Quadruple Threat: 'Engaging Eliot' bridges poetry, theology, music and visual art

Series begins Jan. 28 with concert and colloquium

Artist Bruce Herman's
Artist Bruce Herman's "Detail of QU4RTETS No. 1 Spring"

To some painters, the written word is as powerful as the brush.

Visual artists Bruce Herman and Makoto Fujimura drew inspiration from 20th century poet T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, a set of spiritual poems focusing on human interactions with time, space and the divine.

Starting on Jan. 28, Herman and Fujimura will lead a Duke conference on the intersection of Eliot's Four Quartets, music, visual art and theology. "Engaging Eliot" will include an exhibition of the artists' paintings in Duke Chapel, an opening concert and a colloquium.

Herman and Fujimura's study of Four Quartets began in tragedy. The artists used Four Quartets to work through difficult periods in their lives: Fujimura lost his studio in the Sept. 11 attacks and Herman in a house fire. They decided to collaborate on the paintings in 2009 after learning of their mutual interest in Eliot, according to Christina Carnes, a Duke Divinity School graduate student who helped organize "Engaging Eliot."

"Bruce and Makoto associate themselves with [Eliot's modern style of poetry] because they're both modern painters," Carnes said. "They were both compelled to respond to the poetry through painting."

The artists enlisted Duke theology professor Jeremy Begbie a year and a half ago to help organize an interdisciplinary event around Four Quartets. Begbie commissioned Yale music professor Christopher Theofanidis to compose "At Still Point," a quintet based on Four Quartets set to debut at the opening event on Jan. 28.

The colloquium will feature scholars of Christian theology, visual art and English. Art, Art History, and Visual Studies professor Gennifer Weisenfeld's presentation will focus on the parallels between modernist art and poetry.

"I'm going to focus less on Eliot and more on the two artists' responses to Eliot," Weisenfeld said. "Eliot himself is representative of how the breaks of modernist poetry were mirrored in modernist visual arts. Modernist poetry is very much a collage of language rather than prose, and you see that in modernist visual art."

Carnes said she hopes the event will showcase an interdisciplinary to approach literary and artistic works.