The Painter and the Poet: Creative Writing at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Pieces by aspiring poets—and a look at the artwork that inspired them—from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s writing workshops. 

Statue by George Segal of a citizen listening to one of President Roosevelt's fireside chats. When sculptor and New York City-native George Segal was in high school, after classes were done for the day, it was time for art. He’d hop on the subway—grab a slice of pizza, a milkshake—then “gallop around the city,” to an art museum. As he describes in a 1973 oral history interview, being surrounded by art was “being in a magic space.” 

It was that same idea that brought aspiring poets to the George Segal retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in the spring of 1998, paper and pencils in hand. The Hirshhorn’s poetry workshop, led by Maryland’s Poet-in-Residence Roseann Singer, started with a docent-led tour through the exhibition. The participants got to view the sixty-two works on display, spanning Segal’s early pastels from the 1950s, through his well-known, gray-toned sculptures of the 1980s and 1990s. After some time to reflect and rewrite, the poets returned later on in the exhibition run to read their poems aloud in the galleries.

Sculpture by George Segal depicting a Great Depression breadline. A compilation of their work, put together by the Hirshhorn’s education team, includes poems inspired by specific works, like Segal’s The Subway or Girl Behind Chair and Bedpost. Other poets wrote about the feeling they got from the magic space of the Hirshhorn galleries themselves, or how Segal’s work helped them reflect on their own lives.

The poetry program was revived a year later, with the Regarding Beauty exhibit, which ran from October 1999 through January 2000. The show, celebrating the Hirshhorn’s twenty-fifth anniversary, was described in The New Yorker as reflecting “a growing, wonderfully confusing debate in the art world about the value of aesthetic pleasure.” As the Hirshhorn’s director James T. Demetrion put it, each work posed the question, “What is beauty?”

 Marilyn Monroe's Lips, (1962), by Andy Warhol.

That question was at the heart of the two “Bards on Beauty” poetry workshops the Hirshhorn held in conjunction with the exhibition. Led by Singer, alongside Henry Taylor, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at American University, the workshop’s poets wrote and recited pieces that grappled with the idea of beauty.

The poets had eighty-eight artworks, representing over thirty artists, to respond to as part of Regarding Beauty. Pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Agnes Martin were part of the exhibition, along with light installations, like “Milk Run” by James Turrell, and a video installation by Pipilotti Rist.  

Milk Run by James Turrell, 1996.Red Dress by Beverly Semmes.

As its curator intended, the exhibition provoked some creative responses. As one poet lamented, “Pure Beauty /Is often difficult to behold at first sight as art waters/ the gardens of the mind.” You can read a sampling of other work from the Hirshhorn’s two poetry workshops below. 

Something More (At the Museum) by Karen Jelenfy. Bards on Beauty: Poetry Inspired by the exhibition REGARDING BEAUTY: A View of the Late Twentieth Century. October 7, 1999-January 17, 2000. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

Gazing at Modern Beauty by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal. Bards on Beauty: Poetry Inspired by the exhibition REGARDING BEAUTY: A View of the Late Twentieth Century. October 7, 1999-January 17, 2000. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

Inspired by The Subway, 1968, Acquaintance by Elizabeth Logan. TELLING TABLEAUX: Using George Segal’s Art to Inspire Poetry. Reflections on the exhibition George Segal, A Retrospective. Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings. February 19-May 17, 1998. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

Choose One/Greatness of Creation by Elizabeth Logan. TELLING TABLEAUX: Using George Segal’s Art to Inspire Poetry. Reflections on the exhibition George Segal, A Retrospective. Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings. February 19-May 17, 1998. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

At the FDR Memorial: Depression Breadline by Marianne Ehrlich Ross. TELLING TABLEAUX: Using George Segal’s Art to Inspire Poetry. Reflections on the exhibition George Segal, A Retrospective. Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings. February 19-May 17, 1998. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

Wrapping forms, Wrapping words: The Artist and the Poet by Sherri Waas Shunfenthal. TELLING TABLEAUX: Using George Segal’s Art to Inspire Poetry. Reflections on the exhibition George Segal, A Retrospective. Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings. February 19-May 17, 1998. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accession 07-186, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Dept. of Education, Program Files. Image by Hillary Brady.

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