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North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green and award-winning ceramic artist Judith Ernst spoke about their collaborative art piece, Flowing Beneath the Center, at an opening reception on Oct. 9, 2019, in the Florence and James Peacock Atrium of the FedEx Global Education Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Flowing Beneath the Center is a ceramic piece with words inscribed onto its exterior. The installation was inspired by W.B. Yeats’ iconic poem “The Second Coming,” which marked its 100th anniversary this year. It will be on display through July 2020.

The reception and installation were coordinated by UNC Global and co-sponsored by the Center for European Studies, Global Relations, English and Comparative Literature and the Creative Writing program.

The evening began with an introduction by Katie Bowler Young, director of Global Relations at UNC-Chapel Hill. Young is also a poet and expressed her gratitude to the artists for their collaborative work. Young was followed by Terry Rhodes, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who examined Yeats’ poem and introduced Ernst and Green.

Ernst discussed how the project idea came to fruition. She had seen the poem line “Things fall apart / the center cannot hold” often quoted in opinion writing and frequently used as an expression of political and social instability.

“I thought, what if I could find a poet who could write directly to this? Something that would do the opposite, that would express for us and perhaps be emblematic of our community, what we want to be, how we hold together. And Jaki came to mind.”

Following Ernst, Green delivered a reading of her poem “Flowing Beneath the Center,” which was written in response to Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

Green also read other work that touched on themes regarding community, humanity, purpose and uplifting the voices of those who go unheard.

After remarks, Ernst and Green answered questions from the audience, allowing them to discuss their work in further detail.

Ernst described the intricate process of creating the vessel, a process that took well over a month to complete.

Green touched on how she chose which poems to read that evening, the type of poems she writes and why she writes them. For the poet laureate, instilling purpose into her poems is a key component to the writing process. Green values art in its beauty, but also its utility, or as she put it, the “everydayness” of art – facets that the vessel’s form embodies.

About the installation

Ernst and Green selected lines from Green’s poem to place onto the ceramic vessel, one of many steps in the construction process. Out of the 33 lines of poetry Green wrote, the two artists narrowed the poem down to 10 lines that spiral up to the top of the vessel:

The earth will wail
ceremony will collapse
the falcon will fly backwards
but the caladrius will fly inside smoke and shadow
allowing its wings to hold the center.

Cradles will rock
a new conviction inside this abyss
we the people will reclaim the center
we the people will set the center free.

A center that does not bend.

Ernst placed the final line at the top of the vessel to reinforce the significance of the inside of the vessel, a center itself that does not bend.

“The inside,” said Ernst, “is always a mystery because you don’t see it. The walls of vessels always go around and up to the opening at the top, implying that entering the vessel is entering into the mystery, the parts unseen.”

Green is also fascinated by vessels and the metaphors they carry, one reason why the pair were an ideal match for the project.

“I started thinking about how language could fit inside of a vessel and how language really is inside the metaphorical sense of a vessel,” says Green. “Our bodies, the earth itself, they are continually creating vessels that carry our language, which carry messages. So Judith’s rendition, creating this space for language, really resonated with me.”

By Rawan Abbasi ’21

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