Painting With Words: A Comparison of Authors to Artists

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The following won second place in the Humanities/Literature division of the Walter Spara Writing Contest sponsored by the Department of English and Communications in the spring semester, 2012. 

Carla Courtney  



If a picture paints a thousand words, then it can also be said that a thousand words paint a picture. An important aspect of story-telling is the establishment of setting to create the mood or feeling of the story. This process is the equivalent of painting a picture. The writer uses his or her descriptions to help the reader visualize the setting. Three early twentieth-century American authors paint different backgrounds in their stories because of their very different styles of writing. Eudora Welty’s “A Memory” conjures visions of impressionistic art such as the work of Monet, while Zora Neale Hurston’s background for “The Yellow Mule” can be compared to the drawings of Lois Lenski. Finally, the play True West by Sam Shepard paints a scene as equally horrific as any painting by Heironymous Bosch.

Welty’s narrator in her short story, “A Memory,” translates her impressions of reality to describe the setting. As a blossoming artist, the storyteller views her world in terms of color. She paints a picture with words that is a dream-like, muted, and watery pastel similar to the painting style of Claude Monet. The lakeside beach description makes is easy for the reader to recognize her artistic slant and imagine the tranquility of the setting:

“The sun beat down-it was almost noon. The water shone like steel,

motionless except for the feathery curl behind a distant swimmer…

and around it all a border of dark rounded oak trees, like the engraved

thunderclouds surrounding illustrations in the Bible” (1536).

The narrator’s painting is temporarily blemished by the intrusion of a grotesque family of bathers, much as if a splotch of dirty brown paint had fallen on the story’s canvas. When the bathers finally leave, the offending spot is varnished away, returning the narrator’s world to its   peaceful beauty.

Completely different in style from Welty is Zora Neale Hurston. Although the title of “The Yellow Mule” by Hurston indicates color, this yellow is a dirty, muddy yellow. The reader knows the town is rural and poor and can sense the presence of dirt roads and weather faded wooden structures. The men in the story are uneducated African-American farmers, characters which Hurston leaves flat and undeveloped in shades of black, white, and gray like a roll of undeveloped film. Lois Lenski, an author and illustrator of children’s books, depicts similar scenes in her drawings of dirt-poor communities. Using pencil or ink, her works are graphic displays of the poverty endured by whites, people of color, and migrant workers in early twentieth-century America. The art is simple and somewhat crude with bold strokes and shading. Similarly, Hurston’s townspeople are crude, simple people. This is shown by the mens’ treatment of Matt Bonner’s mule, “Five or six more men left the porch and surrounded the fractious beast, goosing him in the sides and making him show his temper” (1232). Finally, at the death of the mule, the townspeople once again display their callousness, “After more shouting of advice and orders and useless comments, the town escorted the carcass off,” and “Out in the swamp they made great ceremony over the mule. They mocked everything human in death” (1234). Similar to many of Lenski’s drawings, this scene of activity is devised for entertainment by a people who have little or no resources.

Sam Shepard’s writing is as different as possible in style to either Hurston’s or Welty’s. His play, True West, includes a bizarre transformation of characters, and the setting exhibits a surreal, chaotic picture comparable to the paintings by Heironymous Bosch. In the beginning of the play, the kitchen setting of Lee and Austin’s mother’s home is immaculate.  Shepard’s directions for the first act describe a peaceful evening: “…Candlelight appears in alcove, illuminating Austin, seated at a glass table. . . Soft moonlight fills kitchen illuminating Lee” (1704; act 1). However, along with the downfall of Austin and complete role reversal of the two brothers comes the deterioration of that setting for the eighth scene:

“Very early morning, between night and day. . . a small fire blazes. . . in…alcove area. . . Lee smashing typewriter with a golf club. . . dropping pages into a burning bowl set on the floor of alcove, flames leap up, Austin has a whole bunch of stolen toasters lined up. . . along with Lee’s stolen T.V.. . both men are drunk, empty whiskey bottles and beer cans litter floor of kitchen. . . all of their mother’s houseplants are dead and drooping” (1739; scene 8).

The macabre transformation is complete in the play’s final scene:

“Mid-day. . . blazing heat. . . the stage is ravaged; bottles, toasters, smashed typewriter, ripped out telephone. . . all the debris. . . is now starkly visible in intense yellow light. . . Austin. . . shirt open, pouring with sweat. . . Lee with no shirt, beer in hand, sweat pouring down his chest” (1734; scene 9).

Shepard’s tale of the moral degradation and de-civilization of man and his descriptive scene setting paint the picture of Hell, and in a final conflict, Austin comes close to killing his brother. With a final stroke of his pen, Shepard injects even more madness into the play by having the mother return home early in hopes of meeting Picasso, whom is deceased, though she persists in her delusion that he is alive. The transformation of kitchen and characters is Shepard’s equivalent to the chaotic and surreal hellish scenes and grotesque man-beast creatures of Bosch’s artwork. The color of the play mutates scene-by-scene with the change from the soft white moonlight and yellow candle-glow, to the black night with a bowl of bright orange fire, to the blazing yellow of heat-not a pretty sunshiny yellow, but a searing, bright, hot white-yellow. Evil has triumphed, warping reality and changing personalities-the men have become animals while their mother is suffering from a madness of her own.

Each of these authors has painted the canvas of their story with a style as distinct from each other as the artists to which they have been compared; and, each of these works paints a picture as solid as any hanging in a gallery. Hurston’s is a sketch in shades of gray – not    colorless, for there are many shades in that spectrum – but the grays of poverty. It portrays a simple but very harsh reality. Welty’s story is a soft and rather fuzzy, dream-like product of pastel blues, greens, and yellows based on a young girl’s memories, while Shepard’s play is a    nightmare of madness. His work is the most vivid of the three authors, with bright colors and stark contrasts representing anger, chaos, and insanity. It is not a pretty picture or very comfortable to view; however, it is a fascinating one to contemplate. Through their artful use of language, these writers have proven that words can paint a picture.

 Works Cited

 Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Yellow Mule.” The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1229-1235. Print.

Shepard, Sam. True West. The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George      Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1703-1740. Print.

Welty, Eudora. “A Memory.” The American Tradition in Literature. Ed. George Perkins and Barbara Perkins. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. 1536-1540. Print.