Creative Writing Activities and Museum Visitors
As a poet teaching in a museum environment, I often turn to writing-based activities to assist visitors in appreciating and understanding works of art. For the novice art viewer with a limited art background and art vocabulary, a writing exercise functions as a strategy to slow down the mind in order to focus upon looking closely at visual details and clues that help a viewer intuitively make sense of a work.
Using writing to teach about the visual arts fulfills a dual function by assisting the visitor to gain a basic entry point into the artwork and giving a viewer a springboard into a deeper exploration and transformation of their own experience and relationship to that work. Through language, the viewer is encouraged and challenged to claim and articulate his or her experience of art by finding a personal voice to talk about these objects. This process of reflection can provide insight into the creative process of the visitor, as well as the process of the artist.
Viewing a work of art closely parallels the process of reading a work of poetry or literature — both textual and visual languages share a common vocabulary of technical terms that can include setting, style, character, mood, and narrative. Both organize and make sense of the world in similar ways. We read a poem or story on different levels, in the same manner that we approach looking at art objects. Within the process of making a concentrated reading or visual inventory, we may pass an eye over the work, scan for subject matter, take a longer and deeper look for technical and contextual concerns, in addition to taking time to examine what we assume to be an artist’s intent.
As a poet, it has taken me years to connect the relationship between form and writing. Coming to writing from a non-Western orientation to the English language, I have never felt connected to the notion of form as I learned it in poetry workshops — writing in lines of iambic pentameter, rhyme, and traditional meter. Form for me was only an experiment, or imitation at best, devoid of meaning.
It was not until I began to look carefully at the painted machine-like images of John Pomara speeding across the canvas and the pollen forms of Wolgang Laib that the notion of how form shapes and embodies an artist’s vision exploded open. Words function in the same way as paint or other substances; units of language live and move across a blank surface with the energy and resonance of each word unfolding an organic form relevant to a subject, versus a set of predetermined parameters.
The exercises that follow are object-based activities that have been tried and tested on audiences of various ages at the Dallas Museum of Art. Adaptable to objects in any art museum, they are strategies for approaching works of art and for delving deeper into personal connections and more enriching experiences.
Choose a work of art that depicts people engaged in an activity or event. Study facial expressions, body language, and the relationship between characters. Using these visual clues, write a story about the scene. What led up to this moment? What comes next in the story? (While a range of objects could work for this activity, history painting and classical works lend themselves well to this exercise.) Share the stories. What overlap do you find in the different stories and discuss how the artwork provides possibilities for multiple narratives.
A Sense of Place
Choose a work that depicts a landscape or place. Pretend you are writing a postcard home to a friend from this place. What are the sights, smells, sounds, and flavors of this place? Why have you gone there? Describe what is happening around you.
Using a portrait, create a character sketch of the person. How does this person wear his or her hair and clothing? What does this person’s environment and the objects included in the portrait tell you about who he or she might be? What do you think this individual’s personality would be like based on what you see? Imagine having a conversation with this person. What would he or she speak with you about?
I remember .. . Decorative art objects lend themselves especially well to this exercise. Select an object. What memories, either private or public — real or imagined, does this object unlock for you? What time does this recall? Write a ten to twenty line poem recording the visual, sensual, and emotional details you associate or find with this object, using the phrase “I remember …” to start off the exercise. (This activity may be more effective with older audiences.)
Find a work of art in the museum that has strong formal elements: form, shape, line, color, and textiure. Take this object as a point of departure to write a piece of visually engaging poetry that connects to the formal qualities of the artwork you selected. Write a poem in the shape of a ziggurat, a mountain, or a tree — whatever form is in front of you. Consider where you break a line and the physical arrangement of text on the page. Keep the text moving, let the visual image guide your hand and eye.
Spend time looking at works that employ collage techniques in some way. How are these works visually organized; what seems accidental and what seems purposeful? Make your own collage out of words by cutting up sentences from a newspaper and placing them in a paper bag. Shake up the bag, remove the phrases at random, and copy out the text. Revise or rearrange the text to construct a narrative.
