Friday, October 11, 2019

Life. Death. Illness. Love. Loss. And art. Katherine Vaz and Isabel Pavão talk about their extraordinary art/poetry project THE HEART IS A DROWNING OBJECT, which everyone should pre-order immediately

The exquisite moving book

Katherine Vaz

Isabel Pavão

 You've never experienced a book like this. I promise you. The Heart Is A Drowning Object, from Artist's Proof Editions,  is a collaboration in poems and paintings by the novelist Katherine Vaz and the artist Isabel Pavão.And it is astounding. Vaz's poems center on the sudden affliction of her beloved husband and the way she tends him. Pavão’s vibrant pictures share and explore grief and age and, of course, love. Together, both show how late love, girded by the fear of possible loss, create a world that is even deeper in joy than ever imagined. 

Please pre-order as soon as you can, so you can be as changed by this work of art as I was, and we can talk about it incessantly.

And thank you Katherine and Isabel for agreeing to do this interview!

About the Artist:
Isabel Pavão earned the degree of Doctor of Arts at NYU in 1994. A native of Portugal, she has lived and worked in New York since 1990. She exhibits her work in New York City, and in many museums and galleries all over the world. Among them are the Chiado Museum, Natural History Museum and National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Gulbenkian Foundation in Paris, National Museum of Rio De Janeiro, Museum of Modern Art in New Delhi, Orient Foundation in Macau, Poets House in New York. She also participates often as an invited artist as well as a guest professor in Universities, Art Schools, and Museums.

About the Writer

Katherine Vaz, a former Fellow in Fiction at Harvard University and a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is the author of two novels, SAUDADE and MARIANA, the latter in six languages and selected by the Library of Congress as one of the Top Thirty International Books of 1998. Her collections FADO & OTHER STORIES won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and OUR LADY OF THE ARTICHOKES & OTHER PORTUGUESE-AMERICAN STORIES won the Prairie Schooner Book Award. She has done many cultural exchange projects between Portugal and the U.S. and is the first Luso-American to have her work recorded for the archives of the Library of Congress, Hispanic Division. She lives in New York City with Christopher Cerf, a Sesame Street composer, TV producer, writer, and editor.

I’ve always believed that art can change us, emotionally, and maybe even on a DNA level. But it can do this only when it’s really close to the bone, risk-taking, and it hits all the sense. These two broadsides that I saw did that. I kept becoming immersed in the photos and artwork, the whole feel of them, and it felt like the poems were an integral part of that.

KV: I’m so glad you felt like that! Immersion—the idea of drowning—is about the enveloping that occurs when all senses are firing. And we very much want the viewer and reader to add to what we’re offering—so that all of us are speaking together. What’s close to the bone is of course close to the heart. The poems begin with an actual damaged heart in a love story—a husband with a sudden affliction, and a wife tending to him but also to the biggest truth we all carry, that one day an end will come, for those we love and for ourselves. How do we carry this so profoundly that we can find joy anyway? And even more: How can we find joy in the process itself of endings?

IP: Because we’re not just drowning...when we discuss the idea of dropping, going down, maybe into water, into something, we transcend ourselves. It’s no longer about you or me, it’s a sense of communal experience—or feeling. Something that no longer belongs to us—it is a Thing out there. If we go into it, we join everyone else. We touch a feeling that is no longer ours, but one that belongs to humanity. That’s also what a collaboration is about!

I always want to know what haunted you into writing this book, and how did it take shape? How do you both know each other, and how did you know you could work well together? I love the whole idea that it is about older women/older woman, and facing the illness of a husband. These are things that have not always been talked about, especially the differences between a long-time love when you are older and one that sparks and fireworks when you are old. I love that.  Was that part of your intention? The images I saw are perfect for the prose and I was wondering how both of you worked to make this happen?  What was the planning like?

KV: I’ve written novels and short stories, five books now, with a lot of themes about the Portuguese community in America, especially California, where I grew up, and I’m fascinated by art books, by combinations of painting and words. I do box-art pieces. I’ve done lots of cultural things for the Luso community (“Lusitania” being the old Roman word for Portugal)…and I’ve long been acquainted with Isabel’s gorgeous, deeply felt art. She’s exhibited all over the map, a native of Portugal but longtime New Yorker. Both of us are transplants who adore where we now live. It was Ana Miranda Ventura, who runs Arte Institute in New York City—an organization dedicated to promoting the cultural and art of Portugal in liaison with North American artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians of Luso descent—who introduced us. I can still see us sitting in the library in my home, the three of us talking away. Isabel and I knew we wanted to do something together.

IP: Yes, but at first we didn’t know what. We deliberately did not want to plan. First we recognized that we had a lot of links concerning color in our work—vividness in your stories, a fascination with people who think in color—

KV: And your work has that too, of course.

