Words That Give Shape

This past weekend, Jim and I headed off to the State Fair with our friends Michael Wester and Chip Wideman.  As I’ve mentioned before, the New Mexico State Fair is an event that reflects the wide range of cultures and interests that make this state the strange and interesting place it is.

My Title Is?

(See WW 9-15-10, 9-14-11, 9-21-11 if you’d like some views from other years.)

One of the things we like best are the many and varied art shows.  There’s one for Indian Art, one for Hispanic Art, one for Fine Art, and one for African American Art.  Then, for all the arts and crafts that don’t fit in anywhere else, there’s what we fondly call the “Hobby Building.”  This is where you’ll find photography, quilting, various needlecrafts, woodworking, and leather working as well as more paintings, handmade jewelry, sculpture, and pottery.

We were touring the photography exhibit when Michael commented how he felt the titles contributed to his reaction – often adding to his appreciation by giving him an insight as to why the artist had chosen to create a specific piece.  I agreed wholeheartedly.  Oddly enough, the question of titles had been something I’d been thinking about earlier that week for a completely different reason.

I always feel a vague disappointment when some piece of visual art catches my eye and the title is something dull and uninformative like “Japanese Beauty #3″ or “Girl and Book.”  Worse are titles like “Opus 1″ or “Watercolor 2.”  These frustrate me.  They make me feel as if the artist is playing hide and seek or, worse, acting like a pompous professor forcing an interpretation exercise on the viewer.  I mean, would the artist have put all that work into the  piece if the subject had not held some meaning for him or her?

My reaction to purely written work is shaped by the title as well.  This is particularly true of poetry, but certainly applies to longer texts.  Sometimes, especially with a poem, the title seems to be the first line of the poem, without which the poem would be impossible to understand in the manner the poet intended.

(By this I mean titles in the most literal sense, not poems that were never titled and are now titled by using the first line as the title.)

I’d been thinking about poetry titles earlier that week.  I’d been reading a book about the craft of poetry.  Overall, as long as the text stayed with the technical aspects, I liked it quite a lot.  However, when the author ventured into interpretation, I usually felt that the interpretation was forced, meant to illustrate a particular point, rather than actually being rooted in the text.

As an experiment, I read Jim a short poem that the author of the book on poetry had used to illustrate his claim that a short image can potently carry a complex story.  Certainly this can be the case.  However, I thought that this particular poem was a poor example.  In fact,  I felt that without the title this poem could be interpreted in any of a dozen ways – and that none of them would be what the title told us the poem was about.

Jim offered several thoughts as to what this poem could mean.  None of them were what the title of the poem indicated the subject was.  In other words, without the title, the poem had no set meaning at all.  Moreover, when I read Jim the title, his response was an eloquent “huh?”

So titles – especially for visual art and poetry – are, to me, key to connecting with the author’s intent.  I think the same can be true for novels as well, which is one reason why, when I re-released my novel Legends Walking earlier this year, I gave it back its original title of Changer’s Daughter.

The subject of titles came to an interesting conclusion for us this weekend at the Fair.   Jim was drawn to a particular piece by New Mexico artist Marjie Bassler.  What clinched his decision to purchase it was when he walked over and realized that the author’s title for her work and the title he’d mentally given it were the same.

The photo shows our new picture.  (It’s a mixed media piece.)  What would you call it?  I’m curious if the title you give it matches that given to it both by the artist and by Jim.

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20 Responses to “Words That Give Shape”

  1. J Moore Says:

    Get Off Your High Horse

  2. Ann M Nalley Says:

    I would call it either “Coltish” or “Growing into My Legs” but that doesn’t capture the sense of elegance and delicacy evinced by the art, either.

