Response to the poem Single Shot by Tom Sheehan

According to Wikipedia, Ekphrasis is the written description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, while the Poetry Foundation describes it as, ‘a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the “action” of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.’

In this and another piece of work, I am effectively reversing the process by making visual art in response to written material. Here, it’s a poem, in a further post, it is a brief for a book cover.

I am not an illustrator and the people who invited me to make/submit these pieces know that but also know and like the work they see on my Facebook and Instagram streams. We were all clear that I would make a painting that resonated with the words I was given and that this either would or would not meet their requirements.

For reasons associated with publication schedules and the tradition of the cover reveal, these images will remain private until I have permission to release them, at which point I will link to the publication if that is appropriate. Both have given permission to share the posts with my tutor.

This first piece, if it makes the cut, is destined for a book which will be out around Christmas 2021. It will accompany a poem titled ‘Single Shot’ by Tom Sheehan which, to my ears, is about an attempted escape from an oppressive regime to an enlightened one which ends with that single shot. The second piece. the book cover, is likely to require a much more extended period of restriction.

Single Shot.

One winter in Korea
a violin went awry,
sound waves thin as
tracers or wires
snipped, cut loose
from redwood stain,
danced over snowfields,
up the mountain hold,
shattered wet air
with heart’s recovery,
tore stiletto quick
in snow’s embalmment,
feather down’s triple
blanketing and brawn
as some player played defilade,
urged deft hands and arms
into the spelling, matched
awed sounds in his head
to passage of fingertips,
as another finger squeezed
a trigger’s tantrum and
Billy Pigg died in my arms
 just as one high note
froze on frigid air
visible forever, his
last eyes on my face.
song-less, hearing but
a single note.

At first I was sent just lines 1-10 and it felt like an escape from darkness to bright, white, physical and creative freedom. The violin, a metaphor for the person, the musical note their voice; all travelling on those thin, delicate strings or soundwaves. I was ready for beautiful arcs and curlicues in the air – like those traces of sub atomic particles. So I took this back to the editor who sent me then the whole poem, and how different was that. The sense of soaring liberty was there but then there was the awfulness of the denouement. The escape was only briefly successful.

This clearly changed my internal palette although the notion of moving from dark to light – oppression to freedom – remained. As did the musical metaphor. There was just the outcome to begin reflecting but without making the obvious concrete references.

I began with a partition – black on the left and white on the right with a sharp division down the centre. Acrylics on transparent primer painted then with gloss varnish and dragged across the paper with a large silicon pebble. While only partially dry, I scraped and scrubbed at the surface to reveal what had been a failed underpainting. The lines this made brought to mind the violin strings and so I drew those in with white acrylic pen.

In this second image, I had used a tondo window as a focus for the central area but also, I was beginning to think, as a proxy for the barrel of a gun. This led to the run of red acrylic from the top of the support which I encouraged to follow the lines of the strings to reflect gravity and falling. I used a red acrylic pen to forge that path.

This is a closer detail showing the tumbling notes, falling as if from the strings or a sheet of music, and a white circle just outside the aperture of the proxy gun barrel to give it a sense of solidity. I had intended to tidy this up with a better cut out but other ideas intervened.

Below are the other ideas. I had added a further layer of gloss varnish and saw that, when I was taking photos and viewing from different angles, these frequently seemed to make a better composition than the standard head-on shots.

I sent several of these along with my rationale for not providing a direct front-on image, and suggested they could choose any one (or none!) according to best fit.

This exercise not only gave me an opportunity to work to a brief but also quite opportunistically showed me how to use the facility of digital submission to creative advantage where there was no physical work required as an end product. It has also brought me two further commissions from the same editor which, along with the book cover, suggested to me the makings of Assignment 5.

13th August. And in response to that thought, I’ve imported the physical image into Paintshop Pro to add text.

I would have liked to make the black circle into a barrel as per the cut out I made, but I could find no way that didn’t involve some extremely steady digital paintbrush work within a central circle area.

The words here are from Cher’s 1960s song Bang Bang (my baby shot me down), a song of betrayal. In this context, they brought to mind the dreadful consequence of war in Vietnam as told by a writing colleague in her book, The Mountains Sing. Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s novel details the social and political divisions set up by the war and their consequences as families were separated and aligned with the north or the south of the country. Father against son; daughter against best friend; grandmother against grandchild. All of them caught up in the generational shame associated with having been on one side or the other and perpetrating atrocities against their own. ‘Remember when we used to play‘ speaks of the time these characters in this image were childhood friends, one of whom has fired that single shot at the other.

The newly introduced text seems also to turn the violin strings into bricks which brings up its own set of resonances from the Berlin Wall. As a species, we are capable of such horrific things and yet so many claim allegiance to a god in whose just and welcoming image they strive to live.

Finally making a concerted effort to get the hang of Filmora Pro (the one above is made in Filmora 10 – easy but limited), I’ve succeeded in change some parameters and actually exporting the video. It’s somehow changed its scale along the way so, while I like what it did, I need to find out how and why so I can control that myself.

This piece had always been Single Shot* as that was in my mind throughout its making. But following a request from the editor of the anthology for an actual title, I’ve renamed it Bang Bang. This reflects what it is now so it was a very timely prompt.

20th November and the book has been published, thus releasing this image to the public domain.

Bang Bang (2021) Accompanying Single Shot by Tom Sheehan. In A Christmas Canzonette, 2021, Author Tom Sheehan, Editors Marie Fitzpatrick, Oonah Joslin, and Bill West. The Linnet’s Wings. Available from Amazon.

Ekphrasis. Wikipedia. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ekphrasis#cite_note-2. Accessed 12th August 2021.

Ekphrasis. The Poetry Foundation. Available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ekphrasis Accessed 12th August 2021.

The Mountains Sing. Nguyen Phan Que Mai. One World Publications, 2020. New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/books/review/the-mountains-sing-nguyen-phan-que-mai.html

*Title to be confirmed as I’ve seen it written as Solo Shot.

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