IP: Yes! And some time went by, but we finally made a lunch date, first at the Harvard Club, followed by another one at the Lotos Club in New York. We agreed not to come in with a list of ideas, but to see what might evolve naturally. It was funny how we surprised ourselves with what became the obvious parallel of having older husbands who had undergone serious ailments and spent a long time in the hospital, but it was important not to report on that alone as photo-realism, but to go into the secrecy of that time, the feel of it. The silence and the hunger. We could have called upon friends, but we both chose to address these times of pain and uncertainty and fear with quietness. We wanted to delve into how it felt to be an older woman dealing with a longtime love. We don’t hear about that very much. It’s not hugely acknowledged—almost as if it’s rare or insignificant or even embarrassing. We wanted to feel our way along rather than outline too much or spell things out. So at our lunches, we made a grid. That was our start! The stages of feeling and the colors that might relate to what happened, or to the stages of going into and coming out of the immersion of fear of loss. “Mottled” was the first category.

I went home and start making drafts of paintings. At first, I held back, because I didn’t know what to do, and then it was an incredible burst—a flooding! The pictures poured out of me.

KV: The best part was that it was exactly the same for me. I haven’t written much poetry. We’d agreed that I’d look at your pictures and make suggestions; we’d rearrange or omit or adjust, but I was astonished that I loved them all and in fact suggested we leave the raw rough edges, as if that captured even more the idea of creation in a burst. I think I suggested changing the order of only two paintings?

IP: Two. Yes. That was it. I was astonished too, that it made sense for both of us to keep to this idea of “Draft” as a form of its own. It felt truthful to our feelings and artistic vocabulary.

KV: I held back from writing as well, when I had all your paintings, and then it was a gusher. It felt exhilarating. I worked after you did, and it seemed to happen very fast. We talked about doing one painting and poem at a time, a pairing, but after everything poured out of you, I followed the exact same curve of experience. That was part of the unity we made. Good for a book about drowning that it all felt complete and fluid.

IP: In spite of the subject being a fear of the future, a wariness about living without the person! Somehow also the idea arose that this is a common issue for women our age, but it’s taboo.

KV: Why is it such a taboo, do you think, Isabel?

IP: We don’t want to face vulnerability. I don’t know. The culture?

KV: Because we feel we have to be strong all the time, or is it because we’re invisible?

IP: Invisibility. It’s more a case of invisibility for older women. We created an artistic voice when we were young, and now we have to find it again, or to make a new one.

KV: In spite of being artists our whole lives.

IP: This is a new situation, a new exposure of ourselves. We have gone through a definite experience of actual life-and-death. We were called upon to respond.

KV: An experience we didn’t choose, but one that everyone faces.

IP: There’s no guide or manual on this, because the issues older women face aren’t addressed! There are manuals on birth, how to teach toddlers, etc. But no education on being closer to the biggest issues of life, which are about handling loss or maybe changing what loss should mean. So we chose color, the feel of the body, to talk about these things. An intensity of sensation.

It’s part of our vocabulary as creators. Using colors. Foods, colors, flowers—those are equivalent to feelings. That’s the common language we both had, from the beginning.

KV: Then one night, I was giving a reading at KGB Bar in New York, at the invitation of Elizabeth Hodges, the editor of the St. Petersburg Review because I had a new story in her magazine, and Katherine McNamara, the publisher of Artist’s Book Editions, one of Elizabeth’s friends, happened to be there, and we chatted, and I mentioned the collaboration. And she said that was exactly the sort of project she liked.

IP: And remember when you and I met at the Morgan Library, after I’d come back from Portugal, and Katherine wrote to you maybe twenty minutes before we met for coffee, saying she wanted to publish the book? And she became a third collaborator. We spent a weekend in her home in Charlottesville, and she brought exquisite talent to the project—her vision of how to present images and words, how to create video poems, how to produce elegant prints. As it happened, she had her own story of love and loss.

I’m astonished at the exquisite beauty of the images and the prose, but the emotions that welled up as I read were almost overwhelming. (By the way, these lines did me in: When I die, please let me be the shade fuchsia in the 30-gigahertz band.

When my husband dies, please let him be the sound there.)

KV: Isabel’s work evoked the radio spectrum color chart for me, among other things. I like that sound and color have an official code. I’m glad you liked those lines.

IP: The other thing to point out is that we did not want to have writing that described the images, and we didn’t want the artwork to be only illustrations accompanying words. We wanted some kind of elevation—we wanted to create something else entirely, together. A collaboration. The images and words becoming a new thing, a new dimension if we could.

KV: I wanted to be inspired by the colors and paintings and to have them inform what I wrote, but we did a good job in avoiding the sense of illustrations.

