Speculative fiction writer Bonnie Stufflebeam is shaking writers and visual artists out of their respective comfort zones with a twist on the traditional art show. From March 1 to April 1, submissions will be accepted for the third annual Art & Words, Stufflebeam’s collaborative exhibit of art and writing, which brings together works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art at a gallery in Fort Worth, Texas. But for those writers and artists whose work is accepted, the project doesn’t end there: Each selected writer and artist is also challenged to create a brand-new work—for writers, a piece inspired by a work of visual art, and for artists, a new work inspired by a piece of writing.
In the video for a successful fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter in 2012, Stufflebeam compared the literary and visual-art communities to boats that can support and reinforce each other using the unique strengths of each form.
“It’s easy for artistic people to get stuck in ruts where they’re exploring the same subjects and sticking to what they’re comfortable with,” Stufflebeam says. “Using a visual source for a writer or a written source for a visual artist is a good way to think about the creative process in new ways.”
Originally developed as Stufflebeam’s final project in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, the first Art & Words show, held in the fall of 2012, was so successful that she decided to make it an annual affair.
Art & Words kicks off each spring with a monthlong call for submissions: Works of poetry, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction of up to a thousand words, along with paintings, sketches, and other forms of visual art are eligible.
Stufflebeam then chooses her favorite visual and written pieces, between ten and twelve of each, depending on the year’s submissions. Each selected writer must then choose a submitted piece of visual art, and each artist must choose a submitted piece of writing; they each have about four months to create a second piece based upon the chosen submission for the show.
The resulting pieces are displayed alongside the original works at a weeklong show at Art on the Boulevard, a cooperative gallery located in Fort Worth’s cultural district. The exhibit includes a reading by participating writers on opening night.
Such cross-pollination also allows for transformation, Stufflebeam says, as both writers and artists tackle new material and see their own work reimagined in different forms. “The writers take more realistic artworks and turn them into very fantastical stories,” she says. “This is especially neat for the visual artists who never thought they could see that side to their paintings.”
At the same time, Stufflebeam says, “It’s important to think of it not as an illustration or a direct interpretation but more as a conversation.”
Written works submitted to Art & Words are published as printed broadsides displayed during the show. Participants retain all rights to their work, and several of the show’s previous participants have gone on to publish their pieces in literary journals.
Stufflebeam does the bulk of the judging, with help from her husband, Peter Brewer, a jazz musician who also performs at each show’s opening. As a writing judge, Stufflebeam’s preferences often mirror her own aesthetic as a fiction writer: She particularly admires the work of Aimee Bender, Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell; poets she likes include W. S. Merwin, among others.
“My taste is very literary. I most enjoy fantastical stories told in innovative ways or using beautiful, lyrical language,” she says. “We get everything from stories about spaceships and alien invaders to really bizarre horror-ish stories about cyborg beauty-pageant contestants.” Stufflebeam does, however, accept more realistic fiction and nonfiction as well: “Anything with poetry or lyricism” is fair game, she says.
Both unpublished and previously published works, the latter with permission of the original publisher, are eligible, and Stufflebeam encourages writers and artists both emerging and established to submit three pieces each. “Because I am accepting the second piece blindly, I want to see if I like all of [the artist’s] work and not just one piece,” she says.
While Stufflebeam does not currently pay contributors, she hopes to do so in the future, and is currently researching grants to help fund compensation. She also plans to eventually develop an online magazine in order to expand the project’s reach.
This year’s Art & Words show will be held in Fort Worth in September; at the time of this writing, the date has not been set. For more information and complete submission guidelines, visit bonniejostufflebeam.com
Christie Taylor is a writer and public radio producer in Madison, Wisconsin.