Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 18, 2021

Artists inspired by J.F. Seary's poem paint live in Art Slam

By SARAH JUNG | March 21, 2021

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COURTESY OF SARAH JUNG

Artists Shayla-Mona’e Russell and Dylan Aiello paint their interpretations of the poem “La Negra.”

On March 13, the Nuyorican Poets Cafe hosted an Art Slam event over Zoom that combined visual art and poetry. I was delighted to attend this unique experience, which offered insight into how poetry could be interpreted.

Co-host DJ Rimarkable kept the audience engaged with exciting music that was perfect for a Saturday evening. While the audience trickled into the Zoom call, co-host Advocate of Wordz explained the rundown of the event. The painters were given 40 minutes to complete a painting, with 10-minute and five-minute warnings toward the end. They were limited to a 16-by-20-inch canvas and use of acrylic paint.

The event opened with a powerful reading of the poem “La Negra” by poet J.F. Seary, who claimed that she wanted to convey how people in the Latinx community were struggling with anti-Blackness. According to Seary, she was inspired by her previous interaction with children in a classroom as an educator.

Following her reading, Rimarkable resumed her music, signaling the start of the 40 minutes for the two artists, Shayla-Mona’e Russell and Dylan Aiello. Both artists are self-taught and come from contrasting backgrounds — Russell is an illustrator and model from the Bronx, while Aiello is a multimedia artist, designer and musician from Northern California.

The audience of 23 created an intimate setting, facilitating smooth conversation with the artists and poet. During the music and painting, we were encouraged to discuss the poem using Zoom’s chat feature. 

Serary explained that these events can help benefit people in terms of spreading both poetry and political messages.

“In considering the different mediums that we are working with tonight, there is something for everyone,” she said. 

What she said afterward was even more intriguing: “Some of us are auditory, some visual, some kinesthetic — the power of the message can be seen, heard and felt.”

Her response was a perfect description of this event. As a visual learner, I did not feel as excluded as I would at a typical auditory poem reading. The painting element of the event effectively communicated the message about acceptance of one’s identity.

During the lively chat discussion, Seary commented on her own poem. 

“The poetry can be both confrontational and affirming, depending on the vantage point for the listener [and] reader,” she said.

I enjoyed the duality of her poem because it challenged me to look at the piece from the different perspectives that she pointed out. The poem’s mixture of Spanish and English invites various opinions on its interpretation. 

One part that really interested me goes as follows: “See my skin be your mirror / And how I make you feel / Speaks volumes to me / No te confundes, primo.

The last line translates into “don’t be confused, cousin.” Despite Seary’s aforementioned explanation that the poem addressed people in the Latinx community, I felt that her use of the word “cousin” spoke to everyone. The poem transitions into Spanish towards the end and rides a rhythm that is easy to pick up. I loved the pacing that Seary created by mixing the two languages.

She also mentioned that when the pandemic first began, artists were uncertain about their future. She expressed her amazement at the continued creative output of artists through virtual platforms.

Through my personal experience, virtual platforms make artistic events more enjoyable and, ironically, more engaging. For instance, we were able to focus on the artists without distractions and give our full attention to the mediator.

During the event, I asked the artists if they had done paintings for a poem before and how it compared to previous inspirations they had. 

“I actually painted for a poem by Advocate of Wordz in a previous event,” said Russell. “I am usually inspired by music, but with both poem and music, my main goal is to make clear what the message is from each inspiration and bring out their true colors.”

For Aiello, it was his first time painting for a poem. 

“I love having references, and having a poem as a reference is beautiful,” he said. “There is a perfect boundary of where we can find inspiration within it without getting lost in too much freedom.”

Both artists were intrigued by having a poem as their inspiration for the night. Russell portrayed a woman struggling with acceptance by showing her shying away from what she truly was. She painted a woman turning her back towards the viewer, interestingly making her appear more exposed. Advocate of Wordz drew attention to the gradients of color on the painted woman, which was open to interpretation about identity.

Aiello focused on an interior scene that represented salsa music and congas in a human living room. He later painted the idea of migrating out of a certain mindset by drawing broken walls and ceiling to reveal the plains. According to Aiello, his goal was to focus on the movement out of a mindset to show acceptance of one’s identity.

I enjoyed listening to the motivation behind each painting. Following their explanations, the audience voted on which painting resonated the most. I voted for Aiello’s painting because in addition to acceptance of identity, I thought it could represent overcoming a personal challenge. For me, that personal challenge was simply deciding to pursue a career in medicine. 

I appreciated the mediator’s way of asking which painting spoke to us the most rather than which painting we “liked or disliked.” With more time, I would have liked to discuss why audience members chose one painting over the other. In the end, there was a tie in the votes, and the winner would be announced at a later time.

This event unexpectedly made me reflect on my previous exposure to poems and artistic events. Just like the need for more interdisciplinary thinking, I think there is a need for more crosses between different forms of art. It was interesting to see poetry and canvas art combined because, as Seary said, there is something for everyone. Showing different forms of art become one is more inclusive of audience members who are unfamiliar with specific forms of art.

I encourage everyone to experience events that blend different mediums of art like this one instead of events that have a sequential order of separate artistic expressions. I strongly believe it will help connect ideas across different fields, too, and not just within the artistic world.

More events like this can be done in the Baltimore community and the accessibility of this event could be popular for people of all backgrounds. Especially with the transition to a highly virtual world for many students at the University, a combination of literary readings and painting can be stimulating for the mind.

Compared to the literary readings I’ve seen in Baltimore through the Writing Seminars program, I found the visually aesthetic component of this event more enjoyable. However, similar to the event hosted by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the literary reading events at the University allow for the audience to interact with the guest author or poet through the chat feature. 

I urge anyone who attends a Hopkins literary reading event to take advantage of the chat feature. I learned that it offers more than what meets the eye — the intimate audience interactions heightened my experience. Making the best use of the chat can provide a special and direct connection to the guest author or poet, which is something that can be difficult to do when events are in-person.

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