cyanotypes and Poetry

By Amanda Lichtens tein and Leah Sobsey



Speaking through the sun

“Everyth ing is fleeing to ward i ts presence.” Rober to Juarroz
For months I’ve been obsessed withthe above quote by Mexican poet Roberto Juarroz. I started writing it everywhere – as the signature to my email, on notes to friends, and in little spots around my office. It was the kind of idea that was planted like a seed and grew a thousand branches. I started thinking about absence and presence, energy and transformation. What is fleeing exactly? How do we know when we get there? And what gets lost along the way? Break Arts’ mission is to inspire young people around the world to co-author the stories of their lives. They achieve this mission by partnering with schools and communities to expand notions of literacy and narrative through text, image and performance projects. They believe in expressing stories as an essential force in living and sustaining meaningful, interconnected lives. The line haunted me. A few months later, when Leah Sobsey and I began talking about leading text and image workshops with Habla in Merida, I knew I wanted to use this poem in some way to organize our workshops. In many conversations between Greensboro and Chicago, Leah and I started making connections between the ideas in Juarroz’s poem and the antique photographic process of cyanotypes. Just as Juarroz’s poem pushes the reader to think about fullness and emptiness, absence

and presence, so do cyanotypes, which depend on the energy and heat of the sun to reveal or hide images placed on sheets of chemically coated fabric or paper. A transformation happens. Both the poem and the process itself ask us -- simply put -- what makes a thing – a thing? Where does its essence reside? Leah and I planned a text and image workshop that would include a poetry warm up, close analysis and discussion of a poetic text, the cyanotype process, and a closing reading/ reflection. Traditionally, cyanotypes entail placing objects from the natural world onto treated paper, exposing the paper to sunlight, and removing those objects to reveal its afterimage. But Leah explained the magic of using transparencies and black sharpies to write or copy text, placing it flat onto treated paper, making it possible to expose original handwriting and poetic text. The possibilities were endless and we couldn’t wait to try this with workshop participants.


For the poetry warm up, we played with the idea of “conditionals” or “poetic logic” to fuel our thinking about absence and presence. How does one thought complete another? We decided to play a Surrealist game in which two players invent poetic sentences by one player creating an “if/when” phrase and the other deciding on a “then”phrase without knowing or seeing the other half. To play this game, you can either write your part down or simply think it. When both players have decided on their part, the team reveals the thought in its entirety. You can also play this game by both players secretly writing an “if/ when” phrase, folding or hiding it, trading their phrase with their partner, and completing a “then” phrase. No matter how you play, the idea is to generate surprising and audacious new language pairings that provoke new thinking about what makes a thought or an image whole. Next, Leah and I led a conversation on absence and presence through a close reading of Juarroz’s poem in its entirety.

This was a remarkably nuanced conversation and inspired a lot of wonderful original writing that riffed off the use of “conditionals” as a poetic structure. Participants wrote individual poems and then shared new writing to the larger group. In preparing to create cyanotypes, we asked everyone to select their most fascinating conditionals and to somehow use those lines as inspiration for their cyanotypes. When working with children, however, we decided to use poetic text from the “conditionals” game as direct inspiration and did not end up reading the Juarroz poem, or having them write original individual works, due to time and language constraints. Once everyone selected their poetic phrases, Leah led participants through the process of designing and making cyanotypes. She began by showing examples of the many different ways in which the light and energy of the sun can be used to create powerful photographic

images that highlight the absence and presence of objects. Participants were invited to pair up or work individually to connect their poetic text with photographic image, using the cyanotype process. When everyone’s work was finished, we hung a line between two trees and exhibited the work with a small, informal reading and discussion about the process, including ideas for extended learning. Similar to the notion of a cordel, the images strung together told the story of our collective effort to explore absence and presence, fragments and wholes, to create a beautiful collaborative work.


1 SURREALIST CONDITIONALS Get into pairs and assign a Person A and a Person B. Person A thinks of an “if/si or when/ cuando” statement. Ex: If a bird chirps or When a child fails Person A does NOT tell Person B – they either think it or jot it down…meanwhile…Person B thinks of a “then/entonces” statement. Ex: then all the leaves will fall or then I’ll have to wash the spoons. Person B does NOT tell Person A yet – they either think it or jot it down. When both Person A and Person B are ready – meaning they each have their secret phrase, they give each other a nod to reveal the conditional statement as a whole: If a bird chirps Then all the leaves will fall. When a child fails, Then I’ll have to wash the spoons. The joy is in the audaciousness of surprising and unexpected connections. It’s fun for Person A and Person B to jot down the whole phrase before moving on to a next partner. In the style of a salon, each person quickly finds a new partner, quickly decides who will think of an “if/when” and who will then of a “then” and begin again. There are many variations on this exercise – and when working with children, it also works well if each child comes up with an “if/ when” phrase on a sheet of paper. Each child also comes up with a “then” phrase. The children make two piles on the floor and then are invited to select one phrase from each pile to create surprising new phrases. That’s just one possibility out of many to make this exercise more hands on and interactive. You could also make a visible wall of “if/when” and “then” phrases and have students mix and match the phrases in pairs. The emphasis should be on the joy of outrageous pairings – constructing new meanings and images – and delighting in the results. 2 READ THE JUARROZ POEM & WRITE A POEM WITH CONDITIONALS In our workshop with educators, Leah and I led an intensive study on the poem in which the line “everything is fleeing toward its presence” appears. The bell is full of wind Though it does not ring. The bird is full of flight Though it is still. The sky is full of clouds Though it is alone. The word is full of voice Though no one speaks it. Everything is full of fleeing Though there are no roads. Everything is fleeing Toward its presence.


