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Shop Talk with Laura Kolbe

PUBLISHED: November 22, 2022

VQR columnist Laura Kolbe’s series of essays considers American art through poet and physician Kolbe’s own personal and experiential lens. The latest installment, “Safe as Houses,” starts with Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison paintings and moves through a series of works by other artists and writers who consider women’s bodies as shelters, bodies as homes, and bodies under siege. Read the full essay here.

VQR: What is the animating idea behind your column for VQR?

Laura Kolbe: I was interested in trying to expand the boundaries of where my writing has gone before. I think of myself in my writing life primarily as a poet, and my day job as a physician. But I love the other arts, visual arts in particular. I live in New York City, an incredibly fertile ecosystem. Ive also lived across the United States, and Ive found over various chapters in my life that figuring out where the visual art is—engaging with public and private spaces in which art is flourishing—has always been the way in, the secret door to feeling like I have a sense of the geographic and historical texture of that place. I thought it would be challenging and exciting to try my hand at a braided series of essays that engage with different things that Ive been able to see or read and think about in the world of the visual arts. 

I’m not a trained art historian. Im not a career art critic at all. And I dont have the deep contextual or theoretical framework that someone would have inside of the academy. But I decided to turn that vulnerability into a strength, to move toward my own naïveté and think about what I can bring to these pieces as a poet by training. I’m interested in metaphorical and tangential thinking, a loosening of associations that allows me to make leaps into the irrational in linking different works of art. I feel less constrained and more open to possibilities of strange juxtaposition when Im choosing to put a few artists into conversation with each other. 

Being a doctor is a hugely visual, hypersensory practice. So much of my daily life is spent watching the body, listening to the body, feeling its textures, its temperatures. It’s almost akin, in a weird way, to being the audience of a work of art, except that the people on the receiving end are, of course, their own subject, infinitely more than an object to be gazed upon. But I think that quality of attunement is held in common between the self that I bring when I’m looking at a painting or a sculpture or work of dance, and the self that I bring to a clinic or to an exam room. 

VQR: Could you talk about your process for conceiving and writing these essays, where you start versus where you end up and how you move through the piece?

Kolbe: There’s a good deal of serendipity and happy chance. But in general, I try to be very open to whatever is happening in the art world. I’m seeing lots of museum exhibitions and going to galleries. Im reading reviews and articles. I try to participate maximally in what is happening in the moment. At the same time, of course, I have in my metaphorical back pocket all of my favorites, all of my heroes, artists that Ive cared about and thought about for years and years.

Typically, I am seeing more than I could possibly write about in the span of one piece. But often there will be one show that I see, or one work of art, that feels like it absolutely strikes a chord with what I need, body and soul. And then I have to try to reverse engineer. Why did that happen? Why did I get chills on the back of my neck? Why goosebumps today, in this moment, looking at this painting? Trying to investigate and rerationalize that feeling leads me into broader somatic territories that weave a larger tapestry that incorporates resonances from other works of art that I’ve recently seen, or that I have long loved. 

In all three essays I wonder, what do we mean by American art? As a person living in New York City, but writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, I’m also wondering how these two places speak to each other. What are the transcendent conditions that unite places as different as New York City and Charlottesville? What’s incredible about VQR is that, on the one hand, the pool of writers it draws from and the subject matter in its pages, are totally global in outlook. And yet it manages to keep a particular flavor of place. It really does feel like a product of Charlottesville, of central Virginia, in its aesthetic and attitude. Its still deeply rooted in its own geography. 

It seemed appropriate in writing for VQR that I would strive to create something that honors the specificity of geographic texture, and of different practices that have arisen in the history of art in the United States, while at the same time looking for universal values or somatic connections between these very disparate artists and places.

VQR: How do your two arts, your two practices of medicine and writing, inform each other and overlap in your life and work?

Kolbe: Each one prepares me and nourishes me for the other. Being a writer has, I hope, made me a more careful and attentive doctor, because it’s accustomed me to revision. It’s accustomed to me to being wrong. The practice of writing is trying a hundred times to get the sentence right or to get the line right. It just takes dogged persistence, and it takes the kind of comfort with ones own fallibility, to keep throwing rough drafts at the page before you hit the version that rings true. In medical culture, there is often an immense, self-imposed burden of perfection, authority, and detached objectivity. That can be very emotionally overwhelming for the physician, but it also sets up this kind of artificial remove between physician and patient that ought to be overthrown from medicine. Having a writing practice that is, in some ways, all about error and seeking—about being open to criticism and change—has helped me to reflect that habit back into my medical work.

The appetite of a writer, constantly on the lookout for experiences—sensory, psychological, interpersonal—and for nodes of curiosity and intensity in daily life, is another force I’ve tried to channel back into being a doctor. To try to stay keenly alert to clues, to subtleties in my interactions with others, to thoughts that arise when I examine another persons body or when Im reflecting on the pieces of laboratory data that I have about a case. Trying to maintain that voracious curiosity for detail is something that I think enhances my medical practice, and that I dont think I would have access to in quite the same way if I werent a writer. 

Conversely, when I think about how medicine has made me a better or a different writer, medicine is a space in which I am rightly expected to abandon, or at least hold at arm’s length, my own subjectivity, and really strive to inhabit multiple points of view, thinking empathically about life as its experienced within the bodies of others. Im presented with such a vast panoply of the human condition, the varieties of how it must feel to be embodied. Having seen that makes my own imagination as a writer a little more flexible, I hope, a little more capacious, than if I were just a full-time writer and didnt have access to the profound assortment of ways to be a person that patients are always bringing to me.

Read Kolbe’s latest essay in our Fall issue, “Safe as Houses.” 


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