GV professor illustrates surrealist poetry

GVL / Sheila Babbitt

GVL / Sheila Babbitt

Jacob Creswell

Grand Valley State University art history professor Kirsten Strom will showcase illustrations of French Surrealist poet Robert Desnos’ work in her exhibit “Apple Blossom and Nightingale” featuring translated poems from the original collection, “Chantfleurs et chantfables.” 

Strom’s fascination with the collection began accidentally; she had been searching for a different volume by Desnos and chose “Chantfleurs et chantfables” instead. 

“I actually started working with the poems by setting them to music,” Strom said. “At this point, I’ve done songs for about 60 of the 80 poems. The translations and drawings came later. When I took out the book, I had no idea that I would be working on it for the next five years.”

Strom discussed the challenges involved in translating poems without losing the meaning, rhythm or impact.

“It’s not just about a word for word transcription of the original,” Strom said. “It also needs to convey something of the spirit and the musicality of the original as well. There’s actually quite a lot of decision making and creative problem that goes into trying to balance all those elements.”

According to Strom, Desnos was one of the founding members of the Surrealist group in Paris in the 1920s, and his poems don’t reflect the Nazi occupation he faced, eventually leading to his death in 1945.

“Obviously, there is a heavy history to his story, but the poems themselves are very playful and sweet,” Strom said. “I see them as a way for him to maintain and protect some sense of childhood innocence in what was clearly a very dark chapter in European history.

“I tried to honor the spirit of the poems by making illustrations that capture a sense of both wonder and fun. Lucky for me, all of the poems are about flowers and animals, both of which lend themselves very easily to visual representation.”

Strom created the illustrations for a children’s book that she is seeking a publisher for and is hoping for the exhibition to be a sneak peek at what will eventually be a published volume.

Along with this early showcase of her work, Strom will hold a presentation about the illustrations in the Mary Idema Pew Library’s Multipurpose Room on Jan. 16. Strom plans to read the poems, discuss her artistic process and incorporate multimedia elements into the exhibit as a whole. 

“I will also be playing recordings of songs and choreographies that I have composed using the original French texts as lyrics,” Strom said.

“Apple Blossom and Nightingale” will be hosted at the Mary Idema Pew Library Exhibition Space until Jan. 30.