Transit and cross-medium collaboration

Fabu Phillis Carter and Michael Hirshon talk about their contribution to WUD Art's Art En Route Project.

 Detail from Hirshon and Carter's bus-art collaboration.

Detail from Hirshon and Carter's bus-art collaboration.

Want to help us report and write more stories like this? Join our third anniversary fundraising drive and help keep our journalism strong. Thank you!

Michael Hirshon often sees Madison and many other American cities as dull affairs of grey, brown, black and white. Hirshon is one of seven visual artists who have paired up with seven literary artists as a part of WUD Art's recently debuted Art En Route initiative.

With the pieces now in motion, literally, the initiative aims to break up the monotony of Madison's typically drab color palette, and offers relief from the ads that typically run on the sides of typical of Metro Transit's buses, which typically range from generic to genuinely anxiety-inducing.

Debuted on the sides of buses on Oct. 1 and in Union South's 1308 Gallery on Oct. 7, Art En Route has ushered in seven interdisciplinary pieces of art—each one combining words and visuals from a pair of Dane County-based artists.  

A bus is an interesting and challenging canvas. It is huge and it is moving, sometimes fast. Each pair of artists had to create pieces that would use up a lot of space well, catch the eye in an instant, and still move an audience (pun somewhat intended) in the way any piece of art ought to. Though each piece in the project has its strengths and weaknesses, each one does well in using its unconventional format to the fullest potential.

The one that really caught my eyes, however, was Hirshon's collaboration with Fabu Phillis Carter (warning: sound plays immediately on website), better known to Madisonians as simply Fabu. Hirshon, a renowned illustrator, and Carter, a former Madison poet laureate, created a piece that touches on ideas of art, humanity and the simultaneous infinity and finiteness of each.

  One side of Carter and Hirshon's bus-art collaboration...

One side of Carter and Hirshon's bus-art collaboration...

Carter's lines, like "I abound and overflow," are carefully ambiguous yet resolute, and they mix well with Hirshon's boldly colored illustrations, creating a piece in two parts that knocks down the boundaries of poem and illustration, forming something new altogether.

  ...and the other.

...and the other.

We were able to chat with each artist, separately, about the the importance of Art En Route, their collaborative process, and the specifics of their piece.

Tone Madison: How did each of you find out about the project, and what initially drew you to it?

Michael Hirshon: I think they put out a listing on some sort of UW something or another. I just thought it sounded great to have. I mean, one, I think Madison is a great city, but I think it could use a lot more public art. My work is very colorful, so I thought that being part of something that could surface as not a flat, beige color would be great.

Fabu Phillis Carter: When I was Madison poet laureate we had a thing called Bus Lines, which put poetry inside of buses. So I already had this really wonderful experience with poetry on the bus. So when I saw this one, poetry for the outside of a bus, that was even more fascinating because on the bus, you get to have a little bit of time reading it and sitting with it, but outside, it's a different experience. That really appealed to me—to look for ways to encourage people with a wonderful poem and wonderful illustrations as the bus flashes by them.

Tone Madison: What was the timeline like for the actual collaboration? Had you, Michael drawn the illustration, and then Fabu wrote the poem? Or was it vice versa?

Michael Hirshon: The way I work as an illustrator is I get text from publishers or editors, and I have to turn that into an image. That's the way I work best, and I figured the more freedom I could give Fabu, the better.  Whatever she wrote, I could illustrate it and make it my own.

Tone Madison: Fabu, what was it like then, and how did you make something from scratch? I know having a truly blank canvas, so to speak, can either be inviting or intimidating for any kind of artist.

Fabu Phillis Carter:  It was definitely a challenge, because a poet, like any other artist, wants their best work out there. If poems are like children and you dress your children up for the world, well, you'd like your best-dressed child presented.

  Fabu Phillis Carter.

Fabu Phillis Carter.

[For Art En Route] you're required to do something original, to do something brief, and to do something that will in essence engage someone right away. So that part was really fascinating, but also really challenging.  And so I kept saying to myself, if I was a student standing at a bus stop, if I was a worker going to work, if I'm a person using bus transportation, which very many people do in all those categories and more, what would encourage me, what would inspire me?

