Bleue." A real example of ecphracticism (!) on my part. Howard Hodgkin did it first and brilliantly.
The Land of Lost Content
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
"L'Heure Bleue 02"
"Having a Coke with You" is the title of a poem by John O'Hara. It is an expression of my reaction and emotions stirred by the poem.
It is possible to trace my shift from theatre design to fine arts with "Coke." Not that I have mastered it, but… "Having a Coke with You" is the mise en scene. I have taken the poem by O'Hara and set the feelings it evokes in me onto a stage.
One must establish an aesthetic, the rules of engagement. It is important to me to cut loose from anything either literal or atmospheric. These are things I am thinking about lately. There are no words for what you are feeling.
I've done a number of large paintings inspired by O'Hara's poems. I did a series of abstract duets based on "Coke." Pure paint. I was painting paint and synchronicity. Two people.
I am looking at "Coke," and I see yellows from sunflower to mustard; pinks from flesh pink to dark dusty rose; purples from lavender to purple black like black tulips.
Having a Coke with You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I'm with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o'clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it's in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven't gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn't pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it
"Having a Coke with You 02"
Other thoughts for now?
I think we should conjure an ecphrastic evening of paintings and poets.
Conjuring something ecphrastic: that's a plan.
We are only limited in what we try to say by the limitations of what we are trying to say it with.
Listening for Readers
Wallace Stevens reading his own work
Bill Murray gives a superb reading of Wallace Stevens
Housman's voice is famously lost to us. Here is a so-so reading of "Land of Lost Content" from a BBC poetry program:
Here is a more satisfying reading, by the great Hume Cronyn, of a poem from the same poem cycle:
Frank O'Hara reading "Having a Coke with You" in 1966, a matter of weeks before his accidental death.
Cover Photo - Susie Shaughnessy