By Joey Phoenix
Images provided by Verse/Visual
Starting this Friday March 5th, 2021, visitors to Ipswich, MA will stumble upon signs containing mysterious QR codes. They’ll be on lampposts and yard signs, in windows, and even on coffee cups. Following these codes will drop you into a digital art space called VERSE/VISUAL, a non-traditional digital art festival that is part gallery, part poetical/visual conversation.
VERSE/VISUAL was created by Ipswich photographer Cynthia August (she/her/hers) and poet Sarah Vickery (she/her/hers), director of the Ipswich Poetry Group, in 2018 – and while this year the festival won’t be able to happen in the same way it has in years past, it is happening in a hybrid way, combining a rich virtual experience with in-person social-distance-friendly occurrences and a self-directed art walk.
Nine contributors, all either fem/femme or non-binary artists from the North Shore and Greater Boston, created 19 works for this year’s event – a mix of prose, poetry, and visual responses. Each contributor was asked to create a piece inspired by a theme, and respond to a piece. The contributors didn’t know who they were responding to, only what. And the resulting conversation is a moving journey through survivorhood, grief, and the ephemera of daily living during one of the most challenging periods of human history.
This year’s theme, and the inspiration for the initial pieces, is “Vessel.”
“The past 12 months have been a time of holding and containing, releasing and flowing,” the gallery website reads. “We’ve gathered and protected things we care about, sat within illuminating and sometimes uncomfortable truths, and have found ways to pour out compassion, connection and radical reformation.”
2017 saw the creation of New York-based project “America Today, In Vision And Verse” where well-known photographers were given freshly written poems by acclaimed poets and instructed to respond visually.
This call and response creative collaboration spoke to August and Vickery and in 2018 they started their own cross-discipline artistic call and response in Ipswich. The result was VERSE/VISUAL, and the first event was held at The Hall Haskell House and at Gathr during the Ipswich Illumination Festival the following year.
These two events weren’t just poetry and visual response (or poetry/visual response/poetry response in 2019), but also performance, poetry reading, and art installations.
“I spent my entire life as a collaborative artist,” August, who had worked as a performer and designer in and around theatres for most of her life, recalled. “Until I became a photographer, I never conceived of creating things on my own. I’ve always worked with other artists, always needed to work with two or three other people that were brilliant, and get into their brain and see it from their perspective.
“When [Vickery] and I learned about the New York project, we knew we could, and should, bring something similar here,” she added.
One of the most important transitions for August was moving from poetry followed by visual response to a more reciprocal approach: poem meets visual response which then meets poetic response.
“[We wanted] everyone to have a piece of their work responded to, not just the poems. It’s an important mind exercise to have your work responded to, and then to take somebody else’s piece and interpret it yourself,” she said. “And it’s risky work. It’s a risk to submit a piece to begin with that may not get accepted, it’s a risk to respond to work and not know if the person you’re responding to will be offended by your response, and on top of that [knowing] it may not be understood.
“But I feel the risk is worth all of the rewards,” she said, smiling.
Moving to A Virtual VERSE/VISUAL
In 2020, August and Vickery had hoped to return the festival to Gathr for the Ipswich Illumination Festival in the fall, but with COVID and other personal challenges, that just wasn’t going to happen in the way that they had hoped. But instead of cancelling the event entirely, they took a breath, and thought about what would need to happen for it to take place in the Spring.
The VERSE/VISUAL events have always a mixture of hyperlocal and regional contributors, because for August, it was important that the people of Ipswich also felt a sense of ownership and belonging for the event. The open call, while curated, offered the opportunity for poets, artists, and photographers to submit work for consideration.
“One of the things that in the past I’ve tried to do is open the art experience up to everybody in town,” August said, noting how Ipswich is full of incredible talent all on its own. “In the past I’ve had folks participate who were encouraged by their friends while sitting in a townie bar saying: ‘Hey Joe, you should put your column in,’ and then Joe does and then gets all of this wonderful feedback.”
And while the legacy of supporting local creators is something August wants to continue in the coming years, choosing the contributors this year took a slightly different approach. Instead of an open call, she and Vickery were more intentional about who would be represented.
“Originally Sarah and I discussed the possibility of an Instagram exchange where people send in submissions and they get pieces to respond to in return, which would then be posted to Instagram,” she said. “And then the conscience of the country changed in this painful, beautiful, difficult way. And personally, I had a massive crisis, and I’m still moving my way through it – moving through the world with a different awareness.”
The change she’s referring to were the social changes which occurred as a direct result of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in May and June of 2020.
“All of a sudden [VERSE/VISUAL] became a very, very different project. And with it I knew I wanted to represent Ipswich and the voices in Ipswich while also curating the show in a way that was mindful of what was happening everywhere.”
While the contributors are largely Ipswich residents or those connected to the North Shore in a meaningful way, the lineup also contains intersections of queer, non-binary, and disabled artists as well as artists of color.
VERSE/VISUAL 2021 will run from this coming weekend through the end of April. The event will consist of the online gallery component, as well as pop up interactive elements including a poe-tree, rainy day hydrophobic concrete poetry, on-demand basket poetry, as well as social-distance friendly performance art from area artists when weather permits.
You can find out more information about the event at the website at https://www.versevisual.com/ or by following Verse Visual on Instagram @versevisual. The is made possible in part by the Ipswich Cultural Council and Mass Cultural Council.
Joey Phoenix (they/them) is a non-binary, queer, disabled writer, performance artist, and the Director of Brand Strategy and Innovation for Creative Collective. They are lucky enough to have had two pieces involved in this year’s VERSE/VISUAL. Send them notes and tell them about cool things at email@example.com
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