Artist and Community as Poet

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel on Lou Stovall’s poetry, and the poetry it inspired.

Many visual artists are also writers. Lou Stovall (1937-2023) was a touching example. He wrote love poems to his wife, Di. His commencement speech to the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s graduating class was delivered in the form of a poem. He also reflected on his love of nature in his elegant prints of woodland scenes with his uplifting verse “The Coming Yield” (1974):

The Coming Yield

I’ve known
some fields
I’ll bravely say,
For I have sown
an oat today.

Call it seven
you’ll hear me say
a direct route
is my highway.

Spirits high, help
Keep me gay
for I will surely
earn my pay.

I’ll sow an oat
each single day,
it helps to keep
me on my way.

It seemed fitting that as our Guided Meditation community reflected on Stovall’s vibrant collaged monoprint Roses IX, we considered a poetic response. April was National Poetry month after all!

Lou Stovall, Roses IX, 2011, Screenprint collage, 28 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Di and Lou Stovall, 2019

Sam Gilliam, "Red Petals" American, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., Acquired 1967.

Sam Gilliam, Red Petals, 1967, Acrylic on canvas, 88 x 93 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1967

To enrich the inspiration, we placed Roses XI in “conversation” with Sam Gilliam’s Red Petals. The two artists were lifelong friends and collaborators. They both lived in Washington, DC, and had deep ties to The Phillips Collection.

So, as the two works were shown side by side on the screen, poetic responses flowed into the chat. With those words re-assembled below, we see that National Poetry Month found its expression in our Guided Meditation community that day.

Subrosa Erupting

Linear roses draped, two hearts flowing,
Disturbed flowers ascending, a red-black hole swirling.
Zoom in, zoom out
Zoom out, zoom in
Rhythmic dancing, harmonic singing, airy, meditative
Straight-laced, calculated, expansive, and free
Emerging, then blooming.

An extrovert? An introvert?
Confined or released?
Luminous, floating, and reaching
watery vibrancy emanating and surrounded
Expanding outward.
Choppy risings, bleeding, slowly bleeding…
Glory! Gory!
Dynamite explosion, submerged calm depth
Confined and released
A floating journey through the universe, then
Close-up landing!

Experience Art Through Empathy: Engagement Stations in the Giuseppe De Nittis Exhibition

Marketing and Communications Detail Amity Chan shares her experience at the engagement stations in An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis (on view through February 12).

In An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis, we see how De Nittis developed fruitful friendships with important impressionist painters like Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet through the uniqueness of his paintings and techniques. There is no doubt that art has the power to help us connect more deeply with ourselves and with others.

To replicate this experience, the Phillips team put together an engagement space in the exhibition for our visitors to connect deeper to De Nittis’s world of art as well as with other visitors. Through three interactive activities, we encourage visitors to look at, talk about, and write about the works of art in the exhibition. On the display walls, visitors could also learn from the perspectives of other people and reflect on how experiences often affect one’s worldview.

Station 1: Draw Together

Station 1: Draw Together

This activity requires two players. One as the describer and one as the drawer. The describer picks one of De Nittis’s paintings to describe to the drawer. Then, the drawer makes a drawing based on the visual description. After that, the two players look at the drawing and reflect on the activity together.

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Station 2: Share Your Haiku

Write a haiku from the perspective of a person or object in an artwork of your choice.

Station 3: Personal Choice

Station 3: Personal Choice

Be a Phillips curator! Pick and create a collection from the artworks in the exhibition.

I tried out all three of the engagement stations. I found “Draw Together” the most interesting because it gave me the opportunity to work with another person and hear their views of art directly. I played as a drawer with my fellow Museum Assistant Elizabeth Cumbo. As someone who works in the museum and spends more time in the exhibition than any visitors, I thought it would be somewhat easier for me. However, it felt very foreign to visualize a painting based on my partner’s description and not be able to see the image that I was drawing. While making the drawing, I would also need to consider the fashion elements in 1870s Paris. For example, when Elizabeth described to me that both figures are wearing hats, I immediately thought of sun hats. However, in De Nittis’s painting, the male figure is wearing a top hat and the female figure is wearing a white hat with flowers. This made me realize that I was not only looking through the other player’s lens but also the artist’s lens. The final drawing is an end product of three worlds merged together: my own experience and imagination, Elizabeth’s description, and De Nittis’s view of Paris.

