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My dad's glasses: Seeing things differently through art and collaboration

September 18, 2015

Love Where You Live

From JoAnn Turnquist:  It is a joy to introduce our next guest blogger in our “Love Where You Live” series. Ed Madden is the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of Columbia. He is also an associate professor of English and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina. Recently, Dr. Madden participated in the Identity show at Columbia Museum of Art. This art show was one of many community engagement activities tied to the Warhol exhibit at the museum and was funded through the Foundation’s Connected Communities Grants. I hope you enjoy his story of how he is giving back to Columbia through the arts.




My dad’s glasses: seeing things differently through art and collaborationEd Madden

By Ed Madden

My dad held me up to the kitchen window.

I looked out. Then put on his glasses,

looked out again—a world with edges,

limits, each thing newly fixed

against the autumn sky.

- from “Solve for X,” collaborative poem by Ed Madden and Alexis Stratton, from Identity, in the Community Gallery at the Columbia Museum of Art, in conjunction with From Marilyn to Mao: Andy Warhol’s Famous Faces

When I was a kid, I needed glasses.  I still remember vividly that moment my dad held me up to the kitchen window and let me look out with his glasses on. The world came into focus in a way I’d never known. I use that image in the poem I recently wrote for the Identity show at the Columbia Museum of Art. I like the image: someone helping me learn to see. I would, of course, get my own eyeglasses once my family realized I needed them, and I would come to see the world in my own ways, not just those of my parents. But there’s still something fundamental and moving for me in that memory: learning to see, helping someone else to see, seeing anew, seeing differently.

When Leslie Pierce asked me to participate in community engagement activities tied to the Warhol exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art, From Marilyn to Mao: Andy Warhol’s Famous Faces, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It wasn’t just because Leslie asked me, though it was unlikely I would ever say no to Leslie. She was such a delight to work with, such a light in our community, and her passing last summer was an extraordinary loss.

It wasn’t just the chance to work with the Warhol exhibit either, though that exhibit is pretty amazing. It wasn’t just the chance to be able respond to the show, though it was a treat to make those little Warhol-esque “screen tests,” to provide audio commentary for the gallery tour (I chose the Judy Garland photo), and to work alongside other local artists I admire—filmmaker Betsy Newman, painter Alejandro García-Lemos, visual artist Michaela Pilar Brown.

It wasn’t even really the opportunity to produce something ourselves in conversation with the exhibit, though I love this kind of project, connecting the historical to the present, art to the local context. No, more than all of that, it was Leslie’s explicit instruction that we all choose young local artists to work with, to mentor. So in the midst of so much to love—the sense of community and connection, the conversations about art and among artists—there was also the invitation to give back to the community by collaborating with young artists.

I worked with Alexis Stratton.  I knew her as student at USC, both in the MFA creative writing program and the graduate certificate program in Women’s and Gender Studies. I love her work, and I knew that if we went with the assigned theme of identity, she would be kindred spirit as well as interesting collaborator.  We decided to focus on gender and sexuality, responding in part to Warhol’s “Ladies and Gentlemen” series.  We met and talked through ideas, drafted poems and responded to each other’s poems. We settled on the idea of “solving for x”—thinking about how our society is so concerned about why we are who we are.  It was origins and variables, algebra and old movies (Madame X!), and chromosomes (XX or XY). How do we put poetry in a gallery with film and visual art? Alexis suggested a big X of poetry on the wall, suggested we collage our words and ideas together where the lines of the x, and the trajectories of our own poems, crossed. And we decided to invite others to join the discussion, to collaborate with us: chalkboard on either side asked people to write “what I was told” and “what I know.”

Alexis and I ended up with a little book of poems along with the big X.  I wrote another piece for our local arts magazine, Jasper, about the image of Jimmy Carter, the one image in the show that sent me back in memory to my farmboy roots:

I sometimes think Columbia is really in an arts renaissance right now, and I love being a part of it. But I really love moments like this one, moments when people I love, an institution I love, work I love to do, and ideas I love to think about all come together in one rich and powerful combination—on the wall of the Community Gallery.


Ed Madden is an associate professor of English and director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina. In January he was named the inaugural Poet Laureate for the City of Columbia, a position he holds for four years. He is the author of four books of poetry, including Signals, which won the SC Poetry Book Prize, and Ark, which will be published in March 2016, a book of poetry focused on the period he helped with his father’s home hospice care in his last few months with cancer.


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