top of page

Nicolette Reim

Between Painter and Poet, Words Lost and Found

A Dialogue with Nicolette Reim

with Amy Gordon 


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2021, Print Medium, 10 x 8 inches

Nicolette Reim immigrated from England to the United States, leaving one culture for another. She experienced a sense of belonging in the presence of so much dislocation from time spent in New York City, where many of her artistic influences and experiences evolved. Reim attended The New York Studio School known for teaching modernist ideas of painting and drawing. Through literature and participation in Drew University's graduate poetry program, she was drawn to works of 20th century lyrical poets, such as Frank O'Hara, who found inspiration in day-to-day life, particularly in the city, also her subject matter. She is attached to poetry and painting more than to art per se because of the distinctiveness of their forms, the freedom of how and when to engage with them, and an ongoing, rich human connection to histories that began with cave drawings and words used initially as mnemonic rhyming aids.


In a recent exhibition, Loss of Words, Nicolette Reim displayed eight panels, approximately the size of a sheet of paper, with transparent blue stencils of alphabet letters/symbols placed on top of intense colors. Eight other works were painted and rearranged on board, 36 x 24 inches and 24 x 26 inches. This body of work is both a respite from, and a companion to, poetics. Removing the symbols of writing from their usual orderliness, she investigates the effect of placing them within the different context offered by visual art.


Collaged and corralled within distinctly defined black borders, block letters of different sizes fall vertically, progress horizontally, or slide diagonally within the rectangle. As a result of Reim’s use of vibrant color and variation of line, the eye registers movement. The letters shimmer like molecules responding to heat or resound like voices in a room filled with people, or resonate, the way one sometimes experiences one’s own thoughts. Different colors as well as variations in size suggest a multitude of voices, some louder than others. The directional variability of the letters also suggests the variability of written language: Western languages move across the page from left to right; Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Persian and others from right to left; Chinese, Japanese, Korean from top to bottom.


While visually arresting, the letters, shorn of adornment—no fancy fonts or flourishes—cannot rest as objects merely to be looked at; letters, after all, are the building blocks of words. The brain yearns to make meaning. One of the paintings gives us AJE. Is this a play on AGE? Do the torn or blacked-out letters represent our own lapses? The exhibition’s title, Loss of Words, haunts. Reim’s use of letters is not provocative like graffiti. They are not manipulative, like advertisements, nor do they carry overt political statements; nevertheless, the work leads one to reflect, which, in fact, requires words.

Amy Gordon

Gill, Massachusetts

Summer 2024


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 24 x 18 inches

Nicolette Reim: Amy, I'm so glad to have this discussion, particularly with you, sharing common ground as poets and dwellers in the realm of visual art. In this exchange, we're exploring connections between the making of poems and visual art—the sister arts. My recent exhibition presented alphabet letters in an abstract manner. Your current work is stirred by the art created by Mexican painter Remedios Varo. You move art into a literary mode and I put the literary into the visual. I recently discovered this quotation from the Spanish painter Joan Miró: "the painting arises from the brushstrokes as a poem arises from the words. . . ." The two mediums have different ways of arriving at the end of their endeavors, but share the making of order.


Amy Gordon: I love the idea of brushstrokes as words, or words as brushstrokes. Which did you begin with, or were they born simultaneously?


NR: I started as an art major in college and studied further at The New York Studio School. I already was attracted to the mysterious power of art works to evoke emotions and through literature experienced how poetry also connects emotionally. For me, this space that art and poetry can slip into between human beings is the glue that holds us together and demonstrates the importance of contact and community. Facts, theories, and labeling throughout philosophy, psychology and science that change so often pale in comparison to the ever-present human need to touch and be touched by others. I was very attracted to the concrete poets. The classic example of a concrete poem, (one of the first), "silencio" (silence) by Bolivian/German poet Eugen Gomringer in 1953, stunned me with its combination of language and visual shape. Initially referencing South American revolutionary struggles, the three word "silencio," in five-line stanzas - one "silencio" absent in the middle, was startling enough just as a means of describing "silence."


