Artist collaborates with poet Ruth Awad for a new series of paintings

In conversation with artist Mandi Caskey and poet Ruth Awad inside 934 Gallery, it's clear that Awad is appreciative, even enthusiastic, about the work Caskey has made in response to and inspired by poems in Awad's debut (and 2018 Ohioana Book Award-winning) collection, Set to Music a Wildfire.

“It is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for my work. I don't know how else to take it. It's such a huge compliment that my work had anything to do with this, that Mandi has thought it through to such a degree she brought it to physical form, built a relic to it. I feel very lucky,” the poet said.

Or, in perhaps less-poetic fashion, Awad's reaction upon seeing the in-progress installation of Caskey's “Habibi, he'll say, You Have a Home,” which features a literal thousand flies, was, “That's fucking spectacular.”

The two women met about a year ago at a networking function. Upon introducing themselves, Caskey recalls reacting, “Oh my god, you're the poet!” A not-surprising conversation about art followed, and Awad said they discovered they were “kindred spirits.” “We don't like bullshit,” Awad said, “and we both approach art in an unflinching fashion.”

The conversation ended with an unspecific agreement to maybe do something together in the future, the timetable for which Caskey accelerated after spending some more time with Set to Music, a collection of poems concerning Awad's father's experience as a young boy living through civil war in Lebanon and his subsequent call to leave his home and immigrate to the United States.

The decision to use Awad's work as inspiration left Caskey with a unique dual responsibility: First, to the poet, with whom she doesn't, clearly, share the deeply personal aspects of the story; and second, to her practice, which has largely consisted of mural work. This is Caskey's first solo gallery show.

“Her words are so very visual. There were images that kept recurring, things that resonated with me. It was easy to ‘see' her words, and I wanted other people to ‘see' them, too,” Caskey said. “When I went through the poems the first few times, I was looking for the visual, and as I went back through I was looking to find the essence, ideas of what I can do to create a piece that reflects the poem and how I feel when I read it.”

The aforementioned thousand flies, poppies, a sparrow and a dead horse are among the images Caskey has painted — imagery from Awad's lush, tragic reflections on war, death and an uncertain future. Each piece will be accompanied by the text of the poem that inspired it, and Awad will read from her work during the opening reception at 934 Gallery on Friday, Oct. 5.

“I feel like we both put a lot of ourselves into our work, and, knowing that about Ruth, I knew I wanted to surround the words rather than be literal, to be a part of the poetry, [to have] the images live between the lines instead of being super heavy, not wanting to stomp on the words. I didn't have to elevate the words, just kind of have the art exist in between them. It was hard but fun to try and figure out that dance,” Caskey said.

“Mandi is such a sensitive and thoughtful artist; I didn't feel uncertain for a moment,” Awad said.

“The images are not restrictive or exclusive. We are showing them with the poems so people will be able to maybe see what was in my mind when I was reading them,” Caskey said. “But they'll also be able to come to their own conclusions about both the poetry and the art.”