As a journalism student three and a half decades ago, I thought of newspapering as a kind of transcription, the making of stories with quotes from other people.
Then I took a feature writing class taught by John Kemp, who taught me that writing isn’t just about listening, but looking, too.
Kemp took us all on a field trip, where we ended up in a grassy field. His assignment: “Write down what you see.” Kemp’s point was that we can learn as much from what we see as what we hear.
Given that lesson, I wasn’t surprised to learn of Kemp’s abiding interest in visual art. He’s written about painters and sculptors for many years, a passion that rests at the heart of his new coffee table book, “Expressions of Place: The Contemporary Louisiana Landscape.”
At the start of his career, Kemp tells readers, “I had ambitions of writing about Louisiana politics. Then, in 1980, I wrote an article about three artists living north of Lake Ponchartrain in St. Tammany Parish. One was a sculptor, William Binnings, the other a painter, Rolland Harve Golden, and the third, novelist Walker Percy. That experience launched a long career that produced numerous books and hundreds of articles about Southern artists. …”
Published by University Press of Mississippi, “Expressions of Place” chronicles the work of 37 landscape artists across Louisiana. “The landscape that birthed and nurtured south Louisiana’s much-written-about cuisine, music, and cultures is the same spiritual source for visual artists,” Kemp notes.
Like anything else, Louisiana landscape painting can fall into clichés — the moss-laced trees, white-columned plantation homes and homely pirogues churned out with assembly-line efficiency. But to their credit, the artists in Kemp’s book depart from the familiar, creating visual language that can help even lifelong Louisiana residents see their state in new ways.
In “View from My Backyard,” New Iberia native Melissa Bonin renders Bayou Teche in an otherworldly green freckled by light, the scene as mystical as the Aurora Borealis. Baton Rougean Rhea Gary’s “Sunset on Pecan Island” radiates vivid reds and yellows, which embodies her idea that a state with spicy food and a tropical climate should convey heat when it’s portrayed on canvas.
In “New Orleans Sunset Panorama,” Alan Flattmann captures his hometown at the cusp between day and night, the sky lit as softly as a paper lantern. In Flattmann’s art, as in Gary’s, the viewer gets a keen sense of the time slipping by, the awareness that what we treasure isn’t destined to last.
“The fact that the marshland is gradually fading away continues to inspire me to return again and again to capture the wetland beauty we now have before we lose it forever,” says Gary.
This is a book to savor, and a potent reminder of what John Kemp taught me all those years ago: To live life deeply, it’s important to look deeply, and learn.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.