At its simplest, the Japanese haiku is a brief, three-line poem composed of 17 syllables broken into lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. On a deeper level, traditional haiku employ images from the natural world and connect to a specific season or time of year. Because of these qualities, suitable objects for this exercise might include landscapes and other scenic vistas. Haiku is traditionally used in close association with haibun, or prose form, as in the work of Matsuo Basho. A variation on the haiku writing exercise might be to alternate writing in verse with writing in prose. Approach your chosen object using both forms.
Shin Yu Pai is a poet and writer living in Boston, MA. She is the former docent coordinator for the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, TX. Her article, A Process-Oriented Approach to Engaging the Senses, ” appeared in the Winter 2001-02 issue of The Docent Educator.
Pai, Shin Yu. “Creative Writing Activities and Museum Visitors,” The Docent Educator 11.4 (Summer 2002): 6-7.
Creative Writing and the Museum: An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri
They seem to be saying, look at me, and what I’ve done to myself. The faint top line of the glass sheet intersects her hair, a line of light against dark. She reminds me of boxing, of faces twisted in anger, blood smeared on lips and knuckles. Or the first time I went with my cousin to get my ears pierced. I’d held on tight to her hand as she kept repeating that pain is beauty.
—Allie Spensley, Class of 2020, on Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints–Face), 1972 (above)
This fall, Jhumpa Lahiri, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, brought her class “Creative Writing: Fiction” to the Art Museum. Recently she and Veronica White, curator of academic programs, reflected on the group’s visit and the act of closely engaging with a work of art.
VW In preparation for your visit, we selected a group of six works—including a German medieval Pieta, a nineteenth-century watercolor by Goya, and the contemporary prints of Nalini Malani—that all incorporate the theme of suffering; why did you feel that this subject was important for a writing class?
JL Our workshop began with the idea of suffering and its counterpoint, survival, as the premise of most literary works. Writers react to suffering through language, and, as Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Suffering makes art necessary and gives it urgency. It was with this idea in mind that, early in the semester, I asked the class to read a portion of Agota Kristof ’s extraordinarily powerful novel The Notebook, which is told from the point of view of two children surviving war. Desire, conflict, drama, emotion—the cornerstones of any great work of fiction—all fall under the broad umbrella of suffering. When I visited the Museum before bringing the students, I was immediately struck by images in which the subject is visibly reacting to either physical or emotional pain.
There is flow, from one form to another. No entity is alone, yet no entity is complete. The color is striking, grim and provoking, but it is the lack of color in places that is even more striking. And all forms are just transitions between nothingness and darkness. The monochrome captures the saturated transition perfectly.
—Avaneesh Narla, Class of 2017
VW You mentioned the significance of visiting museums and engaging with art for your own writing. Could you elaborate on this idea?
JL Writing is a way of seeing the world; point of view means nothing other than how something is seen. And without point of view, there can be no story. I have been inspired by works of art since childhood. My grandfather was a painter, and so I grew up with his portraits and landscapes in my house. As a child, until I went to college, really, I drew pictures with the same passion with which I wrote. And throughout my life, I have cultivated an appreciation for visual artists—painters and photographers, mostly—who inspire me deeply. I’m fortunate to know many artists—some are among my closest friends—and I love hearing about how they approach and conceptualize their work. Looking at art inspires me just as reading does; I think about tone, setting, action, detail, framing, and—of course—point of view, but the vocabulary in which everything is rendered is different, and sheds fresh light on the problem.
VW Princeton certainly differs from Rome, where you were previously living. How would you describe your encounters with works in the Art Museum, or, more generally, the experience of walking through the Museum’s galleries?
