Rachael Naomi’s visual poetry exhibition Unity

Rachael Naomi’s exhibition Unity has opened in the Angela Morton Room. Rachael creates mesmerising combinations of poetry and images in works that need to be both seen and read. In some works, the lines of poetry are arranged in a way that transforms them into a picture; the text thus functions as a work of art and as a literary work, creating a unique intensity for viewers/readers. In other works, Rachael integrates poems and gouache imagery in what she also describes as painted poems or written paintings.

Rachael Naomi. After Picasso's The Dream.

Rachael will be hosting a poetry evening in the Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library, Level 1, Takapuna Library, on Wednesday 17 February. All are welcome to attend this free event. Light refreshments served at 6.00 pm, readings from 6.30 – 7.30 pm. Please RSVP @angelamorton.room on Instagram or email angelamorton.room@aucklandcouncil.govt.nz.

In the following artist statement Rachael discusses her exhibition Unity, and her love for an artform which began with poetry and later - inspired by Colin McCahon’s text painting - grew to incorporate imagery, too.

Rachael Naomi. landlist with charcoal.

Painted poems or written paintings

by Rachael Naomi

Visual poetry has been extensively written about by many poets, writers and academics. My printmaker-poet friend, Makyla Curtis, wrote a thesis on The Poetic Mark-Making of Cilla McQueen and John Pule, which was enlightening for me, as well as articulating some of what I felt about this medium. I highly recommend you read as much as you desire on this subject, and seek out the colossal amount of visual poetry being created all over the world; there are a number of anthologies and visual poets’ books being published, and loads online including, Mark Young’s e-magazine, Otoliths. Or in Aotearoa, check out visual poets like Stephanie Christie and poets, John Pule, Cilla McQueen, Greg O’Brien, Makyla Curtis, Maddy O’Dwyer, Miriam Barr and Sophie Procter. And that’s just a few of the poets or painters who are creating visual poetry in this land.

Rachael Naomi. after Bill Hammond's Landlist in Gouache.

As I believe there are many ways of seeing things, and that the labels of creativity can mean different things for different people, I hesitate in defining what visual poetry is for others, and can only speak of why I am drawn to it and what it means to me.  And for me, it’s always been centred around the flow and rhythm of the cursive script; the flow of letters and words, at times rendering them void of meaning, or severing it from the poem itself, allowing me to meditate on the swirl, or shape or line. 

It’s one of the reasons I became, and still am, obsessed with Colin McCahon’s text paintings (as well as his complete oeuvre), and the relationships there have been in Aotearoa, between painters and poets. For a while my early poetry – I had begun writing poetry in 2006 - primarily responded to paintings and other artforms; at that point I hadn’t dreamed I would become a poet/painter or visualpoet. 

This is when I began to deeply think and ponder and feel for, the fusion of word and paint, poetry and visual art, and the artistic nature of letters, words and symbols. McCahon’s writings on this including, “word paintings” “words become the image”, “written paintings” stimulated me immensely. McCahon’s use of the cursive script also validated and re-inspired my love of the cursive script, having learnt it at school as part of the curriculum in the 1970s, and using it in handwritten signs in my teaching days.

Rachael Naomi. names of history (2021).

Alongside all of this McCahon worship, I was also discovering Guillaume Apollinaire’s calligrammes and other poets, who wrote their poetry in patterns, or shapes – oh so many words to describe this form! I was also heavily inspired by John Pule who naturally fused his poetry in his art. I also started chalking my poetry, alongside poet friends, frequently at Albert Park and on other streets in central Auckland. By now, I was mesmerized by the fusion of word and image and started experimenting in a way that felt natural to me and my scribing tendencies, and like a tūī to harakeke nectar, took to the dip pen (nib and nib holder) with relish. 

