Bondo Wyszpolski

Woman Ascending

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A local poet and photographer celebrate the eternal feminine

All art photography by Paul Blieden

There are certain pictures that we chance upon that linger in our memory, and for Manhattan Beach photographer Paul Blieden there was one in particular that would eventually lead him to create a book, in collaboration with poet Madeline Sharples, called The Emerging Goddess.

“I was doing images for a yoga book,” Blieden explains, the two of us sitting, with Sharples, at his dining room table. “I remembered an image that I had seen of a flamenco dancer, but it had this shadow all around her. While I was doing the yoga images I asked the model if she would participate in a test.

“I set up lighting and had her move, and I went, Ah! I can do this.

“When I saw the first image on my computer,” Blieden says, he felt goose bumps on his arms. “It’s like something coming out of this body, and I came up with the idea of the emerging goddess, the idea that there is something within women. Men don’t have this.”

If every woman is a goddess, isn’t every man a god?

“I don’t think men have the same emotional feel,” he replies. “Not that I can see.”

“They’re from Mars,” Sharples says with a smile.

“Then I did another model for the yoga book,” Blieden says, “and I asked her to do some of this type of movement-imagery.” After that, armed with two sets of pictures, he invited Sharples out for lunch. He showed her the pictures and said: Could you write poems?

She didn’t immediately jump up and down, but she was interested.

“Well, I first came up with a plan,” Sharples says. “I worked in aerospace for a long time doing reports and proposals, so I was trained to always have a plan. I wrote some bullet points for Paul to look at, to see if I had the same vision that he had. Then we sort of converged and talked about it and made some changes and we came up with a plan for what the writing was going to look like.”

In the meantime, says Blieden, “I started looking for other models. Six women posed for the book.” Blieden knew some of them; two others he found on a networking website. Mostly they were in their 30s, but what’s notable is the physical range: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, thin and heavyset (how come no one’s ever lightset?). “I was looking for diversity in the book to portray what I was trying to say, that all women are goddesses.”

“And that was the point,” Sharples says, “that all women were goddesses. That’s why there’s such diversity in the poems as well, because they have to fit the different goddess images.”

Poetry in (e)motion

As Sharples notes at the beginning of the book: “We are all the emerging goddess./ We walk the earth/ flow from the sea/ radiate the sun’s brilliance./ We are everywhere.”

Blieden continues. “So Madeline would write some poems and then I would read [them] and she would go, Is this what you’re looking for? And we had this back and forth dialogue, and then all of a sudden we had a body of work. That’s really how it happened.”

“One thing I want to tell you,” Sharples says, “it was a very good project for me because I was writing a lot of very sad poems after the death of my son.” Her eldest son committed suicide in 1999. “And so when Paul asked me [to write poems for The Emerging Goddess], it was like, Great – I have another subject to write about; and I really got into it because I needed that diversity and it was very helpful.”

“Your son, Ben, even said that the project really moved you,” Blieden reminds her. Ben is Sharples’ other child.

“Right,” she replies. “Moved my poetry to a different level. So now I write about a lot of things, [but] that was the first project that I had to jump on from the sad stuff.”

Among her other writing is a memoir called Leaving the Hall Light On, which is to be published on Mother’s Day, 2011, by Lucky Press.

Referring to the project with Paul Blieden: Did you write your poems for specific pictures?

“Some I did and some I didn’t,” Sharples says. “I first decided to learn a little about goddesses so I did some research and I wrote some poems that were just about goddess information in general. Then I did a lot of the shorter ones to the specific pictures.”

Madeline Sharples and Paul Blieden. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Most of her research, Sharples says, was done online and did not include The White Goddess, by Robert Graves, which is a thorough if at times idiosyncratic compendium on the subject.

“When Paul asked me to [contribute poetry] I was about to leave on a trip, and I wrote a lot of those poems while I was on a ship sailing across the Atlantic. And so the sea was a big inspiration.”

Were there certain pictures that you had difficulty responding to?

“The way I write poems is so fast,” Sharples replies; “I don’t remember having any difficulty.”

Her work in the book often takes the form of snippets or snapshots, often quietly evoking inner strength and self-empowerment for women in a patriarchal society that seems to be running our planet into the ground: “Let her vision be your guide./ Emerge from the earth/ strong in body./ Open your senses to/ all of nature’s creatures./ Enjoy the fruits of the earth,/ take a bite of the pomegranate.”

It sometimes feels as if Sharples was writing many of these poems to encourage herself, as well as others.

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The aesthetic angle

Did the pictures you took for the yoga series differ substantially from those in The Emerging Goddess?

