One of the most amazing things about art is that it speaks to art. A painter sees a sculpture and takes inspiration. A musician hears a rhythm and samples it into a new piece. A visual artist reads words and pull them into pictures. To me, ekphrasis is one of the most powerful elements of the artistic world.
Yesterday, Brian Plank, an artist I’ve known since our days at Messiah College, sent me this beautiful piece of work inspired by my description of the life of Lucy Nicholas in The Slaves Have Names.
I cried when I opened it because, well, because it’s the first picture I’ve ever seen of Lucy. And because it’s perfect.
Here are the words that inspired the piece:
When I imagine her breastfeeding little John and Charles and Sally Cocke, I picture the contrast between the bright brownness of her nipple as it enters their ruby mouths and their white cheeks laid against her skin laid bare, and I see beauty. I don’t want to notice the difference between the two of them, the contrast in their skin color, but I don’t know how not to. I don’t know how to see that image in that time – Lucy in a rocker in the second floor bedroom of the big house that overlooks the James – and not see how gorgeous and inconsistent it was for slave owners to let enslaved people – let black people – perform a most intimate act of nourishment and physical closeness when to eat at the same table was so abhorrent. I don’t know how to imagine that and not see color. . . .
I wish I knew how Lucy felt about this. I can imagine her loving the chance to be with these children – pristine babies, not yet taught to judge or loathe or fear –in a way so identical to the way she loved her own children. I can imagine her taking the love of these children and honoring it, honoring them with her kindness and respect with the gifts of her words, her time, her body.
This gift from Brian reminds me that art matters, that it gives us stories, and pictures, and more art. But more than that, it speaks back to us who we are in our deepest selves.
I am simply awed by the fact that words I wrote could give someone a vision for something this beautiful.
Thank you, Brian. I think Lucy would have been pleased.