Griffin Cobb interviews Professor of Spanish Dr. Veronica Dean-Thacker and Professor of Art Jack Girard
[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Welcome to another campus conversation, discussions with Transylvania University faculty, highlighting their interests, passions, and pursuits. Here is Griffin Cobb.
GRIFFIN COBB: This is Griffin Cobb, and I’m here with Dr. Veronica Dean-Thacker, professor of Spanish, and Dr. Jack Girard, professor of art and art history. The two of them have been working together since 1991 on various projects involving artists who create both Spanish language literature and visual art. I want to start with the project that many people listening will likely have seen while going on here on campus– the visit of Spanish artists Juan Carlos Mestre and Alexandra Domínguez. The two artists had their work and poetry exhibited in Morlan Gallery, and there was a poetry reading in Carrick Recital Hall. So first of all, thank you for sitting down with me.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Thank you for coming, Griffin.
GRIFFIN COBB: And do you remember how the idea to do something with those artists, Mestre and Domínguez first occurred to you?
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yes, it was a long time ago. It was actually in 2009 when Mestre first came to Transylvania as part of a group of Leonese– that’s Northern Spain– Leonese writers to participate in some conferences at Transylvania, some receptions in town, and also the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference, which takes place the third weekend of April every year. So we were lucky to meet him, to have him here on campus for five days. And right after that– he was actually a fairly well-known poet in Spain– but he won, about six months later, the National Prize for Poetry in Spain and became an international figure after that.
GRIFFIN COBB: What was it like to actually have them on campus, to meet them and see them recite poetry, and see them go through the gallery where their work was exhibited?
JACK GIRARD: It was exciting. It was a lot of work. There was a lot of coordination that was going on while we were still teaching full load of classes. So we were running them from one room to the next, turning them over to somebody else. They’re very, very gracious people, very adaptable. And I think their good will and good humor throughout– real high energy. Even though I think Juan Carlos was sick for the first two days.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: He was, he was.
JACK GIRARD: He still did an amazing job. [INAUDIBLE]
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yeah, he covered that up.
JACK GIRARD: Just really opening their hearts to the students. They’re just natural teachers, I think, in their own right.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: And I remember the day they walked into the gallery for the first time. Andrea Fisher had done such an amazing job of displaying their works in that fabulous space of Morlan Gallery. And they were so amazed at how beautiful everything was. And they had never seen their work quite that way. And because they do it in their own studio, and Jack has been in there and seen seeing how they produce it in their home studio, on the third floor of that–
JACK GIRARD: Yeah they live in a– sort of what we would normally call a walk-up, they bought the apartment. I forgot the square that they live on.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: [SPEAKING SPANISH]
JACK GIRARD: There it is. Thank you.
They bought the– I guess you’d call it a condo directly above them. And interestingly enough, they just sort of drilled right through the floor of the one above them and put in a hand-crafted staircase that Mestre built, and put a studio directly above them in the condo above their apartment. And do all their studio work at the same quarters as they’re living in. Not sure where we were going with that.
GRIFFIN COBB: So they got to finally see– so it was a different environment for them to see their works put up in a place like that.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yes, yes, because they’ve done many exhibits of their work, but nothing like Morlan Gallery. It’s so beautiful and light, and bright, and so well-displayed, everything was–
JACK GIRARD: We had everything shipped from Spain to Lexington unframed. So we actually pinned up the work in its rawest form, print on paper. Which is a little risky because of possible damage, and there’s no protection. At the same time, it’s extremely elegant, like sheets of handmade paper just sort of floating against the wall without the inconsistencies of the framing, which I think really added to the visual clout of the show, personally.
GRIFFIN COBB: What is it about them as artistic voices that appeals to you, that you find compelling.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Well, you know, when he first came in 2009, it was absolutely thrilling to hear his poetry. And he did a poetry reading, and a poetry recitation at one point as well. And he combines them with music. Remember he played the accordion at–
JACK GIRARD: One of his publications has a CD on it, if you remember.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Oh that’s right, and he’s doing a few more of those recently. But it’s very, very interesting poetry, very international. Some of it is pre-Columbian, you know, he has that pre-Columbian bent, because he’s so interested in Chile, which is where his wife Alexandra Domínguez is from.
And then when we looked at hers, it was very different. It was like poetry of fantasy. And from what she does in her catalog is on facing pages you have the poem, and then a visual rendition of the poem. Which, to me, they were very fantastic pictures. But she said no, this isn’t fantasy, this is another reality. You just have to accept it. And it was a new way to look at these things.
