Dr. Hill and students

Professors collaborate on art, haiku exhibition

Views of the world shared in different ways by Schmunk, Trakas

Schmunk-Trakas art-haiku exhibit 382x255

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Photographer Peter Schmunk, a professor of art history at Wofford College, sees a certain eloquence in ordinary patterns that appear in our everyday lives and photographs them. Writer Deno Trakas, a literature professor at the college, uses the quiet, comfortable space of the local Panera sandwich shop to contemplate the world around him and is inspired to write haiku.

Now, the two have merged their different vehicles for viewing the world into one artistic exhibit, “Haiku: A Collaborative Exhibition,” showing through Jan. 3, 2015, in the Sandor Teszler Library Gallery on Wofford’s campus. An artists’ reception is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, and an artists’ talk is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18. The exhibit, reception and artists’ talk are all free and open to the public. 

The exhibit came about through the suggestion of fellow colleague John Lane, himself a writer and professor at Wofford. “I had been taking highly abstract photographs – patterns of rust on industrial dumpsters, shapes and drips of paint within graffiti, the markings on train cars – for some time, when John saw a few examples and thought of Deno’s haikus as a complementary kind of artistic statement,” Schmunk says. “So, Deno and I began to talk about a collaboration, which seemed potentially interesting and fruitful to both of us.” 

The two, who had not previously worked together, spent about a year and a half on this collaboration. Over that time, Schmunk gave Trakas reproductions of his photographs to ponder. “Sometimes, I had already given titles to the images, but he was under no obligation to use or respond to the titles,” he says. “He would think about a particular image, consider the title if there was one, and then respond to the image in the form of haiku if an idea came to mind.” 

Schmunk provided Trakas with about 100 images in that time. The exhibition features 29 of those.

For Trakas, writing haiku came naturally before the collaboration came about. He started writing haiku several years ago, and explained how and why he writes haiku in a book published by USC Press titled “State of the Heart. “For almost a year, almost every morning I sat by the window at Panera (on Spartanburg’s east side) for an hour,” he wrote, “ate a bagel and sipped half-and-half iced tea, watched the sun rise over the cemetery (nearby Greenlawn Memorial Gardens), and wrote – on brown napkins – small poems about big abstractions having to do with God, love and death. It was a time of soul-searching and soul-hiding, of observing and imagining, of accomplishing and failing”

“With this quiet and comfortable world available to my senses,” he continued, “my thoughts drifted aimlessly, usually along the lines of my sight, until they found a tether or focus, and I write haiku.”

Trakas explains that haiku is a Japanese form of poetry consisting of three lines of five, seven and five syllables – “although the Japanese don’t seem to be strict about the syllable count,” he says – that presents an image of nature and often includes a spiritual element. “They don’t usually rhyme, but mine usually do because the music appeals to me.”

“I like haiku because it wears ambiguity well,” he adds. “And I like Panera because it bakes bread all day, and early in the morning, it’s a perfect place to recollect emotions in tranquility, which, according to Wordsworth, is what poetry is all about.”

This exhibition is not the first time Trakas has been involved in marrying his writing to visual art. “Several years ago I wrote some haiku for an art project for Spartanburg Regional Hospital. Local photographers took nature photographs, and local poets wrote nature poems. A year ago, when I broke my nose playing basketball, I found myself in a hospital room with one of my poems on the wall.”

Schmunk says that how to display the images with the accompanying haiku was one issue they had to resolve for the exhibition. “We wanted to avoid placing the haiku next to the image, like a kind of elaborate caption. This would marginalize the haiku. So, in every case, the haiku is arranged within the framed image, usually in the border, but in a way that graphically relates to the image itself. While each image has its own compositional coherence, image and haiku together form a larger encompassing composition. In a few instances, a haiku appears within an image, a full integration of the two components that only a few images would accommodate.”

Schmunk hopes his images will be a path to discovery for viewers. “My great discovery in photographing minutia of this kind over the past several years, and the thing I hope viewers of the show will discover, is the expressive eloquence of the very ordinary patterns and marks that surround us all the time,” he says. “I began to realize that these marks – the linear patterns of scratches in metal, or a particular color relationship – reminded me of something from my past experience, such as a place, a story, a musical composition, or something from the history of art that I teach.

“Deno’s haiku, of course, arise out of his own experience, but give poetic literary expression to those responses and thus crystallize an idea in a very focused, economical way,” Schmunk continues. “I hope viewers of the exhibition will be inspired to pay more attention to the visual stimuli around them all the time. Most of the photographs were the result of simply wandering around Spartanburg, camera in hand, with the time to look slowly and closely at things.”

The two plan to continue the project and enlarge the collection of images and haikus, with the goal of publishing a book.