Article for Teachers

Painting Poems

Going inside paintings and exploring the secrets of imagined lives.

               “I saw color and I saw a story. I saw a face and I knew a lifetime.” 
                    —Ntozake Shange, Riding the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings


Encouraging teenagers to get back in touch with the most imaginative sides of themselves isn’t always an easy process. Too often, they’ve abandoned the sensory thinking of earlier youth for the kind of logical book report-oriented thinking that is rewarded in school. I try to show students that writing is an expression of one’s individual perspective, a necessary fusion of inner and outer environments, a marriage of reality and fantasy. I tell them that what distinguishes and finally humanizes writing is the personal record of sensory and emotional detail. I, as reader, empathize with the familiar and am tantalized by the unknown, the quotidian as seen through another’s eyes. The uniqueness of an individual writer’s take on things is what draws me in. I tell young writers that they need to put themselves in their work and to take risks, no matter how they might feel.

One recent summer, I worked with mostly junior high school students at the Stapleton Branch Library on Staten Island. I’d worked there the previous spring with a group of students and because we’d had a good time together, I was expecting a fairly large number to return for the July workshop. Due to the whirlwind of summer activities including day camp, summer jobs, and, I was told vociferously by one librarian, the choice of blue Monday for one of the workshop days, we were fortunate to have the consistent attendance of four students.

One of the four was Diana Sheriff, an eight-year-old who, according to the proposal, could not possibly have participated in the workshop because she was not part of the young adult population served by the library. I enjoyed Diana’s presence. She quickly became comfortable with getting right to the sensory, with using unusual word combinations to describe ordinary things—an impulse related to the invention of vocabulary, the formation of language. Her sister Makeda, age thirteen, and April Malone, age twelve, had attended the previous workshop and were already used to my coaching methods and warm-up activities: drawing or role-playing images in poems; experiencing poetry or music in a slightly darkened room. Although Diana was supposed to be amusing herself elsewhere in the library that first day, she seemed to be enjoying the relaxed feel of the workshop room. I asked her to stay and try her hand at writing. At first, Diana needed convincing that she could write. She worried a lot about spelling and was afraid of embarrassing herself in front of the older kids. In order to get her involved, to let her know that I valued her input, I suggested that the group write a collaborative sensory poem. Beginning with Diana and including the librarian Alberta Muir, the poets called out lines and I wrote them down:

                                heat feels like
                                hanging grapes out the window
                                to turn to raisins
                                like frying an egg on Dad’s truck
                                and getting into trouble
                                like boiling water on the floor
                                like ice cream melting

After checking out our sticky heat hot noise warm-up piece, we were ready to try Painting Poems, one of my favorite writing assignments.

In her book Riding the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings, Ntozake Shange creates a prose/poetry dialogue with works of visual art she feels connected to. In the prologue she writes, “I speak to these sculptures, wood prints and paintings as I would to a friend over coffee or champagne.” She emphasizes that her conversation with art is not “an explanation of a visual maze,” that writers can re-interpret and be creatively inspired by visual metaphors. I wanted similarly to inspire the poets of Stapleton Library.

In the next session, I gave each student a postcard of a William H. Johnson painting. The students seemed to relish observing “paintings” they could hold in their hands. I talked a bit about Johnson’s life. He was an African-American artist who painted portraits and scenes in a murky impressionist style. He studied painting formally in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and in Europe, and didn’t want to be restricted by a racist art world to painting in the black folk style that sometimes captured his imagination. Johnson’s “folk paintings,” however, were well-received in the States; it is for this work that he is best known.

These paintings are characterized by a sensual fluidity, startling and bright color combinations, and intense depictions of life in Afro-America: an outdoor baptism; men in a chain gang; a dancing couple; a lynching. I asked the students simply to observe the paintings—no writing yet.

Then I dimmed the lights and put on a cassette recording of music by Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. I asked them to freewrite, to let their images interact freely with images in the painting, to allow the musical sounds, and the images, feelings, and colors suggested by those sounds, to blend into each other on the page.

Doing the assignment along with students, I checked my own Johnson print and uttered bugged-out responses: orange mule prays to the virused soul of a bongo tree screaming “thief, murder!” or yellow skying juices my licorice mood—in an effort to get students to bring out sound and color.

