The Big Read: California Artists Respond to Jeffers' Poetry

California History, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Big Read: California Artists Respond to Jeffers' Poetry


In his introduction to the National Endowment for the Arts' Reader's Guide to The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Dana Gioia characterized Jeffers as "magnificent, troubling, idiosyncratic, and uneven," his ideas "big, naked, howling," and his poetry filled with "joyful awe and indeed religious devotion to the natural world." (1) These powerful attributes recall the instinctive need for the poet as artist to make sense of the world around him.

Thus, it is not surprising that artists have demonstrated an intuitive attraction to Jeffers' poetry. Two recent exhibitions--part of the NEA's Big Read initiative on campuses and in libraries, galleries, and organizations up and down the state--captured this allure.

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In "Photographs: In Conversation with Robinson Jeffers," held October 10, 2008-January 4, 2009 at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, thirty-seven regional photographers displayed their images alongside the verses from Jeffers' poems that inspired them. The exhibition was curated by Kim Weston, a grandson of the celebrated photographer Edward Weston (whose photograph of the poet appeared on the cover of Time magazine in April 1932), and featured photographs made by Kim and Cara Weston, Edward Weston's granddaughter. Reproduced in these pages, their images represent not only Jeffers' affinity with the natural world and his perception of humanity's inferior role, but also the Weston family legacy of creating striking visual interpretations of the poet and his beloved Big Sur coast.

Linda Lyke, professor of art at Occidental College in Los Angeles, assembled student work from three printmaking classes in "Student Printmakers' Response to Jeffers' Poetry," one of many events in the college's Jeffers Big Read in fall 2009. The exhibit showcased twenty-eight examples of different printmaking techniques, each inspired by Jeffers' life and poetry. The monotypes featured in this essay are similar, Professor Lyke explains, "to painting on a smooth surface and then transferring that wet ink image by means of an etching press." (2)

Pairing Jeffers' poems and imagery is not unique, as California's influential environmentalist David Brower illustrated in Not Man Apart: Lines from Robinson Jeffers, Photographs of the Big Sur Coast) Nevertheless, the union of verse and art stimulates a new way of thinking about Jeffers' role in accessing the creative spirit.

--Editors

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As curator of "Photographs: In Conversation with Robinson Jeffers," I had an opportunity to reflect on my younger days when Jeffers was an influence on our family--from the portraits of Jeffers by my grandfather, Edward Weston, to Not Man Apart, a book whose photographs of the Big Sur coast by my father, Cole Weston, and other local artists illustrated lines from Jeffers' poems.

This exhibition opened for me a door to Jeffers that had long been locked with the sign "Will Get to Someday." As I reread one of our world's greatest poets--whose life and poetry was affected by the same beauty that I have touched, seen, and photographed--I found this opportunity to be a fantastic rediscovery of the lost treasure of words, a new look at my own artwork, and a renewed appreciation of a great American icon. …

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