An Evening with Poet and Painter Basil King
by Adrian Etheridge
“I have a feeling you’re going to be one of those crazy guys that if you don’t paint, you’ll go crazy.” This is what one of poet and painter Basil King’s friends told him early in his career. And, as King writes and paints every single day, his friend is probably right. That is not at all a bad thing, as the artist’s work spans decades – now 79, King began painting at 14, and started drawing as early as five years old.
The Asheville Art Museum had the pleasure of hosting Basil King and his wife, Martha, who is a poet in her own right, on January 9 for a film screening, poetry reading and artist talk. Although I met the bearded and plaid-bedecked artist briefly before the event, I did not know the treat I was truly in for that evening.
In a hushed yet passionate voice, King began the program by telling of his early exploits: his eventful childhood, his unquantifiable experience at Black Mountain College and his work as a whole. Particularly delightful was his recount of a story from when he was five years old, when he and his mother were traveling between the U.S. and England in the midst of the fighting of WWII and their boat came under fire. The whole room chuckled when he added that as scared as everyone was, he – at the age of five – thought it was an enchanting game.
As far as his experience at Black Mountain College, King related that one of his most influential experiences there was in a class taught by Joseph Fiore. The professor had students bring in their work and opened the floor to discussion, allowing students to comment as they pleased, even if the comment was “I hate it.” One of the most unique aspects of this particular class was that Fiore allowed students to create art true to their own style, almost unheard of as often the professor’s work becomes prominent in student work when the class tries to copy it (usually to get a better grade.)
Though King began his career as an abstract painter, he soon realized he did not want to be a third-generation abstractionist. So, after seeing a beautiful show depicting children with Down’s Syndrome, he changed his aesthetic and began working with the figure. However, he has since returned to abstract work. King often explains his art by saying “from the abstract to the figure, from the figure to the abstract makes an edge of exquisite distance and distance gives us our sensations.”
After briefly introducing his life so that we as the audience could have a better understanding of his background and work, King put on the short film, Mirage, which pays homage to his 22-sectioned autobiographical book by the same name. The film – commissioned by the the Friends of Basil King and created by Nicole Peyrafitte and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte – integrates a voice-over reading of his book with images of his work and his life. Hearing his written work paired with his visual art gave an intimate glance into the artist’s brain.
For the remainder of the evening, King read another of his selected works, In the Field Where Daffodils Grow. The mixture of poem and prose, which he read in a pleasant, low tone, includes both personal anecdote and creative exploration between the relationships of those such as Marsden Hartley, Pound, H.D. and Williams, Giotto, Rembrandt, Nijinsky, Virginia Woolfe and her sister Vanessa Bell, and Emily Carr.
The most fascinating part about Basil King as an artist is his ability to tie visual language with the written word, since both are a kind of language, as he said. The painter discussed his need to paint, describing how the artistic action will completely take over, putting him into a state of complete focus on the work. Yet, the writer said that sometimes he will be painting and suddenly feels the need to write (and vice versa). However, the act of writing does not wholly take him over the way painting does. In contrast, he said that writing makes him more aware, more explicit about how he feels. As someone who is almost constantly working on his craft, he says he lets everything be very organic, going with the flow, so to speak, so that his work can be original and true to himself.