Beauty In Different Interpretations

Elizabeth Leggett, Emily Mah Tippetts, and Lauren Teffeau view Death

Theme can be a strangling cord or an inspiration.  Last weekend, Jim and I went to a gallery showing that demonstrated how a shared theme can inspire extraordinary leaps in creativity.

The show in question was Readings: A Celebration of Speculative Fiction Through the Lens of Tarot Art at Keep Contemporary Gallery in Santa Fe.

The show was curated by our friend, the Hugo Award-winning artist, Elizabeth Leggett.  In addition to her work, the show featured that of Lee Moyer, Sienna Luna, and Reiko Murakami Rice.

What we saw as soon as we came through the door was that, without any prior consultation, each artist had chosen a different way to interpret the theme.

Elizabeth Leggett has long drawn inspiration from the rich visual images in the prose of Ray Bradbury.  She chose to create twenty-two amazing paintings, each inspired by a different Bradbury story.  To help the viewer share her creative process, she provided a print portfolio with details on which card in the Tarot deck was depicted, a quotation from the story, and a short note about why she chose that particular image.

Lee Moyer was the only artist to make his contributions look specifically like playing cards.  The highly complex border design was silkscreened, but he added individual details to each border, including highly-individualized icons for each piece.  Mr. Moyer’s connection to the SF/F theme was to feature different writers as the figures on his cards.  Each was accompanied by a wonderfully eclectic selection of images related to their work.  We lucked out, and Mr. Moyer was available to provide a guided tour through his pieces, which definitely enriched the experience.

Rowan Derrick, Me, and Cale Mims with some of Lee Moyer’s Art

The other two artists provided only a handful of pictures, but these individual gems increased the overall glitter and shine of the exhibition.  The media and styles were very different from either Elizabeth Leggett’s or Lee Moyer’s work.

Looking at this show made me think about how theme anthologies have long been a staple of the Science Fiction and Fantasy field.  I’ve contributed to at least fifty.  In my opinion, those anthologies that have worked best have been those where the theme is vivid enough to provide inspiration, not just a unifying element, while at the same time not being so limited that the stories begin to seem more similar than they actually are.

One of the weird things about the human brain is that it draws connections where none actually exist.  This leads to superstitions like “deaths come in threes” or believing you’ll have bad luck after you break a mirror.   After a traumatic event, connections are manufactured in an attempt to force order on a chaos—maybe as a sort of perverse reassurance that the bad luck will end.

At their best, theme anthologies stimulate a writer to try and find a different twist on the theme.  At their worst, the reader begins to anticipate how each story will develop, based upon repeated tropes.

Many years ago, I heard a prominent magazine editor lament that he wasn’t getting more submissions from the same authors who he saw contributing to theme anthologies: “After all, they can write about anything for me!”  But what he was missing was that he, too, had a theme, and one that was much harder for a writer to be inspired by: the tenuous, tentative theme of “What the editor envisions the magazine to be.”

So, overall, I think I’m in favor of themes.  Perhaps the best themes are those that—like that for Readings—encourage individual interpretations, but avoid the marching in step that can happen with repeated tropes.

3 Responses to “Beauty In Different Interpretations”

  1. the6thjm Says:

    An infinity of choice can be paralyzing:

    A blank page: you can write about anything you want. Anything at all.

    *author cowers in a ball*

    A theme: it has to tie in somehow with “Paradise Lost” … but in the future … and you can’t make Satan your main character.

    *author produces a story in record time*

    A writing competition when I was in high school was based on a book which gave you the first lines of a story, and the last lines, and you had to write the middle. Since I ran the competition and was one of the judges, I got to see what the entrants did with it. There was one kid there who might have gone on to be a pro author. Alas, I have none of those stories or records from that time. But giving a theme certainly helps narrow down an author’s choices from infinity to a more manageable subset of infinity.

    I hope Mr. Moyer puts his art on his website (or offers them as a book). From what little I could see in that photo, I’d like to spend more time looking at those pieces. In the meantime, I’ll be checking out his website (and the other artists’ sites, too).

    • janelindskold Says:

      Nice thoughts regarding themes. I was always fascinated by how different the stories in some theme anthologies could be.

      I know Elizabeth Leggett has her art up on her FB page, but I don’t know if she’s loaded it to her website. Don’t know about the rest!

  2. Harried Harry Says:

    Thank you for an interesting “theme” on art! I’ve seen art made from metal pieces as well as concrete and wood. Each person has a different way to interpret art just as each person interprets a writer’s story and places it into their understanding of things. Makes for a very interesting discussion when each viewer (or reader) talks to another person.

    I have trouble understanding poetry but no problem understanding painting or photography. I think it all depends on the upbringing and ability to conceptualize.

    Thanks again for the brief on the show. Stimulates my thinking.

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