But I was so glad that Griffin remembered hearing her read her “Balada del Bandolero”– one of the poems that she has in the catalog– “The Ballad of the Bandit.” And when we look at the art that’s next to it on the facing page, it’s this beautiful, somewhat Southwestern, somewhat indigenous work. And there are no straight lines at all in the work. So we can see some maybe indigenous symbols, but no straight lines.
And the poem itself seems to deal with a man that this woman is interested in, but she has a lot of difficulty. And she says it is very difficult to be around him, it’s difficult to get to know him, it’s difficult to fall in love with him, and to be with him. And it turns out the poem is really about her. So.
JACK GIRARD: I thought it was about Juan Carlos, when I first read it.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: At first glance, it’s about her husband. But then you read it, and you read it, and you read it, and you realize she’s talking about herself, and how she’s had to confront so many difficulties being in this relationship. But it’s a wonderful relationship, it’s just that it’s– you know, he’s so well-known, and everyone loves him, and and there she is. So it’s really fun.
JACK GIRARD: What is interesting when you look at the differences– similarities and differences– in their imagery. And I think of their prose, she is one who embraces the ambiguity of abstractionism. She really thinks of herself as an abstractionist. Whereas he works with a more recognizable subject matter, more idealized, very romanticized.
I think hers has a romantic side to it, but she tends to work with I think more pattern, and more pre-Columbian kinds of symbols, organic forms that are highly suggestive. I think ambiguity is kind of her signature. There’s one in particular– is that “The Violin?”
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yeah, “The Violin.” The poem is called “El violín de Aída,” “Aída’s Violin.” And then we have the–
JACK GIRARD: Which is her mother’s Violin. There’s a long story, she’ll tell you the narrative about it. It won’t at all come through the poem, it won’t come through the art, because it’s such a literal story. And both treatments visually, as well as poetically are so different than the real narrative.
GRIFFIN COBB: Well, I’d love to keep talking about Mestre and Domínguez, but in the interest of time, I’m going to– I mean, because I know we can talk about them for hours and hours.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Absolutely.
GRIFFIN COBB: But in the interest of time I want to move on to Margarita Merino. For the people listening, Margarita Merino, she’s a Spanish artist who now lives in the United States. Would it be fair to say she’s kind of– the US is kind of an adopted country for her.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Oh, absolutely, yeah.
GRIFFIN COBB: And the two of you gave a talk in Liverpool about her work, and you’re working on an upcoming article about her.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Exactly, yeah.
GRIFFIN COBB: So the script I read from that talk describes how you first met Merino. And could you briefly describe that first meeting?
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Sure, sure. Yeah, professor Ed Stanton of the University of Kentucky brought her to campus around, I would say, 1989. So just shortly after I came to Transylvania. And he had discovered her poetry in Spain and loved it. He saw so much in the poetry that was worth studying. So he invited her to UK, and then, because we’re friends, he brought her to Transylvania.
So we became friends, and it seems like I’ve known her all my life. It’s been about 30 years. And so she gave a poetry recital that time. Then we asked her back another time, and she did a wonderful talk for faculty and students, it was about 10 years ago. So we’re due to have her back again.
But Margarita is from also from the North, León. And she moved to Maryville, Tennessee about 15 years ago. She met her husband, actually, on a plane coming–
JACK GIRARD: Coming to Lexington.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Coming to Lexington to give a talk. I mean, she’s a well-known artist in her field, but because we were friends, I didn’t immerse myself in her work, you know. I guess I just ignored her work for a long time. And then just in the last couple of years, I’ve picked it up again. And I asked Jack to take a look at it. And he’s stunned by the quality of some of her illustrations, her illustrated poems.
JACK GIRARD: Which is sort of the way we work this. If you look at the history, how many years it’s been, Veronica’s sort of been the inspiration behind our collaborations. I give full credit there. She usually– our communal interest is in the voice, the different voices, or similar voices of artist-writers, folks who do both. And we’re kind of looking at similarities and differences in those vocabularies if there are any. Veronica had come across Asensio Sáez Garcia.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: That was in the early ’90s.
JACK GIRARD: Frederico Lorca’s work. We’ve looked at Mestre and so on. Margarita was new, and Veronica said, hey, why don’t you look at this stuff. And that’s how it began.
And I came over and went, hmm. And off we went. My part in it was supported by a Jones grant, which involved going down to Maryville, visiting with her in her home studio garden, which is pretty spectacular. She’s sort of building a Spanish garden there. Really intense, but it was a real opportunity to kind of see that– walk around in her library, in her studio, and so on. And see where this stuff comes from, talk to her a little bit about history and tradition.