Katherine, you said something to me, about this being “the color and feel of an older woman, in her physical being.” Can you talk about this please? (Both of you, please.)

KV: There’s a movement in writing by women now to eschew what can be seen as emotional or sensory, an insistence that this is an old trap. The argument is more or less: “Women are not merely emotional creatures who can only write about love rather than the intellect. Sensory views of the world are therefore inadequate.” But I wanted to have both, because the physicality of older women calls for that, as it does for anyone carrying the state of grief—men or women, young or old. And in that, I hope, the intellect is also awakened, but the brain doesn’t take the lead.

IP: Being intellectual at every moment can be a form of self-protection! And as women, we are always being asked to rationalize, to explain. But I think real exposure of the inner self goes a step further. That’s what we chose to do. And it’s a risk for a writer, or artist, to tell a story that way. We need bliss, joy of the body too.

KV: A friend just described my life, and hers—she’s older too, with an ill husband—as being in the “sweet spot.” We’re lucky with having great love in our lives, and it is still here. We’re all still here, and that’s the joy.

IP: The experience gave me the power to produce this. I couldn’t have done it five years ago. It’s a creation out of a certain timing in life. Also, as we’ve said, as people get a little older, the intellectualize, as a protection; they step away from vibrancy, and this is an opposite response, to celebrate the spirit and life.

KV: Here’s a “physical being” response. I gave a reading at Hunter College one night, a few hours after I was told that they didn’t know why my husband wasn’t getting better. My eyes got physically so cloudy it was hard to read. But as if through a scrim, I saw one friend, Dylan, who had tons of things going on in her life, and yet she was there. And my friend Dustin said he would walk me home afterward. He and his husband lived in the opposite direction, but he insisted, and we walked the few blocks, and we talked about general things and said good night—and I thought that was so remarkable, such a lovely thing. A perfect comfort. All of us say, Tell me what I can do to help, but the best moments are when life naturally flows in a companionable way.

IP: This collaboration is about celebrating love’s fragility, and I want to say also that we’re talking about older women, but really, fragility is present at any age. When we’re older, we’re more likely to be asked to deal with it, to understand and feel it; when younger, we might postpone it, dealing with the ending of life. But we all now it’s there.

We chose to go through the illnesses of our husbands pretty much in silence. We could have called our friends, yes. But it was our choice to go through it alone, to converse our energy.

KV: I’d pass a falafel place when I’d walk home from the hospital. Now when I pass that place, I can smell the hospital too. You had part of a large meat pie every night. Could we mention your meat pie?

IP: (Laughs). Every night, a small piece. A symbol of survival, keeping being alive…and a glass of red wine…

What’s next up for both of you?

IP: Putting this creation out! Celebrating it. I have a show coming up in Lisbon, a retrospective, thirty-five years of my career. Revisiting my different stages!

KV: I’m finishing a new long novel. In contrast to the speed of The Heart Is a Drowning Object, this book has taken fifteen years.
What are you most hoping that people will get from this gorgeous work of art?

KV: To feel in communion with the notions that have nothing to do with age. I’d be happy if young men also had a strong reaction to our book. It’s about love. We all know we can lose someone at any moment. This collaboration is about changing the normal response of fear to an intensity that’s in fact about finding pleasure.

IP: I totally agree. Plus the beauty of this has been in the creating of it, and with Katherine McNamara’s help putting it out there. It doesn’t belong to us any more! I want it to be gender-less; it belongs to everyone who reads/sees/listen to it. We put it out there for others to embrace it, or not!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

KV: I have to fix my damn ceiling. All those aquatic images you did, Isabel, were so sumptuous, but water is not so pretty when there’s a downpour through the roof! Our ceiling collapsed in the last rainstorm.

IP: We have a parallel there too! My house got hit in the storms and we’re leaking all over. You and I have this eerie connection. You know what we haven’t mentioned? The process of working together was a real delight. The easy flow of it all—that was a surprise! The ease of doing something together, from all that we’d stored up. And out of it is our friendship now. We knew of each other, but we hadn’t yet become friends, and now with Katherine McNamara also there is a bond based on sharing and work, a collaboration, a sisterhood. Taking the train together, speaking Portuguese on the way to Charlottesville…we found out we had an obsession with packing our lunches really precisely. We laughed the whole way.

And we visited the printing press with Katherine M., and went to a garden party, and found each other, all three of us. And we laughed on the train the whole way back. Suddenly Katherine and Isabel and Katherine, the KIK Sisters. The work gave us each other.

Please check out these links:

The Heart Is A Drowning Object, on Artist’s Proof Editions, for more information (with link to Apple Books): (the book can be pre-ordered and will be available October 22nd, 2019)

 A video poem


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