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‘Big Paper Beatnik’: Inside the creative process of a world-class poet

A+sign+for+the+Big+Paper+Beatnik+Poems+exhibit+by+Juan+Felipe+Herrera+at+Arizonas+Poetry+Center+on+March+20.+Herrera+was+born+to+Mexican+immigrants+and+as+a+US+Poet+Laureate+emeritus%2C+his+impactful+work+largely+surrounds+border+issues.+%26nbsp%3B
Olivia Malone

A sign for the “Big Paper Beatnik Poems” exhibit by Juan Felipe Herrera at Arizona’s Poetry Center on March 20. Herrera was born to Mexican immigrants and as a US Poet Laureate emeritus, his impactful work largely surrounds border issues.  

From January 24 to March 25, the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery in the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center hosted “Big Paper Beatnik Poems // Inside, Outside, In the Middle, Jazz Be Jazz Be,” an exhibit featuring the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino U.S. Poet Laureate emeritus.

“[Herrera] is somebody who does a lot of drawing, journaling and [has] a lot of different ways of getting his ideas flowing. [The exhibit] is a sampling of his visual work and other processes […] from about the last 10 years,” Julie Swarstad Johnson, Archivist & Outreach Librarian for the UA Poetry Center, said.

According to Johnson, the collection was loaned to the center shortly before Herrera himself spoke there in February.

“How can you not say yes to amazing visual work from a former U.S. Poet Laureate?” Johnson said. “It’s been great to work with this material. It’s really visually interesting. There’s a lot of different types of pieces. There are works on paper, there are notebooks, there are drawings in marker, there are drawings in ink, there are things on cardboard boxes and all kinds of different materials. It was also really fun [to show] this wide range of items in our space.”

The pieces in the exhibit include anything from artwork that covers an entire wall to a poem scribbled on a leftover Starbucks pastry bag. They offer lighthearted remarks on just about anything as well as serious reflections on global issues such as the border crisis and the war in Ukraine. 

A piece in the "Big Paper Beatnik Poetry" exhibit by Juan Felipe Herrera at the University of Arizona's Poetry Center on March 20. Herrera uses a vast variety of mediums for his art, which results in unique expressions of his work. 
A piece in the “Big Paper Beatnik Poetry” exhibit by Juan Felipe Herrera at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center on March 20. Herrera uses a vast variety of mediums for his art, which results in unique expressions of his work. 

Johnson thinks the purposefully chaotic and patchwork nature of the exhibit is an especially pertinent message for the university audience. 

“Being a student, a lot of times you’re just like, ‘I need to finish this assignment,’ but this exhibit really speaks to the way that creating art or creating most things in life is a process. There’s a lot of thinking and experimenting that goes into the final product […] I hope that [people visiting the exhibit] feel inspired again about being kind of messy in their thinking. Looking at this artwork really inspires you to be freer with your thinking and let yourself play and create ideas,” Johnson said.

The "Big Paper Beatnik Poems" exhibit by Juan Felipe Herrera at the University of Arizona's Poetry Center on March 20. Herrera touches on border-related topics and is known for his use of unique mediums in the exhibit that ran from January 24 to March 25. 
The “Big Paper Beatnik Poems” exhibit by Juan Felipe Herrera at the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center on March 20. Herrera touches on border-related topics and is known for his use of unique mediums in the exhibit that ran from January 24 to March 25. 

For those who did not get a chance to visit Herrera’s work in person, the Poetry Center is currently working on creating an online version of the exhibit.

The next display at the Jeremy Ingalls Gallery will be “Cut & Paste!” which will run from April 4 through June 23, and feature booklets made by children in the Poetry Center’s K-12 educational programs.


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