GRIFFIN COBB: OK, so–
So after knowing her for you said, about 30 years or so, why– and you said you didn’t pay much attention to her work early on. So what made the change to make you want to seriously examine her stuff, and talk to Dr. Girard about it, and make it into a collaboration.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Well, that’s such a good question. You know, I think it was just on my list of things to do, to get to her work. Because I have a few others on the list, and I just have to make time for them. But you know, things just get in the way, and all of a sudden, I think I picked up her poem called “Flying in Tierra sola,” “Volando en Tierra sola.”
And I had translated it a number of years ago, and I loved the poem. It’s like a four page treatise on flying over the Grand Canyon in a two-seater plane. And it’s so beautiful. But I had forgotten about it, you know. So I re-read it, I thought, uh-oh, we really need to work on her. And so I got the material that I had, showed it to Jack, and he said yes. And maybe another week or two later, he showed me five pages of text that had to do with her, you know, her visual work. And I thought, oh boy, I better get busy, you know?
JACK GIRARD: Well I think part of the reason why we picked up so quickly on her at time we did was we were feeling a lot of positive energy from our experience with Juan Carlos and most recently was Alexandra Domínguez. We actually dealt with them separately, although we had them on campus together, we kind of looked their work individually. And I think the momentum was there. The first poem I read hers was called, “Mi Casa.”
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Oh yeah, “Mi Casa.”
JACK GIRARD: Was talking about her house, which was kind of interesting, because then I was scheduling to go down and visit her with her house. And the way she wrote about her house, versus what I actually saw when I got there was very much worlds apart. I thought it was going into a wholly rural community. And in fact, it wasn’t there at all. I expected farm animals to be walking through the kitchen.
Which is, if you read it, it’s really get that kind of fantastic quality to it, you know, bathtubs teeming with frogs. I thought, where are the frogs, you know? Where’s the bathtub? There was no bathtub.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: She’s so imaginative.
JACK GIRARD: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. So it just really set my curiosity on fire. Of course, we started looking at images together. The big question is where to next. Onward and upward.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Well, we have to do this article. We did the paper in Liverpool, which was great. We got a lot of good questions. But now we have to find time to get this into a shape to present to the MLA, we hope, for publication. And then, I think, [INAUDIBLE], who’s– he’s next on the list.
JACK GIRARD: Oh, is he?
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yeah.
He’s a wonderful poet also from the Basque region. And we’ll see.
JACK GIRARD: You’ll have to send me some of his stuff.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: OK, that’s a can do.
JACK GIRARD: And we’ll see where we go.
GRIFFIN COBB: All right. So what is it like to actually, to look at all these artists. You’ve been collaborating like this for almost 20 years.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yeah, longer.
GRIFFIN COBB: Longer than 20 years. And so what is it like to look at literature that might be written as a companion piece for a piece of art, or might be just an artist that does both things separately. What does it like to have to look at those with both of your expertises and synthesize them into one sort of cohesive image of somebody’s artistic voice.
JACK GIRARD: Right, I’ll jump in here. We don’t look at them separately. I mean, I’m reading and looking, and you’re doing the same. You were talking about– I call it the Buffalo Bill piece– but the “Bandito” piece. You were looking at an image. And Veronica’s become very articulate on image construction, on symbolism and use of metaphor, visual metaphor.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: I’m shaking my head no.
JACK GIRARD: She would disagree. Did we get that all on film.
Well, I’ll swing so wise to say, I’ve become rather sensitive to prose as well, and poetry. And so I’m looking at both to see what that relationship in, in as much as Veronica’s looking at both. We don’t– you do just the visual, you do just that, and then we’ll bring them together.
Sometimes that’s how we start, you know, it’s this take a look and respond, take a look and respond. And then we bring it together and we talk it over. And we crossfeed each other in terms of, here’s what I was seeing in the poetry, and here’s what– you know, just like you did. Here’s what I’m saying in there, let’s look at that thread. So it’s been a little more interwoven.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Absolutely. And it’s been a nice journey for me, because I remember one of the first things I showed you. I think it might have been art from Asensio.
JACK GIRARD: Asensio.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: So this was in the early ’90s. And he was trained as a traditional painter, realist.
JACK GIRARD: Yeah, he was.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Beautiful, I loved his paintings. And a lot of them are in churches around Southern Spain. But you liked his collages. And I thought the collages were interesting and funny, but I didn’t see a lot of what you saw in them. So it’s like, I’ve learned so much about that since then.
