Monthly Archives: April 2016

by Corinne Geersten

Narrative Art. But wait, there’s MORE!

I’m a digital artist. I assemble pictures by remixing Victorian photos, Civil War tintypes, photos we’ve taken over fifty years and scans.

The Borrower Bird, Corinne Geersten

The Borrower Bird, Corinne Geersten

My pictures are quirky visual narratives about psychological situations. They pull a lot of subconscious strings. I especially love a good quandary.

My work leans toward surrealism, with odd juxtapositions, non sequiturs, and an element of surprise. It’s narrative.

Let’s be simple. Narrative art is storytelling. Let’s uncapitalize it right now.

The label “Narrative Art” appeared in the mid-1960’s. What now is narrative art used to be history painting, genre painting, and previously, cave painting.

From the 1500’s to the 19th century, art was organized into a hierarchy of genres. History painting was thought to be the highest, noblest kind of painting. (Still life rated at the bottom, just below animal painting and was priced accordingly.)

Narrative art now can be photography, dance, performance art, film, even graphic novels.

In the US and Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s art was conceptual and minimal. If you’re in London, don’t miss the installation art piece 20:50, a spatially disorienting room in the Saatchi Gallery filled waist high with motor oil. Narrative was out of favor.

When I was studying art in the 1970’s, if someone made a piece that told a story, we all felt it had cooties.

Young artists brought it back in the 1980’s.

I suspect the popularity of narrative art now is entwined with its evil and not-so-intelligent twin, social media. The story of our lives is reported, disseminated and commented on relentlessly.

I think we’re hard wired for storytelling. We put what happened in a sequence, choose supporting details and tell. We begin when we learn to speak. This is often how we form ideas about what kind of person we are as an individual, and within our culture and our place in history.

Often, how we remember a person is by a story that represents our idea of them.

Stories are significant. Because they’re made by a human mind, they’re revealing of what it is to be human. They may tell us what it’s like to be somebody else, saving us a lot of bother.

Neil Gaiman says it so well: The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person.

Good narrative art does these things.

How does one build a narrative picture?

1. It’s helpful to learn to think in pictures and stories, stories and pictures.

I grew up in what was the biggest city in Montana, population 60,000. I didn’t see any real art until I was 18. But I had what I needed: The Blacky Tests.

My dad was a psychologist. A psychologist in the 1960’s might show someone a drawing and lead them to talking openly. The Rorschach plates are beautiful. The color Rorschachs are diaphanous, lyrical and evocative.

I liked them, but I liked the Blacky pictures too.


The Blacky tests were for children.

We named our first dog Blackie.


Dad had another set that’s missing its box. It has more wear than the other testing materials in his kit. They’re just numbered on the back, so I can’t tell you the name of the test. The pictures are done by different artists and are nothing but wonderful. When you look at them, you think in stories.


To make a narrative picture, you need to be able to see a good story wherever you look.

2. Don’t show a thing while it’s happening.

It’s far more interesting to show the moment before. It’s like a good book. We want to know what happens next.

This is The Moment Before the Consequence of an Error.


It’s also intriguing to show the moment after. Here is Charm


What one person saw in Charm: “It’s like the Cinderella scene where the birds are singing and flying about, tying bows for Cinderella. This woman is so evil she can get a crow to light her cigarette just by thinking about it.”

When you show what happened before or after, then subtleties, causes and intentions appear almost on their own.

Lean towards plot. Forester said, “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot.”

3. Space and time: deal with it.

When you read a book or go to an opera, time is what keeps everything from happening at once. When you’re looking at a piece of art, there isn’t time for things to happen in a sequence.

When you build a piece of narrative art, you work trickery with space to give the illusion of chronology.

Susanna and the Elders is a ripping yarn, a story from the Roman Catholic Book of Daniel. Lorenzo Lotto leads our eye around the painting in a merry chase, telling the story sequentially.


Susanna took her clothes off. They’re lying about. She just finished her bath. Two elders rush in. They’re followed by two serfs who will collaborate the elders’ poisonous lies about Susanna. Look back by the castle and you’ll see what happened first – Susanna is her on the way to the bath. Her two maids have left her and are on their way back to the castle.

Voyeurs is my Susanna, only with kangaroos.  The sequence is more streamlined. The Kangaroo in the skirt and the two guy kangaroos form a horizontal oval path for your eye to travel like a race track. The two trees on the left horizon represent the two kinds of trees that caught the elders in their lies and led to their deaths.


If you’re wondering about the hot air balloon, what could be more voyeuristic?

