Illustration Process for National Poetry Month

Emmaly Wiederholt, editor and curator of Stance on Dance, reached out to me again this year to illustrate original poetry about dance and movement for April’s National Poetry Month. This included three original poems by fellow poets and one of my own. I had not met nor read any of these poets before, which was helpful because I went into the illustration process without any preconceived notions about their work. 

My approach was to first silently read the poem to myself a few times, then to read it out loud and record it. Then, I could listen to the recording many times while sketching. This helped me capture specific images presented in the poem, but also tap into the emotional quality of the poem. This felt more organic than reading the poem, sketching, going back to the poem, sketching... 

When I illustrated Stance on Dance's National Poetry Month in 2016, I challenged myself to draw in a different style for each poem. For this set of poems, I was less concerned with style, but it was interesting to see natural differences emerge due to the nature of the poem. For example, Rachelle Wood's poem "Forget Your Perfect Offering," had a clear, singular image that came to me, whereas Cheryl Pallant's "Let Pretense Go" gave me a scatter-shot of disjointed images that I let flow piecemeal on the page, rather than force them to be singular or orderly.

One challenge I am interested in when it comes to drawing the dancing body is how to represent the body in a way that is gender and race neutral. This began to develop for me as an artist when I worked on the "Men Who Dance" project with Emmaly in 2014. The gender question then was more straightforward, as I was interviewing all cisgender men, but I used silhouettes in black under the hypothesis that a viewer could project themselves onto a silhouette ("That could be me") rather than a defined character they could either relate to or not. This was my attempt to step away from a white perspective and representation in visual art. But I am also curious how to move away from a gender-normative representation of the body as well. 

For this year's set of poems, I used gray, blue, and black with stars for the bodies in the pieces. For two of the four poems, I did feel it was appropriate to hint at female bodies, but for the other two, I drew them more androgynous. For Cheryl Pallant's "Let Pretense Go," I conscientiously used brown for skin color. The underlying tension in the poem reminded me of the inherent stress I am learning and hearing daily from people of color who are dealing with racism and belonging in our country.

This underlying question of how to represent the body, why it's important to ask that question, and how I answer it in my art feels critical to me as an artist. As a white, cisgender woman, my approach may be clumsy. I also have to own that it may be impossible for me to represent a wider perspective. But I am curious to explore "what's appropriate" when it comes to representation of the body, and to keep having conversations around it. 

I want to know if I accomplished this wider perspective and if viewers felt they could project themselves onto the silhouettes. Did the viewer feel drawn in closer, or did they feel distanced from the bodies in the art? Most importantly, did I capture an essence of the poem?