Sunday, August 25, 2013

I dream of William Blake

Infant Joy, from Songs of Innocence

William Blake was a poet, painter and engraver. He was one of 7 children born to James and Catherine. Two of his siblings died, one of whom he was very close to—his little brother, Robert. Although he was born and raised in busy, industrial London (England) he often liked to escape to the countryside where he spent many hours exploring, imagining and wandering. Once he spotted a tree filled with angels. He told his parents about this and got in big trouble. They did not approve of him seeing angels in trees, but he kept right on seeing them throughout his entire life.

I want! I want!
Blake was born on November 28th, 1757. That means he was a Sagittarius (affectionate, impulsive, tarty, hardworking, relentlessly passionate). He wrote, painted and engraved through two revolutions: the American (1775) and French (1789). Socially and politically everything around him was changing. The Church and State were both challenged by new principals of equality, citizenship and human rights and democracy was a fancy, beautiful and somewhat terrifying new word; everyone had a different opinion about what it meant, and how much of it was a good thing. 

Beautiful Little Books

In 1789 Blake wrote SONGS OF INNOCENCE. In 1794 he wrote SONGS OF EXPERIENCE. These collections were hand-made, hand-printed books. Blake engraved images and text together on copperplates to create prints that were smaller than the size of my hand! It was these books that gave me my first taste of Blake. 

I think I've loved Blake ever since I was a little person. I was raised Catholic; my first encounter with Blake's images and words recalled childhood prayer cards, religious pictures, beautiful illustrated collections of fairytales. Yet there was something very different about Blake's work. This was it: these words weren't prayers. They were poems. And these pretty watercolour images weren't just pictures; they were prophecies, illuminations!


Blake's ultimate God was the Human Imagination and all of his work reflects his personal relationship with this God. He was religious about creativity and so many of the prominent ideals of the enlightenment fuelled and fed the fire of his creations to the extent that many of his contemporaries thought he was "mad". I myself have never thought Blake was crazy. I think he just really loved to see, write, imagine and draw.  

My First Blake Workshop?! 

At the end of May 2012 and smack-dab in the middle of EQAO preparations I introduced students in grade 5/6 to my friend, William Blake. My goal: to show these energetic, summer-hungry kids how relevant and interesting this unusual dude from the 18th century could be. And so we got to work reading poems and talking images and symbolism and engraving and drawing. We read contemporary Canadian work alongside Blake, and looked at books that combined visual art and poetry as seamlessly as he did, hundreds of years ago. The students were delighted and baffled by some of the books I brought in, among them: Matthea Harvey, Edward Gorey, Anne Carson (NOX!) and Michele Lemieux. We talked about comic books, graphic novels and circled back to medieval monks, gold-leaf and copperplate engraving.      

When we discussed Blake's poem "The Chimney Sweep" the students moved quickly from the Industrial Revolution to Canadian politics and poverty on Native reserves. They made these connections without any prompting from me. The poem resonated with the students. It made them sad and angry. It made them see and feel. And it made them want to write something down themselves. Later, we practised the art of illumination using a poem by Irving Layton (Song for Naomi) and some of the drawings I received reappeared in my dreams later that night.
One lovely student tracked me down in the hall on my way out to ask me: Do you ever feel like you are hanging out with Blake, you know, because you talk about him so much? The answer: yes! Yes. If only there was a way to travel back in time. 

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