A giant tree overshadows a dystopian disaster zone where the people must wear gas masks, and only a single white plastic chair exists alongside some prehistoric woolly mammoths. Elsewhere, layers under the Earth’s surface reveal trash and a hammer. Somewhere else a tree covered in animal heads pops up, and a teen boy says, “Leg’go my Eggo.” In some ambiguous post-apocalyptic Minneapolis, only the Savers on Lake Street remains.
It’s not a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. This hodgepodge art creation is the work of nearly 38 artists in “Ekphrastic 2.0: A Collaborative Storytelling Experiment.” The project began at Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis on July 29 and will run through Aug. 26.
Each week, several artists take up residence at a drawing station in a corner of the gallery to create drawings based on weekly themes, all of which are dystopian. (This week’s: “Uneasy.”) The drawings are then added to the growing collection displayed near SooVAC’s entrance.
Covering nearly half a white brick wall, the conglomerate of black-and-white ink drawings is lurching to the right, up and down all at the same time.
The collaboration is a little more than halfway done. During the final four days, when the full piece will be on view, a group of five poets will come in to write their interpretations of the work.
Greek is the word
Ekphrasis, the Greek word that inspired the show, is the act of verbally describing a work of art — usually through poetry — to convey its essence.
Conceived and organized by Megan Vossler, an artist and professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, this experiment came from a place of giving. Last year Vossler won a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, and proposed a public component involving something like an artist lecture or panel discussion.
But as the time neared, she had a better idea.
“I figured it wouldn’t be that interesting to have me talk,” Vossler said, “so I thought: I have all these friends who do narrative work or figurative work. Instead of talking about it, maybe we’ll just do it. Maybe I can get them all to come in, and we can create a story just through images.
“A lot of these people are illustrators, so they often tend to work from writing. I wanted to see if we could reverse it.”
The concept echoes the Surrealists’ “exquisite corpse” drawing exercise, in which one person draws something onto a piece of paper, then folds it over so only a sliver is visible. The next person works off that, then folds it, and so on until a bizarre, unreal composition emerges.
The inaugural 1.0 version of “Ekphrastic” ran at SooVAC in the spring of 2016. Twenty-five artists participated over a five-week period, and three poets wrote about it afterward.
This year, 36 of the artists are from Minnesota, and two from Des Moines. Visitors can watch them work anytime during gallery hours.
Some base their drawings on earlier artists’ contributions. The Twin Cities’ Jim Denomie created his piece as a continuation of a nature-inspired drawing by Minneapolis-based artist Sophia Heymans. Denomie drew a tree that connected with the edge of her image of swaying trees in a misty landscape.
“I liked how he extended his drawing onto mine because I’m a big fan of his,” said Heymans, whose own sketch referred back to a larger painting she is working on for a November 2018 exhibition at SooVAC.
Darkness and light
Many of the weekly themes, explained Vossler, were in line with darker political undertones and dystopian possibilities. Some drawings are more serious, while others took on lighter tones.
The week Andy Sturdevant worked on his piece, the theme was “Limiting Resources.”
“I saw Paige Guggemos’ drawing of all the people with shovels probably going to a scavenger store,” Sturdevant said. “I thought of the Savers on Lake Street, a prominent store for people on a budget like me, and how there might be a scrapper convention there. It’s a post-apocalyptic Minneapolis, where only the Savers has made it.”
For the artists yet to come in Version 2.0, there’s a lot to think about and nothing to worry about.
Christopher E. Harrison, a veteran artist whose work deals with organisms and nature-based things of that sort, has looked at the other pieces and said he’ll work it out as he goes along.
“I’ll probably do some kind of creature or something to that effect that I have invented or developed on site, and hopefully integrate with the rest of the environment of the piece,” he said.
For newer artists, being part of a project with others they admire is thrilling in and of itself.
“Some of the artists I have art crushes on, so I am super excited to work with them,” said Minneapolis-based artist Alyssa Baguss. This is her first time participating in “Ekphrastic,” and she thinks that a no-thinking approach may be the way to go.
“Maybe the less I think, the better. Actually, that should be a motto for other aspects of my life.”