So, it was a challenge to write poetry I thought would immediately engage people, but also encourage them and inspire them. You want it to be something wonderful, but you also know the audience that you're looking for, and then it needed to reflect me, as an artist. And then finally, I had looked at Michael's work before I created the poetry, so that I could have an idea of the kind of artist he was. Michael does very vivid colors, with elements of the abstract.

Tone Madison: And I can totally see those colors and qualities of the abstract in your poem. It toes the line really well of having that transcendent, universal quality without being so universal that it's like a greeting card, or so abstract that you're not saying anything at all.

Fabu Phillis Carter:  We want to strike that balance of saying something meaningful, but for me I write to encourage, inspire and remind. Encourage, inspire, and remind. So the lines, "When poets speak, people hear truth/When artists create, people see beauty/Both elusive wisps," that's just to say what I hope we do in the world on the side of encouraging people, inspiring people and reminding people. I hope we do that.

And the other part, I oriented it towards all the people all the young people who ride the bus. Because when I take the public transport,  I very seldom see happy faces on the bus going to school. It's of course for everyone, but it's particularly for all the students waiting on buses, going on buses. I want to remind them they are more than anyone can say they are. They are more than any societal definition. They are more.

Tone Madison: Michael, once you got the poems, was that the extent of your interaction with Fabu?

Michael Hirshon: She actually finished the poem in a week, which surprised me. But after I got the poem, I worked up some concept sketches and I sent those to her, and we went back and forth a lot on how big the type would be, and how long her poem would have to be to have type that's readable, because people are going to be reading this on a moving object.

Tone Madison: Michael, one of the things I really like about the visual work is the MC Escher quality it has. Was that something you were thinking about as you were drawing it?

Michael Hirshon: It's something I thought about after I drew it. I realized, "oh, yeah that looks like Escher." But that didn't make me change it. I think it made me like it more because it fit the concept.

Tone Madison: It's also cool that it's sort of a different take on it, and it's something you came up with organically. It's also something that people will probably recognize as familiar, and maybe that could help them register it faster.

  Michael Hirshon.

Michael Hirshon.

Michael Hirshon: Yeah, and I think inspiration works best when you don't try to be influenced by something, You don't sit down and say, I want this to be a Picasso take on this-and-this. It's better if you surround yourself with the work and dive in and like it and just look at it a lot, and then it's in your brain and it comes out when it needs to come out.

Tone Madison: Another thing I noticed was that the piece mostly uses  red, green and blue, which forms an additive color scheme from which, I'm sure you know, all colors can be formed. Was that intentional or something symbolic?

Michael Hirshon: I mean, it does sound nice [laughs].  That does sound like it makes up all the colors of the rainbow, etc., etc. I do like that interpretation, but I can't say that I consciously thought that.

Tone Madison: To generalize, then, what drew you to those colors?

Michael Hirshon: Usually when I'm working I start with one color palette and then I tweak it until I like it. I started with yellow as a base because yellow at the moment (and the moment is the last five years) has been my favorite color. I use it more than any other color. I think it's a really good starting point on page because it warms everything up. It's not white or black, you can do more with it.

So, I started with that and then there was black and red I think, but I thought it was maybe too harsh so I lightened up. I don't know, things just kind of squirmed around and ended up there. I liked it. I think it was a good combination of bold and friendly.

Tone Madison: On a greater level, what is the importance of your piece and all the Art En Route pieces in general, not just being visual art, but also having a literary component to them and vice versa? What does that allow them to do together that they could not do on their own?

Fabu Phillis Carter: It is because of the width and the depth that it adds. If you just had the words, you would read the words and would glean a meaning and understanding, but the colors and the shapes and the whole ambiance of the illustrations, deepen and widen the [viewer's] connection to the art. My other thought is if the bus whizzes by, and you only see the colors, you still receive something important. You really have.

And if you had the illustration without the words, again, you're going to enter into the art and you're going to have your own thoughts and experiences. By me adding the words, putting the words there, you're getting the perspective of the writer about, you know, my hope that you overflow and abound. My hope is that you do see beauty and you do hear truth.

Michael Hirshon: I think when you pair images with words, you get a much richer story than if you just had one or the other. In the same way images can illustrate words and enliven people's imaginations, words can give new meanings to images and create context or concepts. When the two are working really well together, this relationship goes both ways.