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Writing the River: Art Exhibit Inspires Poetry, Essays

  • cole sunset
  • F&M sophomore Shi Eun "Esther" Lee, one of the winners of the "Writing the River" writing contest sponsored by the College's Philadelphia Alumni Writers House, was inspired by this 1833 oil painting by Thomas Cole, "Sunset, View on the Catskill." (Photo courtesy of The New-York Historical Society)

By Warren Glynn '15

Since the time of Homer and the ancient Greeks, writers and storytellers have been responding to the art around them in an exercise called ekphrasis, creating new works that describe and expand on their inspirations. In 2013, Franklin & Marshall students are engaging in that same custom.

Thirteen students participated a creative writing contest using the Phillips Museum of Art's current exhibit, "The Hudson River to Niagara Falls: 19th-Century American Landscape Paintings from the New-York Historical Society" as their prompt. The contest, organized by the College's Philadelphia Alumni Writers House and titled "Writing the River," sought to engage students and foster discussion about art across various disciplines.

"This was a great way to entice interest and enable lots of students from many different disciplines to share their work," said Writers House Director Kerry Sherin Wright. "We wanted to get people writing."

Three winners -- sophomores Shi Eun "Esther" Lee and Mary Bundy and Senior Nodar Kipshidze -- all were recognized for their work at a Nov. 19 reception at the Phillips Museum.

Lee, who won first prize of $250 for her poem, "Sunset," said the contest was an opportunity to expand on her classroom lessons.

"I had recently finished a session on poetry in my 'Intro to Creative Writing' class," she said "I thought this would be a great opportunity to hone the writing skills I had just learned."

Erik Anderson, a visiting assistant professor of English and one of the contest judges, described Lee's entry as "a poem that swells and subsides, drifts and eddies, blurring speaker, subject, and landscape in a way the Hudson River School painters would likely have admired."

Lee said she began the writing process by asking herself, "What is a river," and concentrated on Thomas Cole's "Sunset, View on the Catskill." The result was a poem about "the river and its passage of currents as a metaphor for life as time flows through it."

The poem begins:

I carry with me time;
I carry with me the debris of passing
from moments meant to linger
had currents been kind to still,
kinder to retreat.

At dawn I drink the light
knowing full well this break
and prying from embrace
at twilight,
upon night's encroach.

The "Writing the River" contest connects F&M to the long history of ekphrastic art, Wright said.

"There's a tradition of writers and artists working together," she said. "We're now part of that tradition."

The contest is among a number of ways students and professors have incorporated the Hudson River exhibit into learning inside and outside the classroom this semester. F&M's Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies David Schuyler, for example, had students in his "American Landscapes" class study the paintings' subjects and significance.

"One of the amazing things about the exhibit is that so many classes across the college are going to see it," said Schuyler, noting that eight classes had visited the exhibit in one particular week. "This is an absolutely unique opportunity."