JL The Art Museum is my favorite place in town and it consoles me greatly. I love the fact that it’s there, walking distance from my home and in the middle of campus, and that I can walk through it whenever I feel the need to see something beautiful. Several years ago, I came to Princeton to read, before I taught here, and saw an incredible show of Kurt Schwitters’s collages, which I love, and there was even a reconstruction of the Merzbau—truly astonishing. I miss Rome and being in Italy generally, so it’s always a treat to see the big oil painting of Naples, or to go downstairs to look at the Roman statues and mosaics. It’s almost as if I’m back in Palazzo Massimo in Rome, which is one of my favorite museums there. I loved the Indian miniatures on exhibit this fall—one could go study just two or three each day and be completely satisfied. It’s such a privilege to be able to do that.
VW After the visit, your students returned to the Museum to choose one of the works we examined and to write a response. Could you say a little more about the assignment and your reactions to reading your students’ pieces?
I am drawn first to the woman’s face, the whites of her eyes pale and stark against the black hollows of her brow. Her gaze extends to a horror somewhere beyond the left corner. Her mouth is a contorted crescent, revealing broken shards of teeth on black gums. The monk is in mid-sentence, his face tilted toward the woman as he speaks, lips drawn in a wide O. They are two figures in a single state of mind, both forms blazing white, as if a spotlight locked on their faces in the night.
—Elisabeth Slighton, Class of 2020
JL The assignment was in two parts. First, I asked the students to return to the Museum, choose one image, stand in front of it for ten minutes or so, and describe what they saw. Describing a visual image that you find inspiring, or intriguing, or even disturbing, is a valuable exercise in that it is a way of “re-seeing” in words something that has already been carefully seen by the artist. The second part of the assignment involved writing a scene that took place just before the moment depicted in the work of art. I was trying to get them to think about constructing narrative by working backward, to imagine what prompted that pivotal moment. I was impressed by how precisely the students described the works, and how emotionally honest they were in their reactions. I should add that we visited the Museum the day after the presidential elections, and we as a group were all quite shaken, in a daze, really. Engaging with specific pieces forced us all to step outside that reality. The second part of the assignment inspired some unforgettable scenes, some of which read like very short stories. The images of suffering in the Museum were points of departure for the writing but also the point of arrival for each story. There is a nice circularity to that.
Art Inspired Writing Challenge
Rock your creative skills and write a fictional story based on a work of art in The Rockwell collection.
Creative Writing Guidelines
1. Find your grade level and select one of the following prompts to answer: Writing Challenge Prompts
2. Browse The Rockwell’s collection via eMuseum. Find an artwork that inspires you and suits your chosen writing prompt. Look for symbols and visual clues that will help answer questions and guide your story. Browse Collection
3. Use your imagination to write a fictional story, poem or monologue – maximum 1000 words. Your writing should include:
- Originality – Your writing should be unique and not copied from anyone or anywhere.
- Imaginative Thinking – There are no limits to your narrative. Think outside the box and be creative in your scenes, characters and storyline. Your story can include aliens, imagined creatures, planets, and other realms of existence. Anything is possible!
- Connection to the Selected Artwork – Make sure you reference the Rockwell collection artwork often in your writing. Include details from the picture, object or sculpture so that the connection is clear. Be inspired by the art!
- Technical Skill – Your writing should use many, diverse adjectives to be as descriptive as possible. Spelling, grammar and punctuation should be checked before submitting.
- Emergence of a Personal Voice – Aim to make your writing distinct with your personality. Be lively, inventive and unpredictable. Incorporate natural language, sensory details, action verbs, sentence variety, rhythm and varying sentence lengths. Make your story fun for the reader!
4. Creative Bonus! Create a visual illustration to complement your story. Pictures of your illustrations (2D or 3D) can be submitted with your writing. This step is optional.
Draw, paint or use art supplies of your choice to illustrate your story once it’s complete.
Want to bring your story to life? Use these links for how-to guides to turn your story into a whole book.
Adapt this Smithsonian Learning Lab book construction to your story. Cut out a character or person from your story for this book creation. Instead of including a map, include a picture of the Rockwell collection artwork. Write a scene from your story in the book and reference different elements in the artwork.