I walked around the room and addressed questions to the group as a whole, and sometimes to individual students after carefully reading their work: Try putting some of your sensory experience of this poem into your piece. Does the change in lighting affect your mood or your writing? What does the music smell or taste like? What colors do you hear? Do animals or objects speak or dance? Some students tuned me out and proceeded to do reportage on their paintings. For others, the questions became catalysts to exploration.

Using my variation of writer/teacher Julie Patton’s free association exercise, I encouraged students to experiment with how the imagistic qualities of music can blend with the musical quality of words to enliven and deepen writing. Inspired by Johnson’s paintings, their poetic stories began to acquire layers of music and color, as in mixed-media creations. Sounds from Vasconcelos’s music (shakers, singing, insistent drums) began to blend with images from Johnson’s work: The exaggerated features of Johnson’s huge-limbed folk moved to a music that even inhabited the trees. Eyes became handclaps. Blinking was noisy. Colors travelled spilling songs as they moved. I also asked students to incorporate the incidental noise of the library into their poems—the air conditioner’s hum, children chattering, and the room’s lighting, decor, and mood—if they related to what they were writing about.

Makeda and April chose to freewrite in lines. Makeda’s poem was a dialogue with Johnson’s painting Red Cross Handing Out Wool for Knitting. Her writing was filled with music:

                                The Sounds of a Cry

                                The bandages of the American Red Cross
                                touch the warmth of a helpless flesh.
                                Hands and toes reach out to beats
                                of a drum like a heart listening to
                                the sounds of a crying tongue. Children
                                watch the dark lights of a body
                                in pale washed-out cloth
                                move to a dead stop. A rattle of
                                blue is wrapped over a summer-like
                                skin. Eyelids clap as others
                                look on. The fire in the name
                                American speaks. The trees stand
                                to a drunken beat heard away
                                in far off bands of clouded
                                blue not knowing where it’s leading
                                to. Cheers of purple are heard way
                                out there leaving no traces
                                of how or where to reach. People
                                wait for other signs.

Makeda’s syncretism of mood, room, painting, and music helps give her piece a grounded surreality and an unusual depth resonating with insight into the motivations of her human and personified characters.

April conversed with Jitterbugs, another work by Johnson, and was inspired to write a traditional narrative about an adult situation:

                                Young Love

                                Two young lovers 
                                spin each other around 
                                a look in each other’s 
                                eyes. She wonders if they’ll 
                                be together for the rest 
                                of life. Not a care in the 
                                world. In their colorful 
                                apartment of orange, blue, 
                                beige, and a scuff-marked 
                                green floor, boxes of furniture 
                                stand and watch the couple 
                                dance. The cracks in the ceiling 
                                are like doorways to venture 
                                through. He is nervous about 
                                the wedding. How is he going to 
                                pay for a ring? No need to 
                                worry now, for that is in 
                                the future.

April’s poem opens with a gorgeous, surprising image. Then like the dancing lovers, the story spins itself. Her short staccato lines and clever linebreaks challenge me as reader; my eyes fall into a sort of visual rhythm established from the beginning. Vasconcelos’s music is not referred to but is integral to the poem’s structure. Color details from the painting give the piece a solid sense of place: “apartment of orange, blue, / beige, and a scurf-marked / green floor, boxes of furniture.” How “cracks in the ceiling” can become “doorways to venture / through,” a gateway to hard times ahead, is interesting to ponder. These explorations of the sensory, both physical and emotional, give breadth to an already engaging narrative.

The young writers loved going inside the paintings and being privy to the secrets of imagined lives. Using Johnson, Vasconcelos, and the aural/visual experience of the workshop room allowed students to express and underscore the range of emotion and experience reflective of a young teen’s life. Baby poems these are not.


Janice Lowe, "Painting Poems" from Old Faithful: 18 Writers Present Their Favorite Writing Assignments. Copyright © 1995 by Janice Lowe. Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 15th, 2016

Composer and poet Janice A. Lowe is a co-founder of the Dark Room Collective. Her collection, Leaving CLE: poems of nomadic dispersal (Miami University Press, 2016) moves from Cleveland to New York City to Tuscaloosa’s “schoolhouse door” and back. She is also the author of the chapbook SWAM (Belladonna Series)....