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Famous Reporter # 36



The launch of With One Brush, by Jan Dean

22nd November, 2007 - Lovett Gallery, Newcastle
ISBN 9781876819675 (pbk. 87 pages) 


There has been a resurgence in recent years of poetry about works of art, in a long tradition which includes Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts. Earlier this year the Newcastle Regional Gallery held a special exhibition, in which well-known Australian poets were invited to choose a work from the permanent collection and to write a poem to put beside it.

It was interesting to see the different ways in which they did this. The most successful ones it seemed to me resisted the temptation to objectively describe or intellectualise the painting, but in some way conveyed to us their personal relationship with it, or with the artist. One poet, Les Murray, who features in this collection in "The Reading" (p25) idiosyncratically chose the most abstract of the paintings and put it with an already extant poem, leaving us, the viewers, with the challenge of exploring the relationship. But it did work. However, it demonstrates the difficulty, some might say the impossibility, of doing the task well.

Jan Dean, in her poems about art and artists, rises to the challenge superbly. At once we seem to be at home in the art works, as the poet evokes, for instance in the very first poem in the book - "Six Persimmons" (after Mu-ch’i: Sung Dynasty painter 13th Century), not only the colour and shape of the fruit, but also Jan’s personal memories of the taste and tactile sensation of them, first from childhood (a negative reaction) and then from maturer experience:

A lifetime later I learn the sweetest
are the ones seeming past their prime…
Skill, sensitivity and contemplating
the essence take time.

True indeed about Jan Dean’s poems, which demonstrate felt experience over a lifetime involved with "skill, sensitivity and contemplating the essence".

Jan is fortunate to have come to the writing of poetry after a career utilising her skills and talents as a visual artist and art teacher, though I see she was also trained as an English teacher, which bespeaks a longstanding love of words, too. She approaches art works fearlessly and without the pretension or abstraction which can bedevil attempts in this field. She daringly inhabits the personae, not only of Impressionist artists such as Gaugin, Renoir and sculptor Auguste Rodin, but also the very different Australian artists such as Russell Drysdale, Irvine Homer and Arthur Boyd. Her evocation of all these artists’ work is far from static. There is a great deal of movement. In "A Place by the River" after three art works by Arthur Boyd come the lines:

That’s my way:
ruck, lots of drive, no mucking about.

It is so with many of these poems about art. The movement suggests the movement of the brush over the canvas, or the viewer’s eye moving across the lines of the painting. One of my favourites among the art poems is "A Painted Summer: Carcoar 1977" after the painting by Brett Whitely, which is also a favourite of mine in the Newcastle Gallery. I have been to Carcoar a couple of times and experience a double delight in the landscape because of the painting, and now an extra pleasure because of the poem. Poetry and paint can reawaken in us the responses we have to the world around us. The pleasure evoked can be a very sensual one, as in "Persimmons" and "Skin a Fig" which are about the touch and taste as well as the visual sense involved. In "A Painted Summer" it is about crackers and cheese:

I could eat this scene tasting of cheese crackers and straw.

The art theme is carried through from the first section called "Scumbling" (which I found out meant "to modify the effect of a painting by overlaying parts of it with a thin application of opaque or semi-opaque colour") through to "Stippling", which is to do with specks or dots of colour (like Pointillism, for instance) to "Glazing", which suggests the framing of paintings or photographs or else the finish on ceramics. Certainly the colouring in the second two sections is much more muted in general and the mood often more reflective, drawing on aspects of the poet’s personal experience, family history, memories, relationships, and evocations of place. However, the artist’s eye and imagery of art come into play in "Channelling"

Look, the lake is an orchard; apricot glow
low on the horizon reflects into indigo

and in "Cormorants"

In pointillist-painting-light black angels fish my lake

When Jan and I spoke on the phone, she said that the slim volume seemed so small and insignificant compared with all the work that had gone into it. I suppose she may have been comparing it with an art exhibition where people can walk around and take in the sheer physical dimensions of the achievement. However, the amount of time each person spends looking at an artwork is relatively small, and you can’t usually take the exhibition home with you. With this book, you can buy it and take it home to savour the works over and over, as I have been doing. It’s a remarkable achievement, and testimony to Jan’s extraordinary persistence in writing and sending off work to competitions and publications. She is richly deserving of winning the 2007 IP Picks Award for the best first book. May there be many more.


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