And also there was a painting, not a collage, but a painting I showed you once, and I didn’t know really what I was looking at. And you said, oh, that’s a– you know, whatever it was. And I thought, I never would have seen that. So it’s like now, I am more sensitive to the art, but I still– I cannot do that part alone. Not at all.
GRIFFIN COBB: Well, unfortunately, we’re running short on time. So I’m going to go ahead and ask, what does this history of working together mean to you, to each of you?
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Thank you. Yeah, this is has been great, Griffin.
JACK GIRARD: Yeah, it’s a tough one.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Well, you know, I think it’s– I remember when I was a brand new professor. Actually, no, I was in my second year, I think. And I was writing a paper to give at a conference in the Canary Islands. And it was on the subject of my dissertation, Benito Pérez Galdós, and it was a political topic. So my dissertation had been the political life of the writer. But the writer was known for his novels.
So before I gave the paper, I called Doctor Dugi– whom I didn’t know, I only had seen him– and I knew he was in politics. So I called him on the phone and said, you know, I have to give this paper. Do you think I could come down and talk to you about a little bit before I go off and give it to an audience. And he said, come on down. And that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship, and a very supportive collegial relationship here on campus.
So it gave me the confidence to then reach out– early on too- to Nancy Wolsk about the poetry and visual art. And when I said, you know, I really need an artist’s eye on this. And she said, no, no, you have to talk to Jack Girard. So I felt comfortable just saying, OK, it worked once, this is going to work again. And I think people need to do this more. It’s really good to have a second pair of eyes on your work.
JACK GIRARD: And that was for Asensio Sáez.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Exactly, for Asensio.
JACK GIRARD: Which is the form that I actually prefer over the more traditional painting. For me, what is this– well, most of what I do by trade is a very solitary sort of thing. I don’t work– I chose not to be a ceramist or a sculptor, because I don’t like working in large groups. I prefer to kind of work through things alone. And that can become very limiting in terms of imaginative exposure, in terms of conversation, or even self-criticism.
So this kind of set a habit in practice where I felt comfortable kind of stepping outside myself and my comfort zone, which I’d been nurturing for so many years. And kind of branching to something that I could kind of grow through. And I’d have to say I’ve grown considerably. Germany was kind of my target for a nation. You know, I grew up there.
And I’ve come to think much differently now. I mean, I’ve been back many, many times, I speak the language, but I don’t feel like I really have the connections that I have nurtered these past 25 plus years with some of these Spanish artists, with the culture. With the culture. And I don’t speak Spanish, but I don’t need to.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: You don’t need to when it’s–
JACK GIRARD: I really don’t.
GRIFFIN COBB: Because of the language of art?
JACK GIRARD: Well, that’s one– that’s.
GRIFFIN COBB: But that’s only part of it.
JACK GIRARD: That’s an element. But even as a tourist, I guess, if you want to go that route, it’s easy to travel abroad and to be really at home, if you allow it to happen. You know, we traveled to Poland, language was a non-issue. We used English, sure, used some German, and some Spanish. But you know, we were right at home.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yeah, it was a great conference, the Poland conference. Yeah, Posner. Yeah, and you know, back to your question too, Griffin, of collaboration– I see a lot of that on campus.
JACK GIRARD: I do too.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: I do, yeah. I see people who are always collaborating with others. And I mentioned Don Dugi, but a couple of years– I think it was about two years ago, I called Jack Furlong and said, you’ve got to come to my office, I have to run something by you. I’ve got this article I have to do. And he was so helpful.
So yeah, I think people are very giving, where, on some faculties, if you ask for help, they might say– you know, the colleagues might say– you know, why can’t you do this alone? Or, what’s the matter with you, are you deficient? Here, it’s–
I mean, it’s just like, this is going to enhance the work. It can be so much help, you know?
JACK GIRARD: I think to collaborate with colleagues in your own discipline is always exciting. But you already speak kind of a narrow language, so to speak.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: True.
JACK GIRARD: Whereas when you cross over into another you know, we’re talking culture and art, which, they have very strong ties historically. You know, it’s more expansive, there’s more to be learned in the process of– why collaborate if you can’t take something away from it? And I think that’s where I come out of it, is a very changed and more dimensional individual. I think I also then can give back more when I can talk in more international terms about visual styles to students in art. There’s a deeper understanding of where that tradition comes from.
GRIFFIN COBB: All right. Well, thank you both so much again.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Well, thank you, Griffin.
JACK GIRARD: Thank you.
VERONICA DEAN-THACKER: Yes, wonderful chatting with you. And thank you Jack.
SPEAKER 1: You’ve been listening to another in our series, Campus Conversations– discussions with Transylvania University faculty.