A painter who lives in Miami and teaches at Florida International University has collaborated with inaugural poet Richard Blanco to create paintings based on his poetry.
Their project, Place of Mind, will be exhibited in February in a New York gallery. The pieces were originally exhibited in 2007 at the main branch of the Miami-Dade Public Library.
John Bailly says his collaboration with Blanco happened organically. The two have been friends for two decades.
“As our work developed, his poetry and my painting, we realized we had common interests,” Bailly said. “My father’s French. My mother’s American. I was born in England. Richard’s parents are Cuban. He’s born in Madrid but raised in Miami. So there’s this lost sense of being rooted in a place as it relates to personal and cultural identity.”
Bailly said he and Blanco both struggle with this notion. When he’s with the French contingent of his family, Bailly said he’s known as the American, and when he’s with his American family he’s called the French guy.
“This idea of not really belonging anywhere but in a sense having more cultural roots than many people, and this creates a kind of vacuum but also an abundance of information,” Bailly said.
While they were collaborating, Bailly said, Blanco would send him drafts of his poetry, and then they would meet at his studio to flesh out their work.
“Because it’s always easier to carry poems than it is to carry paintings,” Bailly said.
He says they would talk and drink and discuss the work. During one of these meetings, Bailly said he was inspired to create several portraits of Blanco.
“I’ll never forget that afternoon of just portrait after portrait,” Bailly said. “In one of the portraits there was a line of a then-unpublished poem which is 'there should be nothing here I don’t remember.' ”
That line meant something to him, but Bailly had trouble getting Blanco to understand why it was so important.
“As a painter, I’m a terrible writer,” Bailly said. “I’m not good with words. When I’ve read Richard’s poems, I’ve said this is my voice. Richard is speaking in the way that I feel, that I’ve never been able to say.”
Although Blanco’s paintings are often about Cuba or Miami, when he reads them, Bailly said, he thinks about his childhood in the French Alps.
Bailly credits Blanco with creating the title of their exhibition. He says Place of Mind refers to not having definite roots in any one location.
"I’m born in England. Richard is born in Madrid, so it’s a third level and not really belonging in any place," Bailly said. "The place that we exist in is a place that exits in our mind. It’s an abstract place, and I’ve always felt in a sense troubled by this that I don’t belong anywhere," he said. "But Richard had a much better perspective on it, which is I always feel like I’m on vacation.”
Bailly said he’s overjoyed by all of the attention Blanco is receiving after delivering the inaugural poem earlier this month.
He feels that President Obama selecting Blanco says a lot about where America is today.
“For President Obama to select Richard is in a sense a step towards a more perfect union," Bailly said. "The perfect union does not exist. It’s a state of mind. It’s something for us to pursue. It’s our responsibility as citizens. But President Obama’s selection of Richard, for me, is a large step towards tolerance, admission and acceptance of a wide variety of the new America.”
The Place of Mind exhibition will be shown at the ClampArt gallery in New York starting Feb. 21. In April, the entire collection will be on display at the University of Maine Museum of Art, and eventually the work will become a traveling exhibition.