Exercise to frame the discussion: Unpacking the Line: Choose a line and “unpack” each word by creating associations, memories, questions for each word in the line. Discussion Questions: • Which line(s) take your attention? • Which line(s) speak to you most strongly? • Which line confuses you? • What does this poem say to you about presence? • Which line is the strongest visual image for you? • Which concept do you relate to the most? • What is the meaning of the word “fleeing” here – is it different in Spanish? • What is the pattern of this poem? • What can this poem teach us about “presence”? • When have you felt “fully present” or “fleeing toward” presence Possible PoetryExercises to Follow Dialogue: Speak to the Line: Select a line from the poem and turn it into a question to be answered in the form of another poem as response. Conditionals in a Round: Choose a conditional from our warm up exercise and create a circular pattern with it, in which the last line of one couplet becomes the first line of the next couplet.

If the bird chirps, Then all the leaves will fall. And if all the leaves will fall, Then snow will sing a song. If snow sings a song, The winter birds will shiver. If winter birds shiver, I' ll know you're coming home.

Personal Conditionals: Think of ideas that emerged from the dialogue on the poem. Write a free verse poem in which the one major rule is to include a conditional form/moment within it. You can riff off ideas about fullness/ emptiness/being/presence/ wholeness/emptiness, or other ideas that emerged for you in the discussion.


3 SHARE & SELECT YOUR FAVORITE TEXT After writing and editing your work, come back together as writers and read your work out loud, commenting on strong imagery, powerful turning points, interesting soundphrases, plays on language, etc. Select one or two lines that hold the most meaning or power for you. This can be a line from your newest poem or a conditionals phrase that you really like and want to work with for our next stage in the to the sun with our minds.

CREATING TRANSPRENCIES AND THE CYANOTYPE PROCESS LIST OF MATERIALS NEEDED a. Transparencies 8x10 inches can be purchased at any office supply store. b. Black Sharpies c. Pre-coated Cyanotype material from Freestyle Photography d. Glass piece to cover the size of your transparency (8x10 inches) e. Water to rinse you exposed material. f. Cloth pins to hang your material to dry. Take your favorite lines from the poetry conditionals; write the lines/ words/text on the transparency with a black sharpie. Visually respond to the text by drawing images on the transparency. Freehand and/or tracing from books and magazines is a great way to incorporate drawing. You can also ask your participants to gather objects from the natural world or their surroundings (leaves, grass, flowers), which are then placed on top of the transparency and the coated material, leaving just the

shape/silhouette of the object. The Cyanotypes process is a photographic printing process that utilizes UV light to create an image that is cyan/blue in color. The process was invented by Sir John Hershel in 1842 and is made up of ammonium ferric citrate and potassium ferricyanide and is nontoxic. Making your print Place transparency/objects on top of the pre-coated material and then place a piece of glass on top to place in the sun. Exposure time varies from 5 minutes to 20 depending on the strength of the sun and the time of year. If working in Mérida where the sun is particularly strong, time will vary between 5 and 10 minutes. When the print has been exposed, process your print by rinsing it in cold water. The wash also removes any unexposed chemicals. Wash for at least 5 minutes, until all chemicals are removed and the water runs clear. Oxidation is also hastened this way - bringing out the blue color. The final print can now be hung to dry and admired.


Your work area The chemicals can stain walls, floors, carpets, work surfaces, clothes and skin. Cover all possible areas, use rubber gloves and an apron or an old shirt. If you have the space, choose an area where you can spread out. Ordinary light bulbs or tungsten light is safe to use, but UV light will affect your prints. Some fluorescent lighting may also affect yor prints.

5. EXHIBITION & READING After all the cyanotype squares are washed out, hang each cloth on the laundry line in a courtyard or other visible, public space. Gather all the artists around the line and share out lines, phrases, or whole poems. Comment on the piece as a whole –what stands out, what surprised you,what questions does this raise, and what are some opportunities for extended learning.


Habla is an educational center and lab school based in Mérida, Yucatán, México, dedicated to fostering school environments that promote the success of all students from multiple cultural backgrounds. For teachers, artists, and school leaders, Habla offers: cultural and language experiences, teacher institutes, and an annual international educational forum.

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