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Writing with Art

By Roy Hoffman, Spalding MFA Fiction & Creative Nonfiction Faculty

With art nearby when I write – from our Georgia O’Keefe kitchen calendar to the paintings, sculpture, and ceramics, many by friends, throughout our house – I find myself inspired, as a word person, by the color, shape, and texture of the visual. From the time as a college freshman I taped up a poster of Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” on my dorm wall, to trips to New York where, ritually, I visit the Metropolitan Museum’s Rembrandt room to gaze into portraits where time creases faces, I find, in art, places to lose myself, to dream, to learn, ever more clearly, to see.



In my study is a row of masks whose faces look down on me as I write. Among them is an African mask from the Lega tribe (#1), a gift from an art dealer friend of mine in New Orleans who owns Barrister’s Gallery. The primitive face, with its straw beard, is impassive, his expression at first glance unknowable, with cutouts for eyes and mouth in the oval of wood. But as I look up from my endeavors he seems to reflect my moods, a timeless visage inviting me to cast my emotions into his.That my wife and I – Nancy a teacher and potter, I a writer – have collected pieces we can both afford and love, enriches my hours putting letters on a page. Some remind me of travel – we have artworks we found in out-of-the-way places on journeys to Buenos Aires, Venice, and Beijing – but many come from close by.



Another is a double portrait by an Alabama artist, two rudimentary faces cut from sheet metal hammered onto a blue broken board (#2), with fragments of pottery beneath. The signature, “Tin Man,” refers to Charlie “Tin Man” Lucas, an outsider artist in Selma, Alabama, whom I visited to write a profile. When I gaze back at Tin Man’s faces, I am reminded how we can cobble together works of art from what, in ordinary view, might seem like detritus, can create treasures from what would otherwise be fragments for the trash heap.



At the top of our stairs is a painting as tall as I am, a branching of lines inspired by the rivers of a Texas boyhood (#3). The pleasure of this artwork is aesthetic – ribbons of white, gray, and black acrylic on a scroll of handmade paper, giving me the sensation of a physical landscape as well as an interior one, coursings of water, streams of thought.  The delight is personal, too, in that I met the artist, Bill Pangburn, in college, and we shared an apartment sophomore year. Since then we’ve watched each other’s creativity, no matter visual or literary, evolve and mature. An encaustic by Renee Magnanti, Bill’s wife, is in our dining room, a geometric puzzle of carved wax in different colors, inspired by Indonesian tapestry (#4). It’s fascinating to see how one art form, textiles, migrates into another, created from wax. The works of Bill and Renee make me ponder how we are shaped by images from our youth and the world around us, and, as writers, by genres other than our own.



Some artworks speak to me of friends no longer with us, like the exquisite porcelain of Scott McDowell (#5), a ceramics artist Nancy befriended when we were dating in the early 1980s, and I was living in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Scott’s studio was around the corner. There was little hope, in that era, when he was diagnosed HIV-positive. Toward the end he worked feverishly to create stunning art objects that would endure. There is energy in his art pieces, a dynamic presence that still speaks to us of him.





And a carved rooster (#6) holds memories, too, the story of a wonderful Kentucky couple, the late Bob and Pam Sexton. Long before the Spalding low-residency MFA program existed –  where I would teach and Pam become a student – I met Pam when I traveled to Lexington to write an article for the Ford Foundation on Bob’s herculean efforts to reform public education. As the Sextons showed me around, we visited a folk art shop where I bought a piece of wood transformed by artists Lonnie and Twyla Money. When I see that folk art rooster in my kitchen today, I think of Pam and a story she shared in a fiction workshop, and a river in that story, and how art can join us in ways we can never predict.



The work of four Gulf Coast artists, three of whom live near me in Fairhope, Alabama, or across the bay in Mobile, play off one another in our home and create other ties. The first is a pen and ink work by New Orleans artist Anastasia Pelias (#7), an abstract couple so entwined their faces merge with each other. I am reminded, passing by, how art can evoke mystery within a sense of familiarity.



The next is a photograph, made with digital finesse (#8) by Russell Goodloe, a retired orthodontist in Mobile and a passionate photographer, of an empty bench before a Western backdrop of mountains. Sometimes, before I return to my writing chair, I imagine lingering on that bench, thinking up what I want to write back in my Gulf Coast den. The image helps me relax. It also tells me to linger before landscapes, to let a sense of place envelop us.



“Violata Pax,” (#9) a dove with a torn claw standing before barbed wire with a blood-red rose on the ground, is a giclee print by Nall Hollis – known as Nall – a Troy, Alabama, native with a global reach, images from his “Wounded Peace” series in prints, sculpture, and mosaics shown from the U.S. to France to Italy. That Nall has a studio a few minutes from our house in Fairhope underscores how art that crosses oceans can be made in world capitals – or small towns. And his wounded dove is instructive of how to find tension in beauty.



The painting that dominates our living room is by Brad Robertson (#10), a huge work of rich blues and greens, shot through with light, which gives me the feeling of an incoming storm. I first saw this painting in Brad’s studio in Mobile, and knew right away this was the mood I wanted to be at the heart of my novel, “Come Landfall.” The painting became the book’s cover (#11). We didn’t intend to buy it, but the thought of its going somewhere else, hung on a stranger’s wall far away, seemed somehow not right. Having it in our home completes a circle.



Originally published 12/18/14.


Roy Hoffman is author of the novels Come Landfall, a story of hurricanes, war, and love, Chicken Dreaming Corn, an immigrant tale praised by Harper Lee as “a story of great appeal,” and Almost Family, set in civil rights–era Alabama. He is author of two nonfiction books: Back Home, with a focus on the diverse cultures of the South, and Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, and he has received the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Award in fiction and the University of Alabama’s Clarence Cason Award in nonfiction. He teaches fiction and nonfiction in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. On the web:



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