Playing Piano with Gertrude Stein

Disclaimer: although I had one year of piano lessons over a half-century ago, I do not and cannot actually play the piano.

As a calligrapher playing with words, I have often drawn on Gertrude Stein’s collection, Tender Buttons for material in my calligraphic work. Perhaps it is because I feel its unconventional use of language can tolerate both traditional and unexpected treatment under my pen. I do not pretend to understand it well but I love how her words tumble along and return in different company. It is also so damned fun!

About twenty five years ago I found Stein’s short poetic description: “A Piano”.  I cannot remember the entire creative process now but it landed in the idea of ragtime or stride piano and layers of rhythms and chords. I imagined overlapping translucent layers of lines like the right and left hand of the pianist at the keys (again, I am not a pianist so forgive me if this is an inaccurate description of what happens in the music).

Calligraphic interpretation of “A Piano”

Each repetition of the poem would be in a different color so the words wove together. At the same time, each distinct repetition could be read. To accomplish this, I used a tall narrow format to allow a lot of lines. This piece is not large but I like to think that there is an implication of more poetry happening beyond the edges of the paper.

This was at the beginning of me playing outside of the perimeter of traditional calligraphic composition. At the time, I was looking at the art of Thomas Ingmire and the early work of Denis Brown. I was seeing how I could paint with words and color.

By 2016, I had been working with layering lines of poetry and prose on paper for some time; creating calligraphic paintings of rhythm and motion. A poem with an ocean wave became that shape. Angry words could become a storm of ink. This freedom was… well it was liberating, of course.

Calligraphic storm of words from Audre Lorde and Wendell Berry

It was not without dilemmas. Something that bothered me was that the first words I would write often became hidden under the subsequent lines. The words were there but only I ever saw them. What if you were allowed to see all the words, as they were written, even if they would be eventually covered by the next line of letters. An element of time seemed a good solution to this problem. I began animating calligraphy.

All of the calligraphy began as words written in ink or watercolor on paper but I worked digitally to edit them together on a screen and set them in motion. This continues to be my basic process. I created WriteOut, a series of animated haiku about a calligrapher’s vocation. I discovered the world of Poetry Film / Video Poetry. I have not looked back.

It was inevitable that I would animate Gertrude.

Around 2019 I decided to revisit “A Piano” It had been one of my favorite calligraphic paintings melding abstract visual rhythms with words but I felt challenged to take it a step further. I found a piano rag by Jelly Roll Morton approximately contemporaneous with Gertrude Stein’s words to support the animation musically. I imagined using the same concept, color scheme and calligraphy style as my original piece. I experimented with stacks of test pages for the calligraphic text.

An exploration of calligraphic styles before choosing one for the poem. Those words would be scanned for the animation.

I had no idea how much this project would challenge me.

I struggled with the direction of the movement. Words in the process of being written and in constant motion were difficult to read; layering several lines in motion compounded this. A simple straightforward reading was not my intent but still… Even as time and motion solved some of my creative challenges, they were creating their own problems.

Another issue I faced was the fact that Gertrude Stein’s poetry, to many people, makes little sense. I was taking those words and doing something with them that, for some, also made little sense. 

Screening the work in progress elicited mixed responses – from raised eyebrows to the frank  observation that the whole thing was unintelligible. My husband compared it to trying to read poetry standing by the side of a freeway. One friend said it gave her vertigo. I realized that this piece could not simply be an animation of my original work on paper. It needed to be reimagined. I scrapped a good bit of animated calligraphy and simplified what remained .

I added some animated line illustrations for contrast but pared back the layers of words. It was suggested that I ditch the music and include a recorded reading but part of my concept was to conjure up some of the feel of silent film and stage accompaniments of the time. I took out calligraphy; I added calligraphy. I changed the colors and changed them back again. I accepted that it was a totally different animal from the original piece on paper.

After over a year of working on it between other projects. I called it done. I actually like it better today than the day I finished with it.

A Piano is still received with somewhat tepid enthusiasm (although I was so very pleased when it was an official selection in the 2020 Midwest Poetry Film Festival). 

But I do like to think that Gertrude would approve. 

A Piano is like the drawing or painting that remains unpurchased at the end of a gallery exhibit but that I, personally, enjoy keeping around my studio.