by Lisa Hartsgrove
Ekphrasis is one of my favorite ways of finding inspiration for writing. Ekphrastic writing is using art to bring you to a new idea or craft something new. This can be any kind of art—a sculpture, a photo, a painting, a play, a song, etc. And I love it because I find it’s the easiest way to get started with writing!
For me, art is everywhere! Because it is a subjective experience, art can be anything at any time; it is defined by its beholder. Your desk that you’re sitting at is art. The computer you’re typing on is art. YOU are art! As long as you see yourself that way.
Explaining this to fifth graders is so much fun. At Knollwood School in Fair Haven, I took a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and tossed it on the floor. (It was all very dramatic.) Then I asked each class: Is this art? The debate that would ensue would go something like this:
“Yes, it is!” “No, it’s not!” “It is!” “It’s garbage!” “But garbage can be art!” “No garbage is garbage.” “What about garbage art?” “That’s not art!” “Yes, it is.” Etc.
I let that go on for a minute or so before I interjected to tell them the answer—that there is no answer. That they are all right at the same time. They looked at me like I grew a second head, but I continued to explain …
If one sees it as art, then it is art to them. If another doesn’t see it as art, then it’s not art to them. Art is subjective—it’s based on perspective. It can be and not be at once, depending on the lens through which you look at it.
This is where the magical moment happened—the moment where every fifth grader who said they’re “not an artist” suddenly realized that they can be. That they already are! Because they realized that they control what art is.
With this realization, we then practiced ekphrastic writing as a class, all looking at the same piece of art—“Take Heart” by Bonnie Riedinger. We created an “idea board,” writing down any images we saw in the art, and shapes, colors, and textures.
Then we deepened the list by adding feelings that the art invoked in us. We also challenged ourselves to answer questions such as: If this art were set to music, what would it sound like? If this art were edible, what might it taste like? What do you imagine this art smells like?
It was incredible how many ideas they got just from one image, and how vastly different each idea was from the next. Once I let them begin writing, I hardly had to help at all. They got so into their idea boards that they had pages of ideas to write from!
Of course, the fifth graders wanted to try making art themselves after that. I showed them some examples of my own work and talked about the process behind each piece. I wanted them to know that most of the time, if I came in with an intention, I would be disappointed and throw the art out before it was finished because it wouldn’t look the way I had imagined it. Instead, I had to learn to adapt to my art. Let it show itself to me and not give up on it. I talked about how a “cool abstract piece” might have started with the intention of something realistic, but when I realized that’s not what was coming out, I had to push myself to keep working on it anyway. To not give up because it wasn’t what I wanted it to be and let myself believe it might become something better.
My goal was for the fifth graders to have fun. I wanted them not to get frustrated because they couldn’t draw like “a professional.” Just as a writer is one who writes, an artist is one who creates. So I gave them complete creative freedom to make anything they wanted with pens, markers, colored pencils, and their wild imaginations. My only “rule” was not to give up on a piece too soon. If they made a “mistake,” try to work through it and see if it could become something else.
And they created brilliant works of art! Some went more abstract, playing with lines and shapes and colors. Some played with forms in different ways—one filling an entire page with drawings of macaroni noodles, for example. And some tried to capture more familiar forms—pets and friends and video game characters. Every piece was completely different, which made the next ekphrastic part that much more exciting!
Now we got to use our OWN art as inspiration! We made new idea boards looking at the art that we made ourselves, and because we made the art ourselves, we could deepen our lists with knowledge we didn’t have when looking at someone else’s art. We knew what the artist was thinking when they made this art, because WE were the artists. We knew what their intention was, if they had one, and what the process looked like. All of those notes went into their idea boards as well, so they had a rich trove of creativity to make their final pieces.
The last day was spent as a Writers Celebration. Each fifth grader proudly shared the poem or story that they wrote along with the art that inspired it. Some pieces were deeply personal, dealing with identity and school and friendships. Some were fantastical, with robots and aliens. Some wrote about nature, some wrote about favorite memories or places.
The most important part, though, was that everyone made something they were proud of—something that came directly from their own imagination. Each student discovered the writer and artist inside themselves. And I hope they’ll never forget it.