Barbaria Maria sat beside her father in the hospice for the last weeks of his life, their voices dwindling with the daylight. Upon returning home one evening, she sat to relax to music, when she noticed a budding flower emerging from the old aloe plant that had grown large in the sunlight but had never produced a flower. She saw a connection: living and dying, coming and going.
“Soul Migration,” a multimedia exhibit, has been six years in the making, and it started with a photo of the flowering aloe plant, which Maria digitally combined with a photo of her father taken when he was in his 20s playing badminton, leaping into the sunshine. That image led to an installation of images, sounds and poems, which will be on display through May 27 at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.
“The reason I love to work [with digital collages] is that I am really fascinated by finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s not fantasy. It’s magic realism. It’s really how I see the world, and I’m expressing that point of view,” said Maria of Belfast.
Maria, better known for her poetry, is the author of two books, “Crossing Time” and “Palace Boulevard,” and a CD called “108 Names — Poems to the Divine” with music by Jeff Densmore.
But her collages are created through a process of shifting and combining images in a space to create symbolism and metaphor, much like the process of writing a poem.
Through the door of Waterfall Arts’ Clifford Gallery, large, white squares of cloth printed with beautiful, haunting images seem to float in midair as they hang from clear fishing line on bamboo poles. Poems, printed on long rolls of muslin, run down the walls, coinciding with each collage.
“For me, they’re all just merged,” Maria said. “Everything first comes to me visually — poetry comes to me visually also. They don’t come to me as words. I have to translate the vision into language.”
Starting with photographs of her family — her father, brother, mother and grandmother — she composed visual and verbal stories, fiction with an underlying thread of truth.
In the theme poem, printed on muslin, Maria wrote: “… We can’t imagine, how the story, we piece together, and pull on, will cover us, like a shade drawn, down on memory …”
As you travel through the exhibit, pausing at images and text, voices emerge from stereo speakers placed around the gallery. Maria always intends for her poems to be read aloud, so she asked five local actors — the youngest being a 7-year-old girl — to recite the words of “Soul Migration.” Then, Belfast’s Lincoln Clapp worked with the recordings to create an audio composition of voices and sound effects.
Close your eyes and hear the ocean wash wave-beaten shells on shore and pull away sun-baked crab shells, renewing the beach with the tide. Coming and going. Wolves howl, children laugh, bottles clink on a bar.
A universal theme ties together the seemingly unrelated stories and messages.
“Spirituality holds it all up,” Maria said. “We really are spirit. We’re flesh and bones and all those things too, but ultimately we’re all spirit. We just forget while wearing the stories of our lives.”
The freedom of a collage allows her to reveal everyday magic in symbols — lotuses raining on children in a dingy alley. The lotus — a plant that rises from the muck of a pond and surfaces as a beautiful blossom — is subtly repeated on her grandmother’s dress and in the ocean waves.
“For me, lotuses represent the blessings, the magic or angels in life, whatever you call it,” Maria said. “Whatever your life is, those lotuses are around.”
Originally from New York, Maria has lived in Belfast for the past 38 years and has led interactive high school theater groups, teen poetry workshops, and now leads creative writing groups for new and experienced writers.
“Soul Migration” is her first solo exhibit. For the show opening Friday, three local performers, Shana Bloomstein, Katenia Keller and Joan Proudman, danced throughout the bright gallery, in constant movement, just as Maria is while she writes.
When she lived in New York, Maria would ride the train and subway, without a pen, and let a poem build up inside her while listening to the sound of the machine rumbling over the tracks. In Belfast, she walks, letting the poem form to the rhythm of her steps, then rushes home to write as she paces back and forth.
“So many people really felt the personal sense of story and related [it] to their family,” said Maria about the opening, “but they also saw the bigger message.”
In the far corner of the gallery is a telephone on a pedestal, and beside it, a little black book where visitors have written messages to the family members they’ve lost. The telephone is a metaphor that Maria and her father imagined while sitting together in the hospice, talking about how their loving connection would transcend death.
“You’re in touch wherever you are, if you want,” she said. “The distance is not so great.”
A free gallery talk is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 17, and Maria will lead a creative writing workshop, “Writing Immersion,” 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, May 21. The group will focus on poetry, prose and story using writing prompts, reading aloud, discussion, memory and the senses, writing from pictures. All levels of experience are welcome. Space is limited and the cost of the workshop is $85.