Making art: How painting helped author Jodi Paloni find a path from poetry to prose

In 2008, after two decades of happily teaching kids and adults of all ages, raising two daughters, and keeping up with a small homestead in Vermont, the day came when I realized something was missing from my blessed and busy life. It began as a vague realization after I wrote a persona poem in a winter poetry workshop, my one creative outlet at the time. The central metaphor was a suitcase sitting on a dusty, leafy sidewalk. If it were true that I could be both the narrator and the object in such a piece, then what would it represent if I picked up the suitcase and kept walking? What would I find inside?

A few months later, I landed on a new path, a path wide open, and incredibly frightening. I turned away from the only thing I’d ever known in terms of a career, but I had a sense it was a crucial move. I managed my finances so I could take the summer and fall to explore my next steps. My dear friend Donna, who runs an art school in Brattleboro, invited me to come and make art, no previous experience necessary. Though I’d always loved doing creative projects with kids, the idea of making art as an expression of myself among adults was terrifying. I wasn’t a person who loved to draw. I didn’t like the pressure of creating something that had to look like what it was in life. Donna said, “Just come.” I went.

That was over ten years ago. Since then, I’ve gone on to find my voice through any and all forms of making. I took a class called Sequencing, the habit of an artist and teacher, the late Ric Campman, who passed it down to others. The process seeks to free people from the critical mind and find joy in the process of making. I went from producing magical little oil and cold wax seascapes with my non-dominant hand to building assemblages, large and three-dimensional, a wildly forgiving form. Twenty bucks a half-day in a weekly open studio class led by four teaching artists, all of whom were large-hearted sages. They moved me onto printmaking, also highly freeing. I tried my hand at watercolors, pastels, and pencils through the kindness of mixed media. I wanted my hands on all of the materials. I wanted to ink and splash and drip, to rip and tear and glue.

Meanwhile, a mysterious thing was happening. At the time, and for ten years previously, I’d been writing poetry, nothing I ever polished or published, but pages and pages of poems. In honor of my life transition, my husband built me a tiny house in the woods, a place where I could go and write — The Poetry House. As we hammered posts to beams, I wrote in lines of my favorite poets, literally wrote them onto rafters and joists. When it was finished, the cabin housed a woodstove, a window seat, and my grandmother’s rocking chair. I rocked and I wrote poetry about hemlocks and thrush song and daughters growing taller than me. But after I started going to the art school, my poems became more like prose. My voice was invaded by other voices, imagined people, which I began to call my characters. The more I painted, the more scenes I wrote. I wrote them in my head on the drive up the mountain from the art school and I wrote them down with pencil on the paper tablets in my little house in the woods.

While I made art, as often as I could, I also became certified as a Sequencing teacher, a creativity coach, and I earned an MFA. I learned to write fiction. I write stories and novels and sometimes I still write poetry. I still make art, as often as I can. I teach a class called Adventures in Word and Image in which I invite writers to come and generate new work and to try their hands at incorporating key phrases and images from raw writing into materials­­­–––ripped paper, ephemera, pencil, and glue. We create erasures and fold mini-books. We work together in silence, moving from our beautiful worlds to our beautiful paper images and back to our blank pages, where we write some more. There is always magic.

I can’t cite specific research as to how the brain works, or tell you for certain if the imagery in my poetry prodded the need for me to make something tangibly visual, or if the interface with visual tangibles moved my image-based writing to become more narrative, or both, but I’ll bet there’s some study out there that explores the interplay. For me, I prefer the ineffable, by which some mysterious process––––the act of making marks, linear and curved, colored and black and white, of melding found objects into a new and tangible form, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, expressing my interiority––––is the number one thing that informs my work. Piles of paintings and prints litter my studio, which is insulated with cases of books. I make notes about my novel in my art journals and find smudges of blue and red chalk on my laptop.

Once, I made a series of 8×10 encaustics out of hot wax and oils on board, one to represent each of the stories as I was building my collection. Having the tangible thing, seeing a face, a bird, a light in a window, helped me access the narrative it stood for during the revision stages of that project. For now, I publish my fiction, but I don’t officially show my art or publish my poems.

Who knows what I’ll do next. What I love is to create things, anything, soups and gardens, collages and sculpture, lyrics and epics, and to invite folks in to make things along with me. It takes me back to the suitcase in that poem, all those years ago. An image appeared on the page. I picked it up and took it with me. Eventually, I opened it, and in turn, it opened me.

Jodi Paloni is a writer and visual artist living in Maine. She is the author of the linked story collection, They Could Live with Themselves, runner up for the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, an IPPY Silver Medalist, and finalist for the Maine Book Award in Fiction. Her work may be read in a number of literary journals online and in print. She was awarded the 2019 Monson Arts Writing Fellowship by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, the 2018 Joseph A. Fiore Center Literary Arts Residency, and a 2017 Peter Taylor Fellowship at the Kenyon Review Summer Writers’ Workshop. Jodi works as a freelance editor, offering developmental manuscript services, and leads workshops and retreats that merge her interests in creativity and craft. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is certified in the Gateless Writing Method.


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