Oct 10 08 by Published in: Interviews No comments yet

Artist Milt Friedly makes what can’t be said.

In metal and clay, on paper and canvas, he shapes the emotions that have no words, creating layers of meaning that carry his heart’s voice.

An ardent fan of poetry, he has long delighted in the abstract qualities of verse, the emotions that shimmer between the words, which snake through the lines, building layers of meaning.

This year, the Elizabethtown College professor brought these worlds together; coaxing a diverse collection of two dozen visual artists and poets from across the country into a dialogue that would infuse each other’s work.

“The Handprint Identity Project” is the result. Debuting at Elizabethtown College’s Hess and Lyet galleries on Oct. 18, 40 pieces of the resulting visual artwork will be on exhibit through Dec. 12, before the collection travels to other venues. A companion chapbook produced for the show contains some of the poetry created for the project. A series of podcast interviews with the visual artists and poets rounds out the project.

“There’s something similar about the language of poets and artists,” said Friedly. “They have an abstract quality that I prefer – when you’re reading a poem and looking at a piece of art, you’re getting more each time you come back to it.”

Curious to see what would happen when these aesthetic sensibilities collided, Friedly paired up the artists and writers, giving them the task of first meditating on the theme, then creating work in constant conversation with each other, and then finally asking the entire group to engage and respond to the resulting pieces.

“I wanted to show the conversation between artists, rather than just the presentation to the world,” said Friedly.

To prompt and inspire the work, Friedly “chose a theme that would project our experiences as human beings, inspire the creative energies of the project participants, and result in a public celebration sharing our diversity.

“The handprint is a common denominator that has been a symbol of Man’s predicaments and hopes – it is a symbol that expresses both the universal and individual. Whether a fist or an open hand; whether grasping or gently holding; the hand is powerful in expressing human emotion,” he said.

This interdisciplinary venture draws on a diverse assortment of personalities and artistic styles, varying in age, ethnicity, geographic location, religion, and mostly particularly, perspective.

“I wanted poets and artists working in different genres who could bring a unique perspective to project: those who have produced work for many years mentoring younger artists and writers, as well as those who were just beginning their journeys along the path of creativity,” said Friedly.

Connecticut poet Ravi Shankar, who collaborated with Philadelphia artist Leslie Kaufman, found that despite the “transparent scrim of distance” their collaboration embraced a “tactility of spirit.”

“I sent her work, she sent me photographs, and then we spoke on the phone, miles away, but in the course of our conversation realizing a certain shared aesthetic sensibility that could spring from text into image and installation,” said Shankar.

What ensued for all of the participants was an outpouring of new work, inspiring and infusing many of the visual and literary artists with collaborative energy. Most notably, for Messiah College art professor Don Forsythe, that has meant more than 200 new images and counting.

“Creating art is a selfish proposition,” said Friedly. “With this project I hoped to promote artists to work outside of their selves and put the creative process out there.”

University of Missouri English professor Scott Cairns was so inspired by the project that he plans to design future work on this model.

“When Milt Friedly contacted me about the Handprint Identity Project, I jumped at the chance to take up again a project that depended upon our attending to one another in the process of making art,” he said. “This, finally, is what I want out of pretty much everything I do from now on:  a sense that I’m in conversation with another, a sense that together we are hoping to attain a glimpse of something we could not have discovered alone.”

Poet Pierce T. Hibbs said the collaboration with sculptor Tom Yurkovic was exciting as Yurkovic’s shapes “demanded words.” Hibbs recalled that, “our philosophical discussions, even our brainstorming, seemed to have a kinetic sense to it, as if we were pieces of light trying to find our way down to the ground.” For his part, Yurkovic said the project “placed me just enough outside of my ‘comfort zone’ to where Pierce’s ideas about scale and tactility and kinetics had me nervous, but in a good way– a sort of creative anxiety about how it would turn out.  It was a great feeling making the piece because it didn’t feel stale, like simply a reinterpretation of a form I have already made, or have been studying.”

Poet Sandra Kohler said one of the most fascinating parts of the collaborative experience with Philadelphia artist Carol Cole “has been the unexpected emergence of connections: not only between specific works we’ve done for the project, but in our articulation of our understanding of ourselves as people and artists. We have come to see identity in unlikeness, to recognize ourselves in the handprint of another.”


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