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ME AND ART. . . .

Joseph Slusky, "Take Five," 1997, steel
& acrylic lacquer paint, 21" x 15" x 13".

Joseph Slusky. "Olimbia," 1993, steel &
acrylic lacquer paint, 30" x 27" x 25".

Poetry brought me to the visual arts, but not via an academic route. In fact, though I was an English major in college, I didn’t take even one art history class during my undergraduate years. That’s partly because English Departments (at least the one I was in) teach literature as anything but art. It’s sociology, history, psychology, philosophy, even an expression of religious ideologies (especially true for English Lit of earlier centuries), but it’s not art. Certainly, this ill-informed point of view not only hurt my understanding and thorough grasp of the reading material I had to negotiate, but as someone whose interest in writing poetry was growing and growing through my undergraduate years, it really restricted my creative output. Just like the material I was studying, I thought the poems I was writing had to “mean” something.

When I moved to Berkeley (from Madison, Wisconsin where I was an undergraduate), all of that changed in an instant. I met Joseph Slusky there, who is a metal sculptor, and a very fine one at that. Joe had a keen interest in and love for poetry; in fact, he had taped the entire section of spoken word recordings from the Berkeley Public Library, and would listen to the likes of Auden, Pound, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, and countless other poets read their work as he labored away on his sculptures or pen and ink drawings. When he learned that I owned a record of Jack Kerouac reading his poetry to the piano accompaniment of Steve Allen (it was called, “Poetry for the Beat Generation”) he just about burst out of his skin with excitement. Of course, I lent it to him and he taped it and added it to his poetry collection.

Joe, who still teaches freehand drawing to architecture students at UC Berkeley, gave me a private tutorial in the visual arts, and I was amazed at how instinctively and naturally I responded to works from various movements and time periods. Before long, I found myself with many more visual artist friends than poet friends. The artists obviously understood that art was art; amazingly, while the more enlightened poets in town did too, many maintained their old English Department trained perspective and didn’t.

Soon many of my artist friends were asking me to write about their work, which, in some cases I did for Artweek. It was incredibly fun, liberating and informative at the same time, like entering a dream and taking notes about it while I was dreaming.

Bella Feldman, "Credo," plated
steel, 42 1/4 x 47 1/2 x 16".

Yong Soon Min, "deCOLONIZATlON", 1991,
mixed media room installation (detail).

Yong Soon Min,
2001, installation, 28 ft. x 10 ft.
As I began to write art reviews on a regular basis, I recalled some of my English professors in college saying that really fine literary criticism was an art in itself. It struck me as very odd that they were able to consider writing about literature as an art but didn’t focus on the essential artistic DNA of the literature itself as art as well. Oh well. As my interest in writing my own poetry and fiction grew, so did my desire to write about visual art (and literature as well) in a creative, imaginative and expressive manner, and I’ve been trying to do so ever since.

They say one’s real education begins when one’s formal one ends, and in my case this certainly was true. I have Joe Slusky--and my old Jack Kerouac record--to thank for this. By the way, the record shattered on the floor of North Oakland’s Eddy’s Liquor store one night as I was getting a bottle of wine to take along with the disc to another visual artist’s studio to play for her. Luckily I had taped it myself.