AG: And in your work—the gaps, or the blacked-out letters accomplish a similar silence—suggestive of lapses of memory, or as your exhibition is entitled, Loss of Words. This leads me to reflect on aging and on the effect of texting on how we communicate—auto-correct is constantly subverting meaning. Ironically, we communicate with fewer words, and yet cyber-space is filling up with more and more words. As readers, I think many of us now have a hard time tolerating the complex constructions of 19th century writers.


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 36 x 24 inches


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 36 x 24 inches

NR: Because reading is such a huge influence in my life, the hours spent keep me in intimate relationships with words and letters. Thinking of the familiarity we have with the history of language’s evolution and the reasons for its changes, it is strange that today many of the new words the Oxford English Dictionary adds each year come from emerging technologies. It can be difficult to absorb exactly what they are and what they do. Recently, a Columbia University associate professor in linguistics in an editorial in The New York Times, proposed doing away with apostrophes. The emphasis on speed instead of nuance and reflection is quite worrisome. However, I’m impressed by how single letters can evolve into visual signs representing complex stories, and how single letters can carry much information. I’m thinking of V for victory or U-Turn, and X or Z, as descriptive stand-ins. One develops a protective attitude, knowing without these symbols and their flexibility, we would be at best lessened or, at worst, totally lost.


AG: I can relate to that fondness for letters—I have my favorites—lower-case f, for instance, especially when I hand-write it, has these elegant curves. I went to a school where my messy handwriting was drilled out of me by remedial penmanship sessions—gradually I developed my own style, a sort of hybrid of printing and calligraphy. Now, I take great pleasure in writing with just the right pen or pencil. I’ll make a leap here: your artwork could be seen as a commentary on how few people write by hand anymore—we all express ourselves now in the same, homogenized block letters.


NR: I have worked with letters drawn freehand, but stencils also have a beauty of their own. It was a shock to learn script is no longer taught in elementary schools. I think of the pride my mother’s generation took in their handwriting. Contemporary visual artists personalize a word, or a few, from possibilities that evolve, not shrink—repetition, size, color, shape and/or direction—and say, this is a painting, not a piece of writing. A large, white alphabet painted in latex directly on the wall of the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, NC by Kay Rosen cuts off when it reaches "HI," which is painted in yellow. Mel Bochner's "Blah, Blah, Blah" series adds endless painterly traits to accent emotional tones of humor and facetiousness. The complete messiness of oil stick by Glenn Ligon, in his "I Am a Man" series, gives black and white another dimension. Likewise, poetry turns to its own resources, such as echolalia and anaphora, and the spacing on the page.


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2021, Print Medium, 14 x 11 inches

AG: That is fascinating, and I’d like to say here that I also have always been a reader. I have always loved stories—Greek myths, the Arabian Tales, Kipling’s Jungle Book and his Just-So Stories—all these were stepping stones to longer works and eventually novels, and were early influences on my imagination. I am drawn to Remedios Varo’s paintings because they incorporate dream-like elements of myth and employ cultural references like Renaissance angels and castles, yet mange to remain grounded; literally so in some cases where she incorporated leaves and organic matter into the paint. Some of her figures have wings, but they are engineered correctly for flight. In any case, I have no trouble at all projecting a narrative onto her paintings which often feature a female character.


NR: The poems you have been writing are ekphrastic, traditionally meaning, written descriptions of a work of visual art.


AG: Yes, and I am among many to be inspired by these paintings. A quick search on the Internet reveals any number of poems based on Varo’s images. Naomi Ruth Lowinski, a Jungian therapist and award-winning poet, calls Varo “her sister in the imaginal realm.” But in the process of writing the poems, I am gradually shifting away from the descriptive and narrative to the more personal and lyrical.


NR: A work of art can be an inspiration for a poem not necessarily having anything to do with the art itself, similar to my taking letters used for words and putting them in another context.


