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Synchronicity: Finding Artistic Inspiration in Mentoring

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Author Carolyn Griffith and Artist Polly Alice McCann share their conversation about how creatives interact for surprising inspiration and growth. Or you could call this the "Flotsam and Jetsam of the Collective Subconscious" or Alice and Dorothy Meet in Kansas--Whatever is easier! This dialog is a conversation that took place over six months by phone and in writing. We whittled down the best parts to talk about one painting, our life stories, our writing and how they all became intertwined in a way that encouraged two writers a great deal.

Carolyn: We intersected when we both took our Master’s in Fine Art in Writing for Children and Young adults at Hamline University. Our paths crossed for maybe one semester, and never really talked--but we were facebook friends. Then there was that day last year, on Facebook, the post of your painting reached out and grabbed me. I bought it as a birthday present to myself.

Polly: Aww. Yes, I posted it because I felt it was the best piece I’d ever done and I was surprised no one seemed notice something I felt was such an epiphany of where I was trying to get to as an artist. You said it reminded you of Overland Park, KS-- and that’s when I said, I painted it in Overland Park. Which is funny because it’s completely abstract.

Carolyn: Overland Park resonates with me, because I had been working on a fairy tale retelling. I was about 100 pages into it, and doing a writing-without-stopping exercise at a Highlights workshop with the prompt “What I don’t remember.” As I free-wrote, it hit me that my fairy tale was all about a belief system I created as a small child to cope with something that happened when I was three-- in Overland Park! It must have been traumatic, and it went on for weeks, but I have no cognitive memory of it. Now I am trying trying to undo that belief system. The painting reminded me of that.

Polly: I don’t know if you remember, but I did my thesis on the subconscious writing process. I think the collective subconscious is like an ocean that connects all of us. That when we dream or imagine we are swim through a sea of images and symbols and archetypes just ready to catch in our net. Some are snags of memory, a jewel toned fish that is our next novel, or just a random character or two that won’t stay longer than a poem or short story. Or maybe a whale of friend that lasts for a ten-novel series.

Carolyn: Wow, did you just call me a whale? That’s such a compliment! That ocean-as-subconscious image intrigues me; I have an aquatic mural in my first novel and never thought about that meaning, although I did use color to represent mood. Now I want to go back and look at it and see what else is there, if there are hidden gems I can cut and polish...Oops, mixed metaphor alert.

Polly: Sure it’s just a metaphor for thinking about how the imagination works, but it also explains how we sometimes write about the same thing as other writers, or get similar ideas at the same time. I think of archetypes like stars and they can grow into a red giant-sized myth like Ulysses and shrink back down again into dwarf star size--just the hero at sea with most of the details lost. I think that’s why we create art or write about myth and fairy tale. A lot of us writers, especially writers for children and young adults, hang onto these archetypes for dear life. They are anchors in how we think, and live and breathe – and how we write. I think we have some of the same archetypes you and I. When you bought my painting and we started this conversation, I didn’t know we would have so much in common-- and so much to talk about!

Carolyn: You’re leaving out the flying ketchup bottle dreams.

Polly: It wasn’t a dream, it was a painting. I had a painting of a ketchup bottle with wings. I made it as part of a series about things that gave me hope. When I was first married, I had a small pantry and often that bottle was the only thing in it. I would say, “Well, at least we still have ketchup.” It was a private joke just for me. The painting hung in my kitchen for the last two years and in May of 2018, right after you and I began conversing, I finally got that it wasn’t about ketchup, I decided the painting was about helping myself and others “catch up!” Our conversations that summer helped me think about what voice was I hiding. I asked myself, What stories wasn't I telling?

Carolyn: That’s when I said that it seem to me you had been living with in a situation where. words became your enemy because they were used against you. You had to go back to art, something without words, in order to reclaim your voice.

Polly: You were so right. I even put numbers in my art, and finally an x, but I used it as a number as in “I solved for x.” Finally, I’ve started writing my poetry and stories onto my paintings. Now I have hope to really write again. I took a retreat and wrote half of a non-fiction book this summer. It feels like getting my words to stand up straight in a line is a mountain I’ll finally able to climb.

Carolyn: My painting that I got from you, “Kansas Valley”— at first, I thought it was a cliff, an unclimbable cliff. But the more I looked at it, I began to see it as a long journey with a beautiful mountain in the distance. I think you need to design your own typeface. Reclaim every last letter. Make each one a work of art.

Polly: Well, that’s something to think about. I did use the Alice in Wonderland typeface for a few projects.

