Poet Strand pays homage to the discipline he left behind

By Eric McHenry

Mark Strand is one of America's most accomplished poets, and for that he thanks the painter Neil Welliver.

Prefacing his March 2 reading in the SFA Concert Hall, an event celebrating new BU exhibitions of works by Welliver and Josef Albers, Strand said his first encounter with Welliver's work was definitive: it practically drove him from painting.

"I admired a painting of his in the office of the secretary of the art school at Yale," said Strand, who was a graduate student of painting at the university in the mid-1950s, when Welliver was a young instructor. "And I wondered instantly if I were in the right place. I thought perhaps I'd made a mistake by pursuing painting. Well, I had.

Mark Strand, Neil Welliver
Poet Mark Strand (left) and painter Neil Welliver speak outside the SFA Concert Hall shortly before Strand's March 2 poetry reading. Photo by Fred Sway

"Looking at that Welliver painting had a lot to do with my becoming a poet," Strand said. "So thank you, Neil. If you were a worse painter, I would be painting still."

Despite exchanging the paintbrush for the pen, Strand has continued to be drawn to, and compelled by, visual art. Along with essays for exhibition catalogues and three books of art criticism, he has written numerous poems in response to paintings. His BU reading, with generous selections from his 1999 Pulitzer prize winning volume Blizzard of One (Knopf, 1998), reflected this enduring commitment. It included a pair of villanelles inspired by the paintings of the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and a poem dedicated to Welliver himself, who was in attendance. Taken from a suite entitled "Five Dogs," the poem seems to voice the same rejection of compromise and nave optimism that characterize Welliver's work:

I no longer wait in front of the blistered, antique mirror,
Hoping a shape or a self will rise, and step
From that misted surface and say: You there,
Come with me into the world of light and be whole,
For the love you thought had been dead a thousand years
Is back in town and asking for you. Oh no.
I say, I'm done with my kind. I live alone
On Walnut Lane, and will until the day I die.

Welliver lives and paints in relative seclusion on 2,000 wooded acres in Maine.

Strand, a former U.S. poet laureate, was introduced by the current occupant of that post, CAS Professor of English Robert Pinsky.

"We're here to celebrate a friendship in art," said Pinsky, "and a deep correspondence between arts."

Pinsky called Strand's poetry "plangent while amused, daring and emotional, with a kind of calm poise," and suggested that those qualities "are related to the fact that Mark Strand is also a wonderful painter."

The superficial similarities between poetry and visual art, two forms of descriptive composition, are easy enough to grasp, Pinsky said. "But I think the connection is deeper and more conceptual than that," he contended, "a matter of revelation emerging from the perfection of form . . . Mark's poems are worlds with their own laws, as I understand paintings to be."

Like Welliver, Strand was attracted to Yale by the prospect of studying with Josef Albers, a profoundly influential abstract painter, printmaker, and photographer. BU Chancellor John Silber, who gave the evening's opening remarks, said that Welliver's mature work "reveal[s] in part Albers' influence.

"The vision, however, is entirely [Welliver's] own. He is unlike any landscape painter who has come before him."

In addition to the two poets, Silber introduced the theme that both would examine further -- the interdependence of disciplines.

"I have not observed Neil's development merely as an artist over the 50 years since I first met him, but also his development philosophically," said Silber, who, like Strand, befriended Welliver at Yale in the 1950s. Welliver's paintings, Silber said, reflect "his wide reading in philosophy, physics, and poetry, and perhaps especially in poetry. Poetry, he has said, is essential to his work as a painter. For this reason, it is entirely wonderful and appropriate that Mark Strand, who shares Neil's view on the relation of painting and poetry, is here to read to us in preparation for our visit to the exhibitions."

Josef Albers in Black and White will run through April 9 at the BU Art Gallery. For more information, call 353-3329. Neil Welliver: Recent Paintings and Prints can be viewed through April 2 at the 808 Gallery. For more information, call 358-0200.



Sale of St. John will help buy the real thing

By Eric McHenry

When it comes to preserving natural areas, artist Neil Welliver and the Nature Conservancy share a strategy: buy the land.

"I'm an eco-freak, I will tell you," says Welliver. "Absolutely. I came to Maine in 1960 and bought 170 acres of land and six buildings for twenty-five hundred bucks. Then I realized everything was for sale, and since I was selling a few pictures at moderate prices, I just invested it all in land. I now have 2,000 acres, and I've given it to the Coastal Mountain Land Trust, which means that it will remain, in perpetuity, uncut."

Welliver is assisting the Nature Conservancy in a similar effort, although on a much larger scale. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of a new Welliver etching/aquatint, Synthetic Blue St. John, will help pay off the mortgage on 185,000 recently acquired acres along the Upper St. John River in Maine.

"Through this forest runs the best wilderness river left in the eastern United States," says Kent Wommack, executive director of the Nature Conservancy's Maine chapter. "It's a river where you can paddle 10 days, 150 miles, and in that time not pass a single public road, development, gas station, or even streetlight."

To date, the organization has raised $30 million toward outright ownership of the parcel, which is the largest ever purchased for conservation in the state's history. It also represents the largest single investment ever made by the Nature Conservancy. Wommack says that Synthetic Blue St. John, which is being shown for the first time in the current 808 Gallery exhibition, will help raise both the remaining $5 million and awareness of the organization's efforts.

"Neil Welliver's graciousness in facilitating the sale of this work on our behalf," says Wommack, "is a wonderful demonstration of his very sincere commitment to the protection of the natural world, which he captures in a unique and stunning way on his canvases."

Welliver, whose paintings of the woods around his home have lifted him to preeminence among American landscape artists, is used to standing vigilantly at the gate of the Maine wilderness, and used to seeing the human face of the forces that threaten it. Last summer, he says, a man in "Ivy-League clothes" come rolling up his mile-and-a-half-long driveway, hoping to buy his "stumpage."

"I said, You mean cut the trees, right?'" Welliver recalls. "I said, Not a raspberry bush.'"

Undeterred, the prospective buyer then tried to convince Welliver that he might as well sell the trees because they were dying.

"He got very aggressive at this point. He said, Well, let me tell you one thing you don't know. Those old pine are going by on you.'"

Welliver gave no ground.

"I said, It's interesting you should say that, because I come out almost exactly to where we're standing every day, and I look at the sky, and I look at the horizon, and I decide whether I'm going to work indoors or out. I've been doing that for 40 years, and I've never seen one go by.'

"The guy laughed his head off," Welliver recalls. "He said, That's a no.' I said, That's a no.' And off he went."

For information about Synthetic Blue St. John or the Nature Conservancy's Maine chapter, call 888-729-5181 or e-mail maineforever@tnc.org.