AG: That’s right. It may spark something as intangible as mood. Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth both evoke loneliness, but in very different ways.


NR: My poems tend to be based on everyday occurrences that are likely to be overlooked (they could be compared to the letters in alphabets), but can be metaphoric for more universal issues (letters grouped into words). It took a while but realizing the search I use to make a poem is the same process I encounter making visual work helps me go back and forth. Because painting hints its messages non-verbally, often the more one tries to "explain" a painting, the more significance fades. Poetry offers written/oral avenues to the same hints, although not through prosy directness. René Magritte wrote (he apparently didn't like being considered a surrealist), "people who look for symbolic meanings in visual art fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the image.” I assume he meant one should resist the easy nailing down of a "meaning."


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 24 x 18 inches


Nicolette Reim, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 24 x 18 inches

AG: For me, the visual arts, and this includes dance, can be a relief from words and the attempt to formulate meaning. Sometimes I just want to bask in non-words.


NR: I agree. Finding poetic order can be extremely laborious, involving much rewriting and attention to the smallest details. It's a break for me to use the alphabet in a different way, a kind of homage and act of appreciation to what helps (and/or hinders) inevitable struggles to communicate. Both mediums ultimately are about making order and switching from one kind to another can be very liberating for both.


AG: The purely visual can bring me closer to a sense of true meaning. I am always tempted to create stories out of what I see, but sometimes that impulse is tiring, and I want simply to absorb the “mystery and poetry” of things and not try to formulate meaning. I have also experienced how drawing and sketching focuses the mind. It teaches you to “know” an object; the parallel is, and I think Joan Didion said this, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” 


NR: The list of poets who also painted is so long: Goethe, Baudelaire, the Brontës, Tagore, Lorca, E. E. Cummings. Those successful at both included Cocteau and Kokoschka, while others, like Blake, worked in word and image combined. Having artistic families helped—Yeats's brother and father were both painters. Elizabeth Bishop often remarked that she wished she had been a painter. She downplayed her small, mostly 8" x 10" tightly constructed works in watercolor and gouache that recorded her travels. Bishop’s paintings grace the covers of three of her collections; she stated, "The way to judge a poem is to see if the world looks like that poem for twenty-four hours . . . and the same goes for painting." Marianne Moore turned to writing as a more reliable means of income than painting (which says a lot about current struggles of the book publication industry). For those who didn't have money worries, it helped to be close to movements that encouraged the duality—the New York School, the Bloomsbury Group, Paris during its various art movements where, as Ezra Pound put it, one could imagine an "aesthetic which carries you through all the arts." Sylvia Plath enrolled at Smith to study art but switched to English at the urging of professors. Though she continued to draw, her art was never recognized during her lifetime, but given a retrospective by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2017. Bob Dylan, a huge artistic impact on my generation, and me, currently has exhibitions of his artwork worldwide, including in New York City. He started as a poet but always dabbled in art. At times Dylan would hand-pen liner notes and illustrate them with drawings. He did the cover art for the Band's 1968 debut album, Music from Big Pink, as well as the self-portrait for the cover for his album Self-Portrait (1970). Dylan recombines everything, no matter the medium. He continues his hand-written lyrics, embellished with pencil drawings. In 1971 he recorded "When I Paint my Masterpiece."

AG: You use humor and irony in your work. You have a series with three letters in alphabetical order, but with the order slightly subverted. It is playful, as in M! followed by NO.