My drawing vs De Nittis’s painting

After completing each activity, visitors are encouraged to share the drawings and poems on the display shelves. It was fascinating to see other visitors’ works, especially the Haiku poems in which we are asked to write from the perspective of a person or object in the paintings.

Here are some interesting finds on the display shelves:

Visitor haiku

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

Visitor drawing

An Italian Impressionist in Paris: Giuseppe De Nittis is now on view through February 12. I highly encourage you to come and experience De Nittis’s 1870s Paris at The Phillips Collection.



The Story of Mama Lula

Artist Shiloah Symone Coley shares her experience interviewing Parklands resident Miss Lula and creating Mama Lula, an animation now on view at Phillips@THEARC about Miss Lula’s story.

Roses fill Miss Lula’s living room when you peer in through the street-facing window. It’s July 12, 2022, just over a week since her 89th birthday on July 4. The flowers transform her intimate living room into looking much more like the garden just outside her window.

Miss Lula pictured just after her July 4th birthday. Photo: Shiloah Symone Coley

Her flowers thrive in the mid-summer heat and humidity. She wears a red, white, and blue Washington, DC Nationals baseball t-shirt with a matching hat that reads “LOVE.” It’s not the fourth of July anymore, but something feels quintessentially American in a different way–not just her outfit, but her, all 5 feet of a July 4th baby now in her elder years. She’s seen so many 4th of Julys.

I met Miss Lula earlier that year during the winter at one of the Creative Aging programs at Phillips@THEARC. An intimate program that day, Donna Jonte and I were joined by Miss Lula and her friend Miss Pam. We ate, talked, and made art. But one of the most memorable parts of that day were the stories Miss Lula told about the work. There was a story behind every piece. So when I had the idea to interview Black women who lived around THEARC in the Parklands community, she landed first on my list.

As I walked into THEARC with her for our first interview, people at the front desk and coming in and out of the building immediately knew who she was. Not only were pleasantries exchanged, but updates on life events were eagerly shared. She seemed to carry about her a unique mix of warmness and honesty that let people know it was okay to be themselves and say how they were really feeling with her. It helps that she’s lived in the community in the same apartment for 60 years. She’s watched some of these folks grow up.

As I interviewed Miss Lula, what I found most interesting about her story was her persistence to stay in the Parklands community. I think as a child I often dreamed of leaving home, moving, doing my own thing. Then, in my adulthood I have become accustomed to a semi-nomadic lifestyle where I move every couple of years. Both forced migration and chosen migration run rampant across all eras but seems particularly normalized with younger generations. On my block in Northwest DC my roommate and I have noted half the people who used to live on our block have moved within the past year. As we noticed how quickly and frequently the shift occurs, we began to wonder what it means for the community when people are able to stay.

Miss Lula knows migration well. She arrived in DC at Union Station as a little girl with her siblings after her maternal grandmother sent them up north from South Carolina to be reunited with their parents, an experience not uncommon to most children growing up during the Great Migration. She would spend the rest of her life in Maryland and DC, and most of her life in her current residence in Parklands. Mama Lula is about one woman who has been able to stay and has chosen to stay in her community despite the changing landscape around her.

I originally set out to tell a story about the community from various perspectives with insight from multiple women from different generations. And perhaps that project will still take shape one day. But it became clear after interviewing Miss Lula, that her voice was deserving of its own project. Maybe the countless cards and flowers she received on her birthday were indicative of not just the lives she’s touched, but the importance of her as an elder in the community with a life and story to share.