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Art and Reading as Experience

ISSUE:  Winter 2014

Engaging with art isn’t always a purely visual experience— it can sometimes involve getting your hands dirty.

That is what the subject of this issue’s profile, Gabriel Orozco, believes. “My feeling is that in the photographs that I consider successful, people can feel the experience, or it contains the experience of that action,” Orozco remarked in a 2007 interview at Harvard University. Given his belief in the experiential nature of art, Orozco asked our reporter, Julia Cooke, to lend a hand in painting a recent project. Fearlessly, Cooke jumped right in, sparking a collaboration between writer and subject. The result is a story that seamlessly connects the artist with his art. 

Like Cooke’s profile of Orozco, each article in the winter VQR tells several stories within a single narrative. But the conflict and tension between stories— or between writer and subject— hold untold delights and weave themselves into their own unique reading experience. In this issue of VQR, rather than superimposing a concept on a collection of articles, we want readers to make the connections and twist them together with their own theme or themes. Just as with viewing art, the act of engaging with the written word is experiential. Of course, the conflict, tensions, and connections made among stories in this issue will be different for every reader. Yet the content of this issue is varied, with the hope that what you observe and what resonates with you is not cast into a single vision but evokes many themes. 

Before launching into our longer pieces, our features up front serve as an entry point to the issue. The Talisman essay by Francisco Goldman wrestles with a concern of many writers: What in the physical world serves as a touchstone or spark for one’s writing. To write, I often need to be surrounded by the books that have inspired me over time, whether or not they are linked to my writing. But as Goldman confronts in his essay, the objects a writer defines as inspirational may or may not be the true source of inspiration.

In addition to our opening features and an exploration of the art of Gabriel Orozco, we have US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s essay on the cultural necessity of poetry in American life, adapted from her May 2013 lecture at the Library of Congress. Moving from the world of art and poetry, writer Meera Subramanian takes us to India to see how the country’s economy and demographics are having an impact on gender relations. As girls in India gain education and power, how will boys react to a culture in flux?

Mark Van de Walle dives into the culture of an outpost in the California desert: Slab City, one of the country’s only anarchist trailer parks. Although Slab City’s residents don’t plan to overthrow the government, they do feel that their secluded community is one of the few places in the nation unbound by rules and restrictions. 

Next, Emily Raboteau journeys to the Netherlands and takes a close look at a centuries-old tradition involving a character known as Black Pete—Zwarte Piet in Dutch—who parades around in blackface during celebrations held from mid-November to December. With more residents of African descent living in the Netherlands—many of them from former Dutch colonies—the Zwarte Piet tradition has sparked a debate there about race, the role of the Dutch in the slave trade, and the country’s colonial past. 

These reported pieces are evidence of VQR’s continued commitment to tackling global and international affairs. But the personal is equally important and often serves as a means of exploring larger issues. All writers are custodians of memory, which makes the memoir a particularly potent form to explore the personal. In this issue, we present two: “Pain,” by Will Boast, and “The Hare and the Hunter,” by Jonathan Green. Boast and Green both capture, with clarity and precision, the pressures that defined them as well as their families. In these vivid portraits of unique individual pasts, we discover, through artful articulation, universal emotional truths. 

The Arctic regions hold a special place in the western literary imagination, often as a place where the weather is harsh and the bleak landscape twists the psyche of those constantly exposed to its elements. Of course, visions of limitless snow and ice accompany the real and imagined psychic pain. But photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva’s photographs of the town of Tiksi, in the Sakha Republic of the Russian Arctic, are both magical and vibrant. Her images capture the colors of that landscape beyond the ice and snow, yet leave room to imagine what lies beyond and beneath the scenery inside her viewfinder. 

Equally colorful, but drawn from a radically different landscape, are the paintings of Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole. Design historian Jean Dunbar explores both Cole’s painting and some of the mystery surrounding his apparently sudden talent.

With Alice Munro receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, VQR has now published the work of more than fifteen Nobel Prize winners. When we published her short story “Home” in 2006, Munro fine-tuned and adjusted the details of the story right up to the very end. I’m excited about our fiction for winter because of the variety and strength of the writers’ voices as well as the way they have shaped their work. Also, this marks the first time any of these four writers— Steven Amsterdam, Chris Offutt, Lara Vapnyar, and Paula Whyman—have appeared in VQR. Although the stories are not connected by a theme, they are connected visually: Each one features a scene from the story as seen from the imagination of illustrator Lauren Simkin Berke, whose work, like that of our writers, also appears in VQR for the first time. 

In addition to the three departments we added in our last issue—Talisman, Amateur Hour, and Mapping—we’re adding another. Our new feature, Fine Distinctions, appears at the back of VQR and will be written by Gregory McNamee, a contributing editor to Encyclopedia Britannica. Every writer works to use words precisely, but often usage falls into some shade of gray. Fine Distinctions will look at those gray areas in a way that is both literate and humorous. In this issue, McNamee examines the fine distinction between blues and rhythm and blues. American music in every form is a personal interest of mine, so this concise column is a sample of one of the ways I’d like to explore the link between music and literature.

This issue has a vast tableau of features, stories, poems, photographs, and illustrations. As VQR’s staff pulled this issue together, we each made our own connections among these various pieces. Now it’s your turn. 


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