NR: I've been influenced by the many artists working with the alphabet. American R. Prost is interested in the contexts in which language is found. He makes "literary objects"—small constructions in wood that incorporate words to become a new entity. The Argentinian Alejandro Thornton is rooted in the origin of language and the achievement of word and image brought together throughout history. In much of his drawings and paintings, A, as the origin of the alphabet, is spread throughout the canvas, using simple and playful curvilinear brushstrokes. The Canadian Hart Broudy creates language in space—in flux, fragmented––alphabetic forms freed from contextual "pollution," and he explores the tensions that arise between and within form and structure. His solitary language letters keep their identity well in the large amount of space in which he places them. His images are momentary stills of moving things. Elin Mack of Norway works with found topography and letter forms she rearranges through collage and decoupage. The American Andrew Topel perceives letters as abstractions, seeing all art as abstraction of the truth. He states his letters of the alphabet call to be released from old formats, to be appreciated for the forms they are. I feel these tugs, also, when engaging with the alphabet.


AG: William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, were certainly influenced in their poetics by innovations introduced by Matisse and Picasso. As Bram Dijkstra says in his 1978 book Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams, “In Williams’ poetry the use of multiple perspectives works towards making the object of a poem ‘instantaneously perceptible.’”


Nicolette Reim, Untitled, 2023, Acrylic on Board, 36 x 24 inches

NR: Picasso captivates me, as a painter, but also as a poet. He started out a poet, arriving in Paris and immediately meeting and associating with modernist writers, including Apollinaire. His first patron, Gertrude Stein, praised his art, but was quite dubious about the poetics.


AG: I did not know that about Picasso.


NR: He hid his writings in little notebooks. Some of his first explorations involved colored blobs to represent objects, which he abandoned and turned to words. I identify with that—no matter how seductive painting’s attributes are, the power of words is inherent. They can share a platform, but have no substitutes. Picasso's early poems have strong visual images and dashes of differing lengths to break the text. He gave up punctuation altogether, thinking it "hid the private parts of literature." André Breton, writing about Picasso's poetry, exclaimed, "Whole pages appear in bright variegated hues like a parrot's feathers." I find it so intriguing Picasso wanted to make poems with the sound of the words, not as a means of expression, but to let them speak for themselves as he does with color. He also described preparing a palette of words, wanting to treat them as colors.


AG: Vladimir Nabokov had grapheme-color synesthesia, which is when people see specific letters in specific colors. He said “V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it's called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color.” Nabokov “heard” different colors in different languages: “The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French ‘a’ evokes polished ebony.”


NR: Kandinsky apparently spoke about certain colors evoking specific sounds (to great skepticism). The crossover of the senses in writing is traditionally considered part of making it richer, but I've read that now a clinical basis for actual synesthesia is seriously being studied and thought to be quite relevant for artistic types. Elisabeth Bishop's poems are laced with color.


Since I am a grandchild of Abstract Expressionism, my color choices can be somewhat random. I put them together and begin a process to see how they could work––if they stir emotionally. I begin a poem in the same manner, benefitting from automatic writing and free association. I'm not attracted to conceptional art—believing I need something outside of my known boundaries to be surprised and deepened at the end.


AG: And as I have said, although I am always tempted into story-making, for me the joy of making poems versus prose is exactly that—the lightning-quick brush stroke, the unexpected dab of color, that lead us into finding meaning we never expected to find.


Nicolette Reim studied art at The New York Studio School. Her visual work includes video-film, art direction and set design. She holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Drew University and pursues art and writing through painting, collage, artist books, poetry, poetry in translation and freelance writing. She exhibits at NohoM55 gallery, NYC, recent publications include the anthologies Border Lines, Poems of Migration, and Rumors, Secrets and Lies, Poems About Pregnancy, Abortion & Choice. She lives and works in NYC and Atlanta, Georgia.

Nicolette Reim

AAG-photo2021 (5).jpeg

Amy Gordon’s poems have appeared in The Amsterdam Review, The Massachusetts Review, Pomegranate London, Slant Poetry Journal among others. She has published two chapbooks, Deep Fahrenheit (Prolific Press) and The Yellow Room (Finishing Line Press) and a third, winner of the Elyse Wolf chapbook prize for Slate Roof Press, is forthcoming. Five of Gordon's poems inspired by the paintings of Remedios Varo will be presented in The Ekphrastic Review. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

Amy Gordon

bottom of page