Here’s Call Back.


The velvet clad boy has dialed back to the Mesozoic era. The dinosaur has declined the call. Your eye bounces back and forth like a ping pong ball between the Victorian era and the Mesozoic. (When I made this I was thinking of split screens in 1960’s television.) Here’s a phone conversation over space and time.

4. Know what goes in and what to leave out.

This is Interview. It’s easy to take power lines out of the sky digitally, but the picture is about communication. Leave them in.


I liked the blue-grey clouds across the top of the sky when they first went into the picture. I liked them even more when I realized I had subconsciously placed them as stand-ins for cartoon speech-bubble talk.

The negative space between the giraffe and the girl/horn/tape recorder combo holds them together.

I audition objects by The Yikes Method, which is a really fast, bastard cousin of the scientific method (seventh cousin, three times removed).

I hunt through my archive of 37,000 images with a loose theory of what might work. Perhaps I’ll try a hundred elements in a picture, one at a time. If something doesn’t work, yikes, it’s out of there.

Start with one element in the picture. Add another. The third begins a story. It gets more difficult as each new thing is added, because every new thing you add has to fit with more things.

I build the right place for things to happen. I look for the right shapes, colors, textures, lighting, sidekicks and belongings. They need to have the right impact. They need the right amount of detail. They need to be the right size. They need to add negative space that contributes to the nature of the picture. Sometimes things fail by being too intentional or corny. It’s a minefield.

The last few things that go into a picture will use every brain cell you have. Recognizing them and placing them will be the most fun. Eureka!

The details you add are breadcrumbs to help the person looking at the picture.

If possible, introduce some objects that add struggle and an uncertain resolution. This is What Happens at Night. What’s not to like about a good plight?


5. You can add to the story with symbolism.

This is Migratory. A child, a voyage, an owl, a boat, a turtle: each is symbolically loaded. When you can add something with symbolism, that something makes itself at home and unpacks. It brings more than itself to the picture.



I have a solo show at the Mesa Arts Museum from September 9, 2016 to January 8th, 2017.

You can be part of the show if you like. Just choose a picture from the portfolio pages of my website that speaks to you. Write something that relates to the picture. A limerick, haiku, a fictitious letter. The mother of all weather reports. A grocery list. Playful, serious, scholarly, how you write is your choice.

Your narrative will hang beside the picture you wrote about. Our show is called The Footnote Chronicles.


If your writing is chosen, you will receive a signed, original print of the art you wrote about.

Details here: 

Portfolio pages here:


tres riches heures

tres riches heures




Bee on blossom

Bee on blossom

post by Richard Nilsen

I spent 25 years in Arizona, where April and arrival of spring meant only a growing dread: the sure and certain knowledge of a thermometer swelling to the century mark, and of baking, desiccating and shriveling in the noonday sun and sweating like roofers and navvies.

 Now that I have moved back to the temperate regions of the nation, April has renewed its meaning of renewal: Once again it is the thickening of leaf buds, the rising from the earth of daffodils, and the stretching wide of the hours of daylight. It portends the reawakening of a life dormant through a winter spent mostly indoors or underground; the planting of this year’s garden; the planning of this year’s vacation travel; the eating of fresh and local vegetables. Fruit trees are blinding and lawns are stirring; bees buzz and ants build their conical pyramids. 

My years in Phoenix feel like some sort of interregnum, a period outside the normal rules of life and nature. Returned now to the way things are “supposed to be,” I feel the passing of time differently. 

In the desert West, time felt like a pendulum, swinging from unbearable summer to the relief of a glorious few winter months. There were essentially two seasons: Heat and momentary respite from heat. Back and forth, tick tock.

Beech Bud

Beech Bud

With my return to a four-season world, time becomes once again circular: It is a constant progress through the calendar, and every month has its particular character. Time recycles and begins once again every year, and it is the slow spreading of the bud scales on the swelling leaf buds that announces this rebirth. In early March, the red maple explodes with its tiny crimson flowers, and by the end of the month, the redbud and apple trees have flowered, the grape hyacinth and forsythia pop out blue and yellow, and by April, the woods are floored with trilliums and claytonia. 

 It is a Viconian world, where one is reminded of eternal recurrence, not only of seasons, but of life-spans and of whole civilizations. Stepping into space and looking back at the solar system one sees the orbit of the earth — an ellipse, certainly, not a circle — but still a circular recurring pattern. Summer, fall, winter, spring — like the Indian princess on Howdy Doody — and its metaphorical mirror in birth, growth, maturity, death and rebirth in the subsequent generation; and the rise and fall of societies with the rise of its successor: Europe gives way to America and we can see the New World giving way to Asia in the future. 

