WORDS Cat Acree
Changes come into our lives with little taglines attached: This too shall pass. Nothing gold can stay. So it goes, we say, acknowledging cycles that move at a pace that we’re unlikely to notice, be it too fast or too slow. Artist, curator, and poet Alysha Irisari Malo works within this cycle.
Malo’s current body of work is a marriage of poetry and photography—verse paired with macrophotographs that create a keen juxtaposition of abstraction and narrative. The process that led her to this current work was a fitting exercise in processing change. Before her son was born, Malo was painting, drawing, collaging, creating a “primordial soup” of textures that explored body parts and life cycles. “Instead of looking at the body from a distance, I started thinking about body parts and change, and how you could get injured and then heal,” Malo says. But when she and her husband, Eric, moved to Nashville from Chicago, she became pregnant, and suddenly her practice stopped. “I went through this kind of questioning period about what I was really doing—[whether] I was really an artist, because I wasn’t doing art.”
Her husband recommended photography. Looking back, it was a brilliant idea—a medium that would require less interiority than abstract paintings of the body. And it worked. During walks with her infant son, Malo would scan the ground for trash, compost, broken glass, candy being eaten by an ant. Then she’d lie down on the sidewalk and take pictures. “I’m sure my neighbors thought I was crazy. I’d be on the ground and my baby is in the carriage, and I’d sit there for twenty minutes . . . The neighborhood was kind of gritty —well, grittier, back then. So I was finding something every time I walked.”
And once the door was open, another creative outlet swept in: poetry. It was something Malo had always done privately, but now she found herself interested in sharing the intensely vulnerable interiority of verse. And though she knew she wanted to meld her photographs and text, it would take several more years before pieces began to fall into place.
“I had to get it to this fine balance,” she explains. “I don’t want the text to be a caption for the imagery, and I don’t want the imagery to be an illustration for the text. One piece that I think had really encapsulated what I was thinking about was The Dust Pulses, the triptych.” Glimmering, reflective imagery draws you in, and then becomes expansive when paired with a poem of transition, of dust coming to life and then dematerializing: “The dust pulses / gathering itself together, / shifting and shimmering, / finding its volatile forms / through the context of history . . .”
While The Dust Pulses incorporates an entire poem, most pieces feature excerpts. As Malo’s poems can be rather forthright, the act of choosing an excerpt dissolves that original narrative, allowing the words to be almost as abstract as the image behind it. In some pieces, the words can be difficult to read, and at a distance, the text sometimes disappears into the image altogether. “I want the image to be the first interaction that you have with the piece,” Malo says. “And then I want that text to be almost a subliminal message. I just want it to come out at you slowly, for you to read it and think, well, how does that deepen it? What layers does that add to it?”
With change acting as the force behind her work, it’s appropriate that Malo is also a co-founder (with Eric) of CONVERGE, a curated group of artists that collaborate on projects in the Wedgewood-Houston community, which, like many Nashville neighborhoods, is caught in an upswing of change. Malo, along with artists XPayne and Jana Harper, will participate in WeHome Day on April 14, an interactive artmaking day at Track One and a culmination of Erica Ciccarone’s WeHome project, a podcast about the Wedgewood-Houston and Chestnut Hill neighborhoods.
With photographs of the neighborhoods, excerpts from the podcasts, and original verse, as well as short stories and images submitted by community members, Malo plans to create digital prints that will be viewable on WeHome Day. She also will prepare a number of photographs and printed text on clear adhesive sheets, which attendees can use to create their own Malo-esque pieces, which will be bound in an artist book to be donated to a library.
“I’ve been doing community work through CONVERGE, but I’ve always been more in that director/producer role. So this would put me in the actor role,” she says. “I kind of feel like this is at the point where I was years ago, where I knew I wanted to put my text and my imagery together, and I needed to figure out how. . . . [My work] is more personal—it’s not outwardly focused to the community. It’s more introspective. So I think this is a way for me to try to experiment with bringing some community work directly into my art practice for the first time.”