Lifelong Learning: Poetry and Art

Gerry Hendershot, a former Phillips volunteer, shares some contributions from a poetry and art class he organized at American University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. We hope this holiday weekend you will be able to take a moment to relax, reflect, and enjoy some art and poetry. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wassily Kandinsky, Succession
By Susan Jenson

Buzz, bebop, bounce
Swing, sparkle, soar
Twirl, tango, tap
Dip, dazzle, dance
Jive, jiggle, joy

Wassily Kandinsky, Succession, 1935, Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 39 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1944

This poem inspired by Kandinsky’s painting was composed in a study group for retirees at American University in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). As the organizer of the course and a former art information volunteer at the Phillips, I knew that I wanted to include some of my favorite Phillips artworks, like Succession and Luncheon of the Boating Party.

“Great Poems about Great Paintings” brought together ten retirees on Zoom to discuss paintings and compose poems about them.  We read classic ekphrastic poems such as W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts after Breughel’s Fall of Icarus, and Anne Sexton’s The Starry Night after the Van Gogh painting. About fifty paintings and poems were included in the 8-week course.

I invited Donna Jonte, Manager of Art and Wellness & Family Programs, to introduce and moderate discussions of selected works from The Phillips Collection. Participants were especially intrigued by Whitfield Lovell’s assemblage Kin XXXV (Glory in the Flower) and had a lively discussion not only about the idea of time, but also about objects in our lives that embody our history, struggles, and triumphs.

Here are the last lines of M.W. Poole’s poem:

Mostly sixty years gone
Those forlorn eyes implore
When “Free at Last?”
The Glory in the Flower
Fading with the fleeting hour

Cathy Pastor’s poem, in haiku form: is titled “Time’s Up”:

Nearly 10:30
An unimportant minute
No one recalls death

Whitfield Lovell, Kin XXXV (Glory in the Flower), 2011, Conté on paper, vintage clock radio, 30 in x 22 3/4 in x 5 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, The Dreier Fund for Acquisitions, 2013

Another of Cathy’s haikus responds to Matisse’s Interior with Egyptian Curtain:

Not-So-Still Life

Errant persimmon
Fruit ripens between curtains
No easy escape

Henri Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948, Oil on canvas 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in.; The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1950

When I gave students the option of writing about other paintings from the Phillips, Poole chose Degas’s Melancholy. Imagining that the woman is pondering the recent presidential election, Poole voices the woman’s concerns:

Will this election season never end?
My shattered nerves crave some respite.
What policies will our divisions mend?
Through peaceful protest or a fight?

MelancholyDegas, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar, Melancholy, late 1860s, Oil on canvas 7 1/2 x 9 3/4 in.; 19.05 x 24.765 cm.. Acquired 1941

Rosenbaum wrote about The Migration Series, Panel No. 1 by Jacob Lawrence, focusing on a child waiting with her mother to board a northbound train:

in her best
green coat
with big buttons.

Hold tight
to the
red trimmed suitcase
with all we own.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans., 1940-41, Casein tempera on hardboard 12 x 18 in.; The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942

I began the course by showing Luncheon of the Boating Party and illustrating different viewpoints for writing poetry about it―people in the painting, people in the gallery, or a personal memory. To illustrate these viewpoints, I read three sonnets that I wrote after 15 years of observing Boating Party as a volunteer. Here are the opening and closing lines from one of those sonnets:

The parties in grad school were never like that,
I thought, while admiring the Phillip’s Renoir.
Our clothes ‘sixties casual, when friends picnicked at
the park with the Point on Lake Michigan’s shore.

. . . .

That luncheon party over-looking the Seine
was lost in translation on Lake Michigan.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81 Oil on Canvas, 51 ¼ x 69 ¼ in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1923

Most study group members had no previous experience writing poetry, and some were at first intimidated, but all did write. They came to trust their peers and felt comfortable taking chances. The link to the Phillips was important, they said, because they could look forward to seeing in-person the art they discussed and wrote about. Indeed, several have visited the Phillips since its re-opening.

There are many ways to enjoy art at The Phillips Collection, of course, and the OLLI experience adds paintings-and-poetry via Zoom to the mix.

