We say that words have meaning, and we hold them in high regard. Words are precious, but they can lose their power, for example, when they are translated. Like a religion, which language is the “true” language that will get you to heaven?
Words have meaning. Paint has mood and feeling. When you take words out of their element—the printed page, on a stage—and put them on a piece of canvas mingled with paint, the words don’t so much lose some of the power they have on the printed page, but their power changes. The words are detached from their meanings and the painting becomes a different experience, as do the meanings of the words. And the painting changes. Words on canvas; words as paint strokes. The words become material, like the paint.
Art is no more precious than a word. A rip, a tear, a fray. A spatter of paint. It doesn't destroy the painting or make it lose value. It can only add.
Writing Poetry At Work In The Men’s Room Stall
With pants bunched around
shined black shoes and tie
tucked safely into an open shirt button
so as not to piss on it
he sits in the stall
while black oxfords pinstripes
pant legs swim around him.
He peers through cracks to see from whom he's hiding
like in a shark cage; safe
if he stays inside.
in the business whirlpool
just trying to get it down
on paper before he's
The Business Meeting
So seductively time seeps
out through your veins
pooling around your wingtips
or you, Ms. Corporate I'm Going Places
be careful of your patent-leather pumps
step carefully around the sticky puddles
collecting beneath the conference table
do not soil your white stockings.
Your smile will soon turn to a grimace
as lost opportunity twists your heart
like an old rag, unknowingly you’ll strangle
as the intoxicating sound of your own voice
replaces the importance of your life
with the irrelevance of your action items.
The Button-Down Man
Into his closet
every morning he reaches
and pulls out
a button-down shirt.
Cotton, maybe striped
if he's daring. And a tie
solid blue or red
or perhaps polka-dot.
Always a jacket.
He wouldn't think of going out
without a jacket.
He wouldn't feel complete or whole.
Every thing buttoned,
every thing knotted: collar,
a strand of lint in the mirror
from his lapel.
Now he is ready.
To work he drives. Parks
in the same spot. Engages
just to be sure.
It rained last night
so he picks his way around
in the parking lot.
Oh gallant hunter
Chasing bulls through the night.
Striding bold in spite of
Or is it because of
You have gained obvious strength since I last saw you
Carrying twins on your shoulders light
Faithful Sirius trots at your heel trusting
His Master's guidance on your heavenly journey
That will continue long after I've completed mine.
How long did it take you to make it? It looks like something my sixth-grader could do. (Well, at least it's not his three-year-old; that's a step up.) It took weeks. Not weeks of hands-on work, but weeks of thinking, staring, dreaming about it in my sleep. So, I guess you could say, Welcome to my nightmare? No, not really a nightmare at all, but actually a very good memory. The impetus for this piece: I was at college and it was a beautiful spring day in southern Ohio and I was young and my life was ahead of me and I was hanging out with my roommates and friends. It's the time passing, and it's the now, that makes me do what I do; what makes the painting do what it does. You just have to listen and hear and look and see. What does the painting want you to do? And what I hope is that the viewer can see quickly what took me such a long time so see.
I was raised in an apartment made up of four very small rooms. My sister and I shared the cramped bedroom in the back, and my parents slept in the dining room. It was embarrassing when any of my friends came over. They wouldn’t say anything; they ignored my family life, but I could tell they noticed and they judged. They couldn’t help it. It wasn’t their fault. That’s just how they…we…are raised.
We were simply guilty of the crime of being poor. And there are ramifications to that.
Also, while growing up in that tiny apartment, my father and sister both had serious mental issues that were left untreated. It felt like every day of my life I would scream in my thoughts, Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY? They couldn’t, but I didn’t understand that, at the time.
I haven’t had these feelings in a long time, but now this is what my country feels like. All of this is so very familiar. Can’t you be FUCKING NORMAL for ONE FUCKING DAY?
I'm embarking on a new project, exploring my family and my history to try to understand what is happening in the United States. I've lived around insanity, and all of this is so familiar.
And I am so...afraid. An artist friend and I have been talking about the fear and all of the reasons for it at the very beginning of a project to put pen to paper or, in my case, pictures and ink and paint and God knows what else I decide to throw up on a board. I'm not crazy about delving into my past. I'm one who believes there's nothing better than a good suppressed memory. I'm not anxious to relive any of my childhood. And there's an immense fear of failure. I'm working with materials I haven't worked with in forty years. I mean, the chances of anything worth showing is minimal. But you know what? It's kind of fun. I am so inept that it's all I can do is have fun. I've been working with pastels a bit, and all I think is the same thing I think when I'm hanging out a car door shooting a series for Riding Shotgun: Don't think, just shoot. (Or in this case, it's, Don't think, just draw.) And I remember the idea that I had when I was in art school, that I never was interested in replicating anything, but instead just focus on what's inside me: my own work and my own presentation, about putting my own mark on something. So I look at these pastels and think to myself, well, you still know color. And your work is strong, it may not be pretty, but it sure does demands attention. And that's where I am today. Oh yeah, the coronavirus? I hope I don't die before I finished this project.
John Greiner-Ferris is an artist in the Boston area. Sometimes he makes images. Sometimes he writes. Sometimes he does both.