Carolyn: One of the images I’ve seen on your website is a painting of a white rabbit with a clock. Is that Alice’s White Rabbit? That’s one of my two favorite children’s stories. My first MG novel is called What Would Alice Do?

Polly: Yes, it’s that White Rabbit – and Alice is one of my favorites, too! My new studio is a block from The Rabbit Hole, Kansas City’s new children’s literature museum. I have an Alice in Wonderland theme to my first book of poems. Alice is my grandmother’s name and my great-grandmother’s middle name on the other side of the family. My middle name, my mother’s name. So I have a strong connection to that name and it means “truthful.” I began showing all my art under the name Polly Alice because I wanted to tell my truth with my art. One of my first pieces was that rabbit and I called it a self portrait. It helped me get into a show in LA this summer.

Carolyn: I’ve been following stories about The Rabbit Hole, and I definitely want to visit KC sometime soon—because my other favorite children’s story is the Wizard —

Polly: —of Oz! And Dorothy! I painted a self-portrait of myself as Dorothy once; I’m still working with the symbols of the house and tornado in my art-- and shoes. Everyone from Kansas loves Dorothy. I guess all of us who grow up in Kansas do. Now how long were you here as a kid?

Carolyn: Well, we lived in KC, on the Kansas side, when I was born, and until I was five. I think The Wizard of Oz was the first movie I ever saw. I haven’t used it in a novel yet but I’m sure I will. I love stories that interact with or play off of older stories, and really I think almost every story is about finding your way home in one way or another. Plus, I’ve constructed a fairy godmother —she hangs in my closet—and she has ruby slippers.

Polly: I love that. I like how all our conversations bring us back to the stories we love and they are the same stories. I think I’m traveling back to language through my art, to be able to use words again after trauma. Language was what trapped me, but it also freed me. What about you? Are you having new realizations? What’s changed for you? I named the painting Lifted Valleys based on an old verse “Every valley will be lifted up” but sometimes called it just Kansas Valley. Did the painting help you remember anything else about your time in Kansas?

Carolyn: Not remember, exactly. When I was three, my mother was hospitalized with her first bipolar episode, and my dad parked me with his cousin’s family nearby. I’m guessing I stayed with them for a few weeks or longer. This was after watching my mom become stranger and stranger; say wilder and less believable things—I think she was misdiagnosed at first. I’m sure my mom read to me a lot, and that we made up stories about my dolls— Mom made me these great cloth dolls with elaborate wardrobes. But then she became bizarre and said things that didn’t make any sense, and went away for a long time. I had to go away too. I think my little three-year-old brain put this all together as “telling stories that are too far out means you’re crazy and they’ll take you away,” or at least “they’ll think you’re crazy and take you away.” So, Polly, you’re seeking truth and I’m trying to unshackle myself from it... let myself write things that aren’t strictly true. You know, fiction.

Polly: You mean that you’ve felt all this time, that writing and being creative with words is dangerous. That fiction was too close to being crazy? Did that affect your writing?

Carolyn: I think so. The jumping-off point for my fairy tale, Dreamweaver, is Rapunzel. My MC in the tower has hair that’s not only long but magical, too; when she uses it in the tapestry, her “Granny” commands her to make, those scenes come true. Granny tells her she’s lucky she’s safe in the tower, because her powers are evil; if she were out in the world the Church officials would put her in prison. Magic vs. evil, creativity vs. insanity-- awfully close parallels, don’t you think? I thought What Would Alice Do? was my “hot stove” novel. Turns out I had more stoves! Writing this Rapunzel story, Dreamweaver, scares me because I don’t know what else I might dig up— looking up at your painting, Lifted Valley, on my wall gives me courage to go on. Every time I look at it I see something new. At first an unscalable cliff, then a traversable hill, then blue and yellow roads converging. Hey, maybe those are our roads, Polly! Now I see that the whole journey is beautiful, and that makes me believe that whatever else Dreamweaver turns up, in the end the story will be, too.

Polly: That’s what I see in the painting too. A yellow road, a field of golden grains already harvested. It’s a journey and I didn’t know how much better it could be by just sharing it with someone else. Thank you, Carolyn.

Carolyn: Ooh, you’re making the hair stand up on the back of my neck now. A field of golden grains — Polly, that’s one of the first things my MC stitches with her hair. I can’t believe you just said that! And a yellow road — a yellow BRICK road! I knew Dorothy was in there somewhere! So it’s you and me, Alice and Dorothy, skipping down the yellow brick road to break curses and vanquish mad queens and kill witches and who knows what all else. Thank you, Polly!

Polly: Awe. You are so welcome. I should be thanking you. I had no idea that just talking with another writer would be so life changing for both of us!

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