Artistic Alchemy

Mindi K. Bagnall, Conflagration, 2016, watercolor, graphite and colored pencil on paper
Writers and artists contribute to unique collaboration

A collaborative project involving more than 50 area artists and writers that has been over a year in the making debuts to the public this month.

Alchemy: An Artists + Writers Initiative brought writers and visual artists together to explore the theme of alchemy in their own creative work, supported by discussions, workshops and other group activities.

The results will be presented in a variety of forms and venues, including an exhibition at Western Michigan University’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts Feb. 16-May 26 and several poetry readings. The initiative has also published a companion book of art and writing as well as a series of broadside prints featuring the work of one poet and one artist.

Alchemy is the brainchild of Sydnee Peters, an artist and art instructor at Western Michigan University. It was preceded by two similar collaborations: 2013’s The Hours, which Peters also initiated and led, and 2015’s Home, organized by Mindi Bagnall, RCVA exhibitions coordinator and curator of the WMU art collection. Those projects involved more than 30 artists each.

According to previous Encore articles, The Hours drew its theme from the monastic practice of being quiet and aware of the passing of various times of day, while the Home project had artists and writers explore their understandings of home in both a physical and metaphorical sense.

In mid-2015, Peters and Bagnall began looking for a concept for a third project. Peters says the alchemy idea came in part from a book she had read about German artist Anselm Kiefer, “who credits alchemy as a driving force in his work,” she says. “Once the word ‘alchemy’ entered the conversation,” she adds, “it was a done deal.”

Alchemy “is about process,” according to the initiative’s website. ”As writers and artists, we trust that through process we will be led to the gold, the transformations that take us to new understandings of ourselves as makers,” it explains. Peters says this process is similar to what the original alchemists experienced when they combined various materials in hopes of producing gold and found unexpected results.

Understanding Alchemy

In order to work with this challenging theme, Alchemy participants sought to understand the chemical, psychological and practical aspects of alchemy by focusing on its role as a precursor to modern chemistry, on Carl Jung’s idea of the transformative self, and on the four colors — black, white, yellow and red — that have long been used to symbolize stages in alchemical processes.

From studying these colors, Peters says, “I came to see alchemy as a specific process of change. Such a transformation could be either personal or creative but begins from a place of disorientation in nigredo (darkness). The next stage is albedo (light), representing a breakthrough or insight into how to go forward. This awakened understanding of what is unfolding grows more powerful in the citrinitas (yellow) stage.”

The final stage is rubedo (red), symbolizing completion. In Peters’ creative process, this is “where the work takes on a life of its own. There comes a point,” she says, “in which I am no longer bending the work to my will, but instead I am responding to what’s been created. This allows for surprise, even transformation.”

Poet and artist Elizabeth Ker-likowske says it was creative collaboration that led to the trans-formative experience she had in an Alchemy workshop on encaustic painting led by Linda Rzoska. In it, Kerlikowske created a piece using collage material contributed by other workshop participants. “I went to this workshop with nothing, and everybody gave me stuff to work with, and I loved how it turned out,” she says.

Kerlikowske became co-director of the Alchemy initiative when Bagnall had to step down due to other commitments.

Collaboration has been at the very core of the initiative. Participants have been learning from and with each other over the past year, through presentations by experts on alchemy-related topics such as chemistry, through group discussions and through visits to artists’ studios. They have also engaged in workshops on subjects ranging from bread baking to equine therapy to creative practices such as writing, drawing, clay rattle making, printing techniques and book arts.

Crossing mediums

Many artists and writers crossed over from one medium to another to produce work that was not in their usual art form. As a writer who has long pursued visual art as a “compulsion,” Kerlikowske says, “I’ve been influenced by the artists when we’re making art.” For example, she says she had a revelation about the importance of white space after having an artist critique her charcoal drawing. “That was great, and I hope that happened for people with writing.” Most workshops included a writing prompt provided by one of the participating poets.

Peters says the workshops introduced participants to “a little sliver” of what each discipline was like. “The facilitators thought it through to such an extent that the sliver was thoughtful,” she says. “We could walk away with an idea, whether or not we’d even want to pursue (the particular discipline) further.”

For Peters, one of the primary benefits of projects like Alchemy is that they bring artists and writers together. “We were able to create community around the workshops and collaborations where it didn’t exist with many of the participants before,” she says. “And, actually, one meaningful challenge is: How do we keep that up? Because that experience was rich.”

Kit Almy

Kit’s background in arts and nature has allowed her to explore a variety of topics for Encore over the years. This month she introduces readers to MRC Artworks, a classroom and gallery in downtown Kalamazoo that helps disabled people gain self-worth by creating art. In addition to freelancing, Kit works for the Kalamazoo Public Library and volunteers at the Kalamazoo Nature Center’s DeLano Homestead, teaching pioneer programs.

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