College Restores Artwork by Poet E.E. Cummings At New York's College at Brockport, a little-known treasure trove of artwork by poet E.E. Cummings is in urgent need of repair. The popular poet produced more than 1,600 oil paintings, drawings and watercolors in his lifetime.
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College Restores Artwork by Poet E.E. Cummings

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College Restores Artwork by Poet E.E. Cummings

College Restores Artwork by Poet E.E. Cummings

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Creative people often try new things. Violinists become conductors, actors become directors. From member station WXXI in Rochester, New York, Brenda Tremblay reports on a poet who was also a painter, even though few seemed to notice at the time.

BRENDA TREMBLAY: On a hot day in August of 2005, art professor Tim Massey pulled on his old clothes and went to the College at Brockport, part of the State University of New York system where he works. He was getting ready for a new semester.

Professor TIM MASSEY (Art, SUNY Brockport): I was covered with dust, dirt, paint drips, shorts, bandana. Here comes this guy in a suit and tie asking to see the facilities.

TREMBLAY: The guy in the suit and tie was the college's interim president. He wanted a tour, and Massey, being the only person in the building, was compelled to show him around. He showed him the classrooms, the studios and then he stopped at the door of a storage room containing the college's art collection.

Prof. MASSEY: So we walk in and basically pulling random things out of racks. And just happened to think, oh, I can show him this collection of works by E.E. Cummings, and I think that's when his jaw hit the floor.

TREMBLAY: The interim president hadn't known that E.E. Cummings, a poet famous for his use of lower case letters and quirky syntax, was also a painter. And he found himself standing in a room looking at more than 70 pieces of art few people had ever seen.

Mr. MILTON COHEN (Author, "Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E.E. Cummings's Early Work"): I'm sure it's the best single collection of Cummings's work.

TREMBLAY: Milton Cohen is the author of the book "Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E.E. Cummings's Early Work." Cohen says Cummings took visual art as seriously as he did writing poetry, painting every day after World War I in his New York City apartment.

Mr. COHEN: He had a studio on Patchen Place where he would paint. And then when the light failed he would typically, after dinner I would assume, he would turn to his poetry and write into the night.

Mr. E.E. CUMMINGS (Poet): Sweet spring is your time, is my time, is our time. For springtime is love time and viva sweet love.

TREMBLAY: That's the poet reading from his book "One Times One." While he was writing his celebrated love poems, Cummings was also poring over paintings by Paul Cezanne and emulating Pablo Picasso. He likes to experiment, starting with abstract oils and then trying his hand at water colors.

Cohen says Cummings applied what he learned about visual art to the blank page.

Mr. COHEN: He knew what any art student knows, which is that diagonal lines are more dynamic than horizontal and vertical lines. And so he would create these in his abstractions and he created them in his poems as well.

Mr. CUMMINGS: Buffalo Bill's defunct, who used to ride a water smooth silver stallion and break one, two, three, four, five pigeons just like that…

TREMBLAY: In the poem "Buffalo Bills," for example, the poet positioned the words on the page to suggest that shape of an arrowhead, and the danger of Buffalo Bill's career.

Mr. COHEN: And Cummings captures that dynamism of his life by the way he makes his lines move on the page. So you can see them moving further to the right and then back. And that's all connected with his painting at the time.

TREMBLAY: By the end of his life, Cummings have reduced more than 1,600 oils, drawings and watercolors. He gave away most of them, and they are now scattered in private collections and universities. In the past 30 years, his paintings have shot up in value from hundreds to thousands of dollars a piece.

Brockport houses the largest collection but it's in rough shape. Some of the pieces suffered water damager and a few have been nibbled on by mice.

Mr. FRANK SHORT (Dean, School of Arts and Performances, SUNY Brockport): We have an ethical obligation to preserve these things.

TREMBLAY: The task of preserving them has fallen to Frank Short, dean of the college's School of Arts and Performance. He says he needs to raise $165,000 to do it. So far the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities have rejected three grant applications. But Short isn't discouraged.

Mr. SHORT: We want to show them; we want to share them; we want to study them.

TREMBLAY: Short has succeeded in raising enough money to start the restoration process. Next year the college hopes to mount an exhibition and give people the chance to study the images produced by an eccentric who wrote of love, nature and the joys of experimentation.

For NPR News, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Rochester, New York.

HANSEN: And for a slideshow of E.E. Cummings's paintings, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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