  3. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    I’d call that picture, “Hey, cool — standing in this reflecting pool makes my legs look reeeeeeally long!”
    And as for titles for visual arts, I don’t know about how other artists do titles, but mine are usually strictly utilitarian, so I’ll be likely to remember the piece years later just from hearing the title. The reason for this is twofold: 1) I mostly do relief prints, and after I’ve finished a print run, I like to store the block or blocks for the print in a box in a way that protects the block from damage. This of necessity means that I will not be able to see the image on the block, so if I ever want to locate that block again without having to root through hundreds of other stored blocks, a title is very helpful. And
    2) When I do my artwork, I don’t think in words, usually (unless I put text into the piece); my thought processes involve color, shape, pattern, even when I’m doing objective images. These have meaning for me that does not have a verbal component. I can try to express it verbally, but that’s only my attempt at translating what’s really going on. So I do my design, carve the blocks, print them, and then when it’s time to sign, date, and title the prints, very often it’s a case, of “Oh, shit, now I have to think of what to call it!” A lot of times, the eventual title has little to do with what the piece means to me, but it’ll simply help me to locate the blocks later. So while the title may indeed be dull and uninformative, for me that is irrelevant. And I am sorry that gives the impression of being pompous and forcing any kind of exercise on anyone. That’s not my intention at all! How would you react to seeing pieces labeled in a language you don’t speak? Why not cut the same sort of slack to those of us whose language at the time is purely visual?
    I don’t have a problem with the words giving *more* meaning, but if the piece doesn’t have meaning *without* words being attached, them I’ve failed as a visual artist. It’s *visual* art. Sometimes the meaning is just, “look how cool these colors and patterns are together!” And that’s really all there is to it.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I really appreciate having an artist’s perspective on titles…

      I’ve seen a lot of your work and think you sell yourself down a bit. Certainly some titles are “filing cabinet labels” but others add to the story.

      However, it never would have occurred to me to think of a title as a means of “filing.” That’s actually amusing!

      Since I love language, I’d probably try to translate titles in a language I don’t speak — and then wonder why in an American gallery it wasn’t in English (or Spanish, esp. here in NM; although I’ve tried to work through various Native American when needed).

      I have a friend who has patiently translated — often by linguistically breaking down a particular word — in Japanese for me because I’m puzzled by what I’m hearing when watching anime. I don’t speak Japanese, but knowing isolated words helps me “follow.”

      Hmm… I’d better stop here or I’ll have another topic.

  4. heteromeles Says:

    Ann had my first choice of title (Coltish), while Julie had my second. Unfortunately, my imagination has been contaminated by the Long Cat meme (Google it), so I guess I’ll add Long Horse to the collection.

    As for Legends Walking, I’ve said before that I was disappointed with the way that story was originally marketed. I hope that it’s doing better in its current instar.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      I now have the mental image of a book molting out of its dust jacket.

      Seriously, “instar” is a cool word that should be pulled out from entomology into the mainstream. A very nice usage.

      But as for Jane’s new artwork, it’s not telling me a title. The part that jumped out at me was the stage-like structure surrounding the horse.

  5. Chris Krohn Says:

    “Trojan Horse at The KiMo.”

  6. Jim Moore Says:

    Hey, there’s a comment from another J. Moore! It wasn’t from me, I already know the name of the piece.

  7. Nicholas Wells Says:

    “Golden Reflection”

    Best I could come up with. 🙂

  8. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Thanks, Jane (and Jim!) We’re all having a lot of fun with this! I keep looking at the picture and noticing other aspects the other “commentators” are pointing out. I hadn’t really noticed the reflection quality before or paid too much attention to the stage. How about Stage Coach… no, that’s something a horse would pull…

  9. Paul Says:

    A cross between a horse and a giraffe?

  10. janelindskold Says:

    I thought about giving the answer in a separate entry but Ann is SO right… Part of the fun is seeing what other people are saying. Like her, I didn’t see the reflection until Julie pointed it out.

    And, yes, it’s there — not just a photograph artifact.

    Those who found themselves looking at the “surround” were onto something.

    The title is “Temple of the Horse.”

    And that’s what Jim called it, from across the gallery, long before he could have read the sign.

    Kinda neat…

  11. Ann M Nalley Says:

    Wow! That’s amazing. And really, a wonderful title.

  12. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    As it happens, I did a design for a print last night, and yes, it was totally visual, up to the point at which I needed a sort of staccato design element at the bottom, and text is perfectly suited to that. But to help keep it *just* a design element, I wrote the text in my Space People alphabet. 🙂

    • janelindskold Says:

      You are EVIL!

      And, I, of course, have the key for that alphabet somewhere around here…

      (In case readers haven’t guessed, I like Julie’s prints a lot. In fact, if any of you have a card stamped with “Thirteen Orphans” in English and Chinese, Julie is the artist who designed the block!)

  13. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    Evil? Hee hee! Thank you! I *do* try 🙂
    And thanks, too, for the kind words about my prints!

  14. Paul Genesse Says:

    The Trojan Horse

    That’s the title I thought of when I saw the pic. I saw that someone else already said it, but I thought of that as well.

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