Solo Exhibition “Wayfinding” January 7 – March 12, 2023.
Analyzing Michael Heffernan’s “Wayfinding” and “Long Shadows Over Sedge II”
By Camryn King, winter 2023 intern
Through March 12, 2023, the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art presents the solo exhibition, Wayfinding: The Synthesis of Poetic and Visual Language by Michael Heffernan. This exhibition features poetic writing and abstract paintings by the Irish-born, Atlanta-based artist. Heffernan combines creative writing with narrative-based, expressive art in an effort to find his way to being a more authentic, self-assured individual.
Although Heffernan’s poems are often created prior to the artwork, this exhibition is reminiscent of “ekphrasis,” which is the literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art. Using this literary practice, poets compose literature in response to a work of visual art. A well-known ekphrastic poem from the English Romantic period is John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” In this poem, Keats engages with the figures depicted on the urn, wondering about their inner thoughts. In his Wayfinding exhibition, Heffernan practices a similar, but reversed, technique, referencing his original poetry to create works of art that are born from the poems’ language. The paintings on exhibit also extend the poems’ subjects, creating a dialogue between the poems, the paintings, and the subjects.
One painting and poem pair that exemplifies this inverse practice of ekphrasis is the exhibition’s namesake, the painting, Wayfinding, and its corresponding poem also titled “Wayfinding.” In the poem, the speaker takes a journey inward to find and free their soul from a heavy burden. They are traveling through the woods and a “Dropping-damp-thick fog weaving its / Unseeable spell,” slowly allowing the nature around them to lift the burden while “Embracing the frontier of truth in light / Beyond shadows.” The painting, Wayfinding, which is paired with this poem, captures the expressive mode of the writing. Strokes of blues, browns, greens, and whites depict an abstract riverbank scene with trees shrouded in fog and a serene pool of water splashing up at the viewer. Heffernan describes the painting as “a prayer of sorts” that allows for the exploration of one’s inner self and the natural world around them. Indeed, the poem and painting pair feel like a moment in a quiet journey, a traveler “wandering / Life’s hidden travails” who pauses at the riverbank, “Yearning the transcendent quiet whispers of / Imaginations tell.”
Another writing and visual art pair that captures the spirit of ekphrasis is the poem “Long Shadows Over Sedge” and its respective painting entitled Long Shadows Over Sedge II. Heffernan was inspired to write this poem after learning of Jekyll Island’s history during a trip to the coast of Georgia. In his poem, Heffernan describes how the “four hundred / Shackled [to] its hull” were “pelted by November seas of / White stinging inhumanity.” The poem itself explains how the landscape retains and remembers the tragedies it has seen, especially the transportation of almost 500 enslaved West Africans from the Congo to the United States of America; this trip was the penultimate shipment of enslaved people to American soil from Africa. A central theme of Heffernan’s poem is time and how it does not necessarily heal all wounds. Heffernan’s painting, Long Shadows Over Sedge II, is paired with this poem almost feeling as ambitious as the literature itself. Both painting and poem try to illustrate the island’s unsettling history while also appreciating its natural beauty. The artwork, which is a diptych, is literally long in its orientation and depicts the stretching sedge of Jekyll Island on two adjacent panels. The sky is painted bright and orange, with abstract white and gray strokes resembling clouds. The water at the bottom of the painting is only recognizable because it reflects the sky and greenery, much like how the water in the poem reflects the island’s painful history. The painting has an overall atmosphere of blurriness and darkness, capturing the lines at the end of the poem: “slavery still casts long / Shadows over sedge, still casts long shadows / Over sedge as sure as clouds weep in truth.” The weight of those words mimics the experience of viewing Long Shadows Over Sedge II, with its long panels and gloomy grayness.
The study of these paintings and their corresponding poems by Heffernan, while not ekphrasis, delivers a noteworthy dialogue between visual art and written language in a similar way to ekphrastic works. Both paintings illustrate the poems’ themes and imagery while also adding a new depth of experience. Although the focus is on Wayfinding and Long Shadows Over Sedge II here, each of the paintings and poems in this exhibition offers similar experiences of the synthesis of poetic and visual language.