Gerry Hendershot volunteered at The Phillips Collection from 2002 to 2017, greeting guests and answering their questions about the Collection. He retired from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control after 25 years of government service in 2001, and now writes and promotes poetry from his home in University Park, Maryland. He has organized and led two OLLI courses and frequently leads community poetry discussions. For more information about OLLI, visit To contact Gerry Hendershot:

Community in Focus (Week 5)

The Phillips Collection invites everyone to participate in Community in Focus, a community project to capture a unique photographic snapshot of an unprecedented year. We asked you to show us your inimitable spirit, suffering, joy, and resilience, and here are some images that captures those human emotions that connect us all. Stay tuned for more photos and submit your own!

Kristian Ivanov, April 6: The photograph was taken during the first wave of the lockdown in New York in early April. I was coming back home after more than 24 hours of flying internationally, the last shoulder of which was a commercial flight from London to New York with only three passengers on board including me. Upon landing, I couldn’t go straight back to my house so I quarantined at a friend’s empty apartment in Clinton Hill for 3 weeks. The first time I heard everyone’s claps and shouts expressing their gratitude to all front line workers I grabbed my camera and captured a couple of neighbors standing on their balconies cheering. It was a truly moving moment to experience the multitude of people’s reactions to what was happening in New York and around the world.

Nikki Brooks, May 30: While participating in a Black Lives Matter car parade, I happened to pan over to the left of me to see this black joy! I saw the generations, and the future all in one.

Catiana Garcia-Kilroy, July 10: “Justice can’t wait” The photograph was taken on H street in DC, diagonally from Lafayette Sq.

Sara Allen, July 20: This is the solitude experienced during the summer of 2020 when I could not get together with my family (which lives in CA and Israel) for our annual reunion at the Lebanon Opera Festival in NH. I am a widow and live alone. This is meant to express the absence of loved ones, the loneliness, the solitariness of the experience of COVID.

Carly Kinney, August 29: This was a selfie my wife Carly took during her work on a Neuro Trauma ICU in Washington DC. The combination of the N95 pressure marks, her exhausted eyes, and determined smile paint a vivid picture of nurses fighting on the front lines of this crisis.

Geoff Livingston, Nov 7: This celebrant and her nursing child proudly claimed victory over Donald Trump. I am not a political pundit, but I am the father of a 10-year old young lady. The historical arc of the United States forever changed when Kamala Harris became the country’s first female Vice President-Elect.

Michael Aaron, September 16: The lions at the National Zoo entrance let visitors know that you need to wear a mask to enter.

Jenny Mendes, November 2: I made these vignettes daily for the month before the election as my personal vote campaign. Made from nature where I live, a daily meditation with a positive intention. Once I began posting them on social media I realized it was not only for me but that they brought hope, joy and positive energy to many people. This is a compilation of some of them that I shared on election day. Every vote really did matter this year more than ever.

Community in Focus (Week 4)

The Phillips Collection invites everyone to participate in Community in Focus, a community project to capture a unique photographic snapshot of an unprecedented year. We asked you to show us your inimitable spirit, suffering, joy, and resilience, and here are some images that captures those human emotions that connect us all. Stay tuned for more photos and submit your own!

Anna Lovering, May 11: A Gift: The chalk was a gift given to my daughter in the middle of the pandemic beginnings. It was such a simple gesture from one human to another to create a nostalgic memory of being able to play in the park. The photograph shows a dystopic view of the sentiment of a gift while she is wearing a mask outside and is fully gloved.

Archana Sahu, September 13: During the pandemic, people came up with several innovative ideas to wish their near and dear ones without meeting them physically. Came across these posters in our neighborhood as an example of kids wishing their parents’ marriage anniversary by paying students hourly (good way for making some pocket money too).

Stefanie Stark, April 1: I took this photo of our neighborhood park early in the pandemic. It broke my heart to see a lock and chain on the children’s playground gate. The words closed until “further notice” gave me the uneasy feeling of not knowing when Covid would end and life return to normal.

Alice Whealin, April 3: My photograph is a view of a neighbor’s garden near my home in Arlington, VA. The pandemic led me to take more morning walks for my health and reduce stress. I found it allowed me to enjoy my own neighborhood more than ever.

Carrina LaCorata, June 27: Standing in line with a friend with social distancing indicators at a restaurant in Charlotte, NC.

Kevin B. Jones, January 21: MLK Parade, Los Angeles, California

Kelly Paras, June 4: “Shadow of a Dream”: As Black Lives Matter protests grew, members of the National Guard stood sentry over the monuments of The National Mall. Early morning light at the Lincoln Memorial cast one of their shadows over the location of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.