When I first started on this odyssey, I wrote my poems in cursive script on non-specific paper, until I discovered the texture I loved in watercolour paper. Often I became disheartened when the ink would drip, and make an unsightly (to me) splotch on the almost finished poem. To problem solve this, and to make something out of these mistakes (how I love what new creations can be born from mistakes), I layered the words, often to the point when they became unreadable. What I was reading about visual poetry, and McCahon’s theories on the artistic nature of letters, aligned with this new practice of mine, and gave me the confidence to continue to experiment. 

It continued like this for a couple of years, by now mainly creating my work on A4 watercolour with ideas on creating enough pieces to show them together individually as one large work : 8 by 8,  and an ambitious 12 by 12 (so far, I have only managed 4 by 4 on a wall! ). I was living in a bus with my partner, so A4 size was most practical. After a year on the bus, and inspired by thinking about the Jimi Hendrix quote I had concluded Poetry Live! with, in my role as MC the previous night ,which had fallen on the eve of Anzac Day, when the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace, picked up some chalk, and wrote it on the bus exterior. Soon there were poems and symbols all over the bus, with it becoming a ritual for me – once the rains had washed it away, in the weekend, I’d cover the bus exterior with the JH quote, my poems, chant of the trees and names of peace, and a variety of ancient symbols. This continued for years and fed my desire to focus on my poems in a visual way. They became visual poems to my eyes, and these two poems in particular, appeared to resonate in their surrounding environment of trees, and birdsong and the kānuka trees which hung over the bus, as if the kānuka were nursing my creativity as well as the seedlings they were sheltering. 

Rachael Naomi. Painting on the bus.

Then in 2013 I began Sunday morning art class with artist-teacher, Ruth Cole who lived on the same road as me – it took a couple of minutes to wander down to her studio, bliss! Even though during my ECE teaching days, I had a deep passion for nurturing children’s creativity, by providing an extensive variety of materials and art tools for children to experiment in their own way without adult intervention, I had lost all confidence to pick up a paint brush and paint- a consequence of not feeling adequate around students, during my high school days, who were brilliant in their art expression – I’m pretty sure, abstract and modern art weren’t valued or celebrated as much as realism or representational art in my class. My Sunday mornings at Ruth’s changed this for me, and I’ll be forever grateful Ruth and my partner hatched this idea for me to join her class and for Mike to be her Sunday morning gardener while I painted and talked art and was thoroughly inspired;  a perfect example of bartering. At this stage, I was really eager to fuse paint with my visual poetry so wanted to regain my confidence with paint. I then became preoccupied with the properties of paint. I loved it all – acrylic, oil and gouache – and spent several years immersed in my love of paint, colour, texture and in creating pieces that were abstract in nature. By now, I was also inspired or influenced by Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and other modernist painters. Eventually I found the courage, and that’s what if felt like I had to summon – courage – to unite my visual poetry with paint, specifically gouache which I felt aligned perfectly with my poems in indian ink. 

Rachael Naomi. this tranquil night. 

This is where I am today – either creating visualpoems with Indian ink only or painting with gouache only or combining the two. I continue to feel very much at home with the dip pen and I’m awash with a feeling of being connected to a genetic memory (I speculate) of ancestor scribes from my Hebrew and Chinese heritage, and a deep connection I feel to the land and the trees and the hills and sea, before my eyes, imbuing what I create on my textured watercolour paper. 

The visualpoems and gouache paintings I am showing for Unity in the Angela Morton Room, are examples of my work unified by my love and admiration of nature, the interconnectedness of all things in nature, the eco-system and our relationship to it. Also, the unity or fusion of poetry and visual poetry, visual poetry and paint, the unity of the collective creative mind. The union of what I see before my eyes, and what I feel stirring in my mind and heart and that mysterious place within, where my creations are made visible. Unity is my hope for humankind, to live peacefully in unity with one another and in union with nature. Most of these works were created in 2020 and 6 are freshly made in these first few days of 2021. 

And still to this day I ponder, am I creating visual poems or painted poems or written paintings. 

Rachael Naomi

Unity is open daily, Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library, Level 1, Takapuna Library.