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John Sherman's poetry/photo hybrids

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John Sherman, "Elegy for Mobutu"
  • John Sherman, "Elegy for Mobutu"