“Yes,” Blieden replies. “They’re straight yoga pictures, very sharp, clear, yoga poses. The first model that I worked with on that project, she’s in the book. So it was just a change in style. To do this, I turned out all the lights and had one incandescent 65-watt light bulb. These were 12-second open shutter. The model’s in one position for about six or seven seconds, and then moves to the other position, giving that ghostly appearance. No Photoshop, just one movement.”

The pictures were shot upstairs in Blieden’s studio with what seems like a motley gray-brown painter’s tarp for a backdrop.

Had you considered taking any of these pictures in another environment? Because some of the poems talk about the sky and the clouds…

“I’ve taken nude images in different locations outside, but not for the book. I felt that I wanted everything to be consistent to get a flow, so each image would not take you someplace else. You’d be concentrating on the image itself. Same background, same studio setting; that’s what I was trying to do.”

Had you considered leaving some models dressed? What made you decide to have them all nude?

“You like nudes,” Sharples says with a laugh.

“Well, I like nudes, yes,” Blieden says. “I’ve done a whole series of nude photography, and it didn’t dawn on me to have clothed images here.”

Did you let them select the poses, or did you tell them what you wanted?

“I would give them a general idea of what I was looking for,” Blieden explains, “and I would say, What do you feel about this? What is it you want to emote? And then they would take off.

“Some of the poses in here, I had no idea what they were going to come up with. So it was more of a get-them-going, get-them-in-the-feel-of-this: What would you do if you were going to show your goddess? That type of thing. So a lot of it came from the models themselves. There were a couple of models that I had to give more direction to. It’s like a dance. The gal who did the cover really got into this and she said, This is what I want to do; and I said, Well, go, go.”

“Didn’t this cover win an award?” Sharples says.

“Yes. Thank you very much,” Blieden says with a big smile, and he shows us the certificate. “It was the International Color Awards, last year. I was nominated in the nude category for that image.”

“Did you have a model for this [project] that didn’t work?” Sharples inquires.

“Oh yeah; there were several that I did not use for the book.”

Was that because there wasn’t that connection?

“I didn’t find a connection,” Blieden replies; “I didn’t see the person demonstrating what I want. I can’t tell someone, This is the pose that I want you in. It didn’t work that way.”

Were there a lot of images that you didn’t use?

“Oh, yes. I would do, with each sitting, at least 75 images. On my computer I would have all the images and then select what had the best feel for me.”

Did you have anyone help you?

“No, I did it all by myself.”

Is there a specific sequencing that you chose?

“Not actually,” Blieden says. “I don’t think there’s a theme going through the book.”

“And even the way the poems are put in,” Sharples says, “you just decided, right? Paul was the editor.”

“I arranged everything, and put it together,” Blieden says. “It was an interesting process.”

It took about a year to complete the photography, and about the same amount of time for Sharples to write the poetry. After that, Blieden worked an additional nine months or so on the book, which was shopped around to various publishers, but without success. Then the decision was made to self-publish, and subsequently Blieden has sold copies at various art fairs, such as the ones sponsored by the Palos Verdes Art Center and held, one weekend a month through the warmer months, at Malaga Cove.

Perhaps the summation of Madeline Sharples and Paul Blieden’s success, thus far, occurred at one of the latter events. Blieden explains:

“A woman came with her husband and was looking at my artwork. I described the book and she picked it up, and started reading.”

Then something happened, something astonishing:

“She started reading the poems and tears came out of her eyes. I just stood back and went, Wow!

“I had seen and heard comments about my work; people say, Oh, I really love your work; It really makes me feel this. Whatever. But I had never seen, in front of me, something that I had done – it really took this woman to a different level. She had tears running down her cheeks.”

“You sent me an e-mail immediately,” Sharples reminds him.

“Yeah. From the show. I said this woman bought my book and a print. She walked off, and that’s when I called. I’m going, Madeline, this is pretty powerful, because it’s your words and my images. That was amazing. It blew me away.”

The Emerging Goddess is dedicated to all women because, as the book says, all women are beautiful. The photographs, reminiscent of the soft-focus of early 20th century Pictorialism, with the glaze and tonalist hues of French painter Eugéne Carriere, evoke a graceful life-force. We see the moment, and then the moment after – woman ascending in all her glory.

Paul Blieden and Madeline Sharples will sign and read from their book at Pages Bookstore, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21. Call (310) 318-0900. Blieden is also scheduled to have a one-man show of his photography next June and July at Cannery Row in Redondo Beach. Presently, copies of the book (at $65 each, plus tax and shipping) can be acquired by calling (310) 418-3471 or by going to theemerginggoddess.com. ER

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