Sketchbook: Flyover Country & Writing About Art

Flyover_WY Tracks.jpg

I love getting to see art in museums and gallery shows, but it's almost always a passive experience: walk slowly past each piece, stop for a few seconds of contemplation, move on. At most, I'll say a few words to the friend I'm with, or take a photo for Instagram. 

Writer and artist Erin Dorney is encouraging deeper and more creative interaction with art in her new zine, "Writing About Art: A How-To Guide." Dorney introduced the zine as part of her opening at the 410 Project in Mankato on November 28, and it's also available for download on her website. In six steps, the zine walks through the basics of ekphrasis, which means a literary description of or commentary on a piece of art. Dorney encourages people to practice ekphrasis wherever they might find art – a mural, a magazine ad, the dentist's office – and to not worry about showing anyone the first draft. 

I decided to try it for myself with a photo by Janie Hanson, whose work we're currently featuring on the Connect the Grey shop. I chose one of the photos from her Flyover Country series, took out a notebook and pen, and free-wrote anything I could think of. 

Divided almost equally between ground and sky
Mud and ice
Blue and white
Tracks heading over horizon
Straining to see what's beyond
Middle of nowhere
Narrowing towards focal point
Sound of wind
Was it this open and empty in every direction? 
Was it cold? Windy? 
Movement and stillness
Imagine the lines going on and on over the same landscape
Where do these lines run to? 

Next, I tried to assemble some of those initial thoughts into a short poem. 

Tracks heading over the horizon
straining to see what's beyond
wind rattling in friendly grass
pulled forward
the lines continue like this forever
landscape unchanging
equal parts earth and sky

I don't know exactly what the poem means – but the exercise got me to use a pen and paper to write freely, to think more carefully about a piece of art than I might have otherwise, and to imagine the circumstances of the photo being taken and what the artist was thinking. It stretched my brain in a new way and stimulated more original thoughts than I would have expected. 

And that's a practice I can keep trying anywhere, anytime! To try writing about art yourself, visit Erin Dorney's website to download and print the free zine.