When a poem paired with a painting strikes just the right note
Last March, when the first deadly wave of the pandemic shut down the City and jolted us into anxious isolation, Lisa Dolby Chadwick decided the best response to all the dire news and announcements of closures, including the shuttering of San Francisco galleries like hers, was to send out an email pairing a poem and painting. Something beautiful in your inbox. But Chadwick had no idea when she hit send at 7 a.m. on March 18 — when her desire to share something about joy and levity led her to pair poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s So Much Happiness with a sweeping gestural painting in blues, whites and black by John DiPaolo — that the response would be so strong she’d spend the next seven months doing five new pairings a week, about 90 in total.
“It gave me some thing to anchor around,” says Chadwick, a poetry lover whose Dolby Chadwick Gallery has put on and published several art and poetry projects, the latest being Stay Inspired: Shelter in Place 2020, a bountiful new hardcover book containing 88 of the daily offerings sent to thousands of artists, clients, poets and others around the world. Many were hungry to receive them each morning, replying with messages of gratitude. Half of the book’s proceeds benefit the nonprofit No Kid Hungry.
Chadwick chose favorite and newly discovered poems that felt right for the moment, pairing them with works by the stylistically diverse artists the gallery represents. The aim wasn’t to illustrate the poem but rather “come up with something that resonates with it in some way,” she says, “to have the poem create a doorway into the art.”
Many of the connections have personal meaning. She read Stephen Spender’s The Truly Great at the 2011 memorial of her friend Stephen De Staebler, the esteemed sculptor whose bronze Winged Figure Ascending, with its feeling of time and decay, appeared with those Spender lines on May 9. Chadwick long ago memorized Gift by the Nobel Prize–winning Polish emigre Czeslaw Milosz, who describes “a day so happy” working in his Berkeley garden that “whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.” Straightening up with no pain, the poet sees “blue seas and sails.” The poem jibes well with a vibrant blue paper collage by Matt Gonzalez.
“Matt and I are good friends and share a love of poetry,” Chadwick explains. “Gift is also one of his favorite poems. I picked that for him. Matt looks at the world in a very humble way.”
She was moved and gratified by the responses from friends, as well as people she’s never met (some are included in the book). A San Franciscan named Geo wrote on April 30, after reading Rebecca Elson’s Antidotes to Fear of Death, alongside a clay-and-pigment-on-canvas abstraction by Danae Mattes: “Your morning emails are so lovely to wake up to, particularly this morning. I woke up to the news of a death in my family. … Reading this poem was just the thing I needed to stop and appreciate why we are here and appreciate all that we have. There’s nothing to fear.”
Reading that makes Chadwick cry. The whole experience, she says, “has been deeply rewarding.”