This circular pattern is itself not merely repetitive, for although the earth revolves around the sun, the sun itself moves in its circle around the center of the galaxy, dragging the planets along with it, so the circular orbits become instead like the coils of a spring, winding around in a cycle, but moving ahead by increments, too. The great Slinky of existence. 

It is in this progressive circularity that one finds one’s life captured. For although the seasons move around us just as the daily sun does, our lives seem to move within this coil, as a straight line. We are born, we get old, we die. Ab nihil ad nihil. And in that brief span, we see only a few spinnings of the wheel, until for each of us, as Saul Bellow has it, “the pictures stop.”



And within the span of those spinning coils we get to know, we change. The spring we know as children is not the same one we know as adults, and even more so, the spring we experience as we become old.

In my recollection of my boyhood, time felt essentially static. It was winter permanently, then it was permanently spring, followed by an eternal summer. The only time I knew was the present. Change was so slow, it was possible to be oblivious of it. 

Now I am old, the seasons pass so quickly, the feel like days, not months. It is as if I live in the time-lapse photography of a nature film; I can almost make out the popping of buds as I watch, they move so fast. One day the buds show up on branch tips, the next day it is all green. Only a week later, insects have eaten holes into every leaf, which have turned leathery and dry in the summer heat, and by the day after that, they drop onto the ground, which freezes solid for the ensuing winter. The year becomes a propeller blade spinning so fast it is destabilizing. I get dizzy.

The acceleration of time makes an appreciation of the season more difficult. Spring is so fleeting that by the time I finish a second draft of my essay, it is already over. 

It didn’t used to be this way. I remember when I was young, just after college, and after a first failed marriage, when I first became fully aware of spring and its emotional thrill. I was in a new relationship, soon to turn disastrous, and we lived in an old house on grounds filled with enough vegetation, both wild and cultivated, that it might qualify as a micro-wilderness. There was a line of red maples along the road, a great shaggy black walnut by the front porch, a pecan in the back yard, a sweetgum at the side and a chinaberry tree behind that. A constellation of Cherokee roses lined the edge of the property and beyond them was a vacant lot overgrown, with a pear tree at its center. There were over a hundred species of plants and wildflowers in the yard. I counted them. Chickory, forsythia, lilac, duchesnia, plantain, bluets, yarrow, sunflower, and of course and uncontrollably, dandelions. 

flowering tree

flowering tree

I came to know all these existences intimately. There came a time I could practically name the date on the calendar by the state of bud on the maples or the dropping of the prickle-balls from the gum tree. The passing of time was measured by leaves, buds and flowers. And the yearly highlight of my life was the first reddening of the maples, before the flowers burst out, but when the swelling bud scales began separating, uncovering the thin crescents of red between the scales. It was a subtle and fugitive thing, when the red maples first showed red. Where we lived, in Greensboro, N.C., this happened the third week of February. 

“How could such sweet and wholesome hours/ Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!”

Those brief years were an almost mythological time for me, when the world glowed and my place in it was central. Mr. Bluebird sat on my shoulder. Things seemed more real, even beyond real. For others, the time when the earth and every common sight did seem apparell’d in celestial light comes when they are children. For me, it came in my twenties. I was living in a moment of heightened emotional awareness and utter happiness. These things never last.

But even now, with 68 springs tucked under my belt, and at a time when the season slips by too fast to contemplate it, I can still bring up the old feeling for the herbs and flowers. It is just as Wordsworth has it in his Intimations Ode: “The thought of our past years in me doth breed/Perpetual benediction.” 

And it is in art that time can slow down once again so that I may meditate upon the spring and its intense beauties: the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.”



maple flowers

maple flowers

So I sit and read my favorite lines. April is not just the large circles of planetary orbits, but the circling birds singing their mating calls. I hear them when it is still dark out in the early morning. 

When April, with its gentle showers,

pierces the drought of March to the root

And bathes ever vine with such liquor

that gives birth to spring flowers;

When Zephyr, with his sweet breath

blows life into the tender crops 

of every grove and field, and the young sun

is halfway through the sign of Aries,

and tiny birds make melody —

that sleep all night with open eye

(so prods Nature in their hearts)

Then do people long to go on voyages,



and pilgrims to seek strange shores

and foreign saints, known in various lands,

and especially from every county

in England to Canterbury they go

to seek the holy blissful martyr

who has helped them when they were sick.

* * *

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard and his wife moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.


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