Since the dawn of the printing press, there have been broadsides — large sheets, printed on one side, used for everything from public announcements to advertisements, wanted posters, news flashes, popular music and poetry.
Especially poetry — where short works by poets ranging from Robert Burns to Edgar Allan Poe to John Greenleaf Whittier were embellished with fancy lettering or decorated with a single dramatic illustration.
Although originally intended as a way of making poetry available, broadside poems became an esteemed marriage of both art and marketing. Sometime in the 1950s, the Beat poets revived the tradition, which is how local poet, writer, teacher and Whig bartender Darien Cavanaugh fell in love with the whole form.
Ever since seeing a display of broadside Beat poetry at an academic conference in 2008, Cavanaugh has been toying with the idea of corralling a group of local poets and painters and randomly pairing them off to create broadsides, in the hope that together they can create a unique combination of word and image.
He finally got his wish, and the results will be on full display at this week’s First Thursday exhibit at Tapp’s Art Center.
The project brings together 28 people, evenly divided between writers and artists, to create 14 broadsides.
Getting them all on the same page, so to speak, took some doing.
Cavanaugh tried to get them to work simultaneously, to familiarize themselves with each other’s work, to search for shared themes.
“The creative process was a little different,” he says. “Everyone said they had never worked like that before.”
Some poets and painters saw eye to eye, like Jonathan Butler and artist Alejandro Garcia-Lemos. Garcia-Lemos even gave Butler the idea for the poem, when he told of how he had once been delayed on a ship because a passenger had died. The result was Butler’s “Death on the Sea,” which Garcia-Lemos depicted in his own highly colorful style.
“That’s the way it was with a lot of them,” Cavanaugh says. “An anecdote or story that one would share with the other.”
The potential for getting wires crossed was definitely there, however.
“Most of the people had never met each other before, so you could have not just a clash of vision, but the potential for a clash of personalities.”
One artist started over endlessly, trying to find the right image to suit a deeply abstract poem. Another poet wasn’t quite sure what to make of the painting that went with his work, but gradually came to like it.
All that friction, however, was kind of the idea. It was about pushing boundaries.
“We all agreed early on that we wanted this thing to push us, and that’s one of the reasons we paired up the way we did,” Cavanaugh says. “We didn’t want just one person responding. We wanted it to be more of a ‘create and revise together’ process.”
The creative struggles slowed the project somewhat, Cavanaugh concedes. At one point, he came close to throwing in the towel.
“I was a couple of days away from doing that at one point,” he says.
He changed his mind as work started trickling in.
“It was stressful,” he says, “but the work that came out was amazing.”
There were other challenges to deal with. The printers weren’t sure they could render certain subtle colors, or were concerned that the text would be blurred, and Cavanaugh recalls how one poem was changed so often to suit the style of painting that he almost sent in the wrong version to be printed. “There’s definitely been some glitches along the road,” Cavanaugh says.
Despite the struggle, he’s pleased with the work that will be on display this Thursday.
“I wouldn’t change that,” he says. “I wouldn’t take that back. We wanted that range, that diversity of styles both in the poets and the artists. We wanted to represent a range of styles and schools.”
The Columbia Broadside Project exhibit will open this Thursday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. at Tapp’s Art Center at 1644 Main St. A closing reception will be held Feb. 28, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. For information on other First Thursday happenings, visit firstthursdaysonmain.com.
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