Threaded Metaphors: Connecting to Community

by CJ Muchhala

“Sing for Me” by Pat Zalewski


"Mountain," by Elizabeth Lewis


We began in water, crawled onto the muddy shore, stood
and walked. We grasped all things with mind and hand.

The land is flat,
forgiving.  We are the hunters,
the hunted.  Fire comes,
and seed.  Above us,
the moon, round, seductive,
cannot be grasped.
We believe.

Up rivers, across plains,
through woodland and desert,
we keep our faces turned
to the distant peaks.

Cautionary tales
litter the foothills.  We believe
only what the moon says
and continue our climb.  Flags
we strung along the ridges
sing in the night’s radiance.

Wind shrieks
from the summit, claws
at the banners.  Our supplications,
our blessings, lie shredded under snow.
Snow-blind, we see.  This is no place
for prayer, and beauty
cannot substitute for truth.

We are left to balance on the edge,
knowing the moon is a lie.

—CJ Muchhala,
Response to "Mountain," by Elizabeth Lewis

How does an artist work? The first image that often comes to mind is of an "ivory tower" with the muse in attendance. As with all stereotypes, there's an element of truth here. But the artist (in the broadest use of the term, encompassing oral, visual and literary arts) does not exist in a vacuum. Sources of inspiration may include the personal and emotional aspects of her life, the social and political communities she inhabits and the work of artists in other media.

All of these strands came together when a metro Milwaukee group of fiber artists and the poetry critique group to which I belong collaborated for the first time in 2000. It was serendipity to say the least. Poet Phyllis Wax knew fiber artist Connie Tresch, they each knew other women who were similarly engaged, and the idea of working together on a project blossomed. Since our first successful exhibition, Threaded Metaphors: Text & Textiles, we have continued to explore how the visual and literary arts intersect to expand our creative voices. We are making new connections with each other and with the wider community in which we work. Fiber artist Elizabeth Lewis says, "I am continually surprised, humbled and honored by how much work viewers put into interpreting and finding meaning in [our

At the initial meeting for a new project, we decide on a theme and a deadline.  Several months later, we each bring a work inspired by that theme for a blind exchange. Individual art pieces are wrapped and each poem is in a plain manila envelope so that neither the work nor the artist is identifiable. Each poet chooses a fiber art piece and each artist a poem with which we will live for the next few months. The new piece created is in response to, but not necessarily a literal interpretation of, this chosen work. The final project consists of 6 poems inspired by 6 works of fiber art and another 6 art pieces inspired by another 6 poems. There's an element of risk in responding to a work of art you might not have chosen if you had seen it first. The results can be quite surprising, but we have found, in every instance, rewarding. As poet Helen Padway puts it, "I love the challenge of writing about something I do not relate to."

Who knows how inspiration begins?  Mara Ptacek says "I hesitated after receiving Judy Zoelzer Levine's "Wind Dance." I frequently revisited her piece, and then I waited until the beginning of a poem came to me when I woke up one morning."

I had a similar experience. For months, Elizabeth Lewis' quilted piece, "Mountain," hung on the wall in my workroom. Every day I looked at it and saw a journey. But whose? And to where? Eventually the struggle to answer those questions bore fruit in my surprising (to me) response, "Trajectory."

Artist Kathleen Hughes also finds that, while the idea might come easily, the execution can be challenging. Since she works with materials rather than words, adding new ideas or experimenting with different techniques can mean remaking an entire piece.

The poets might revise and revise, the artists might design and re-design; we might extend and re-extend our deadlines as we encounter obstacles to inspiration or execution; we might get discouraged and think this time it's not going to work, but we have never quit a project and we have never mounted an exhibit we weren't proud of.

Over the years, family concerns, illnesses, and out-of-state moves (No ivory tower here!) have caused some members to suspend their participation. Currently we are twelve: poets Helen Padway, Mara Ptacek, Margaret Rozga, Carolyn Vargo, Phyllis Wax and myself, and artists Mary Ellen Heus, Kathleen Hughes, Marla Morris Kennedy, Judy Zoelzer Levine, Elizabeth Lewis and Connie Tresch. One of our founding artists, the late Pat Zalewski, deserves mention for her extraordinary creativity and enthusiasm for the projects in which she was involved.

While our collaborations occur in pairs and our creative processes are individual, the end result is a communal effort to bring art into daily life through shows in such uncommon venues as a bank, a university library, an ethnic cultural center, several senior living communities and a church as well as in more traditional art galleries. To make our art available outside this transitory format (and by request of some enthusiastic patrons), Judy Zoelzer Levine created an interactive CD-ROM of our first collaboration and Mara Ptacek designed and hand-bound chapbooks of the poetry. Our work has also been featured in literary/art reviews and local news publications.

Threaded Metaphor shows open with a poetry reading and a talk-back with all the artists on how our responses came about. Our goal is to engage the audience, and we find that people are as interested in our collaborative process as they are in our final product. We hope they recognize how integral the arts are to their communities and conversely, how important community is to the artist.

CJ Muchhala grew up in northern Minnesota and as a child, made annual summer trips to Milwaukee to visit relatives. Much to her surprise, when she grew up she landed in metro Milwaukee, where she has now lived for more than the sum of her childhood years. Her poems have been widely published in various media and exhibited in art/poetry collaborations; she is also a Pushcart Prize fiction and poetry nominee with work most recently in Red Cedar 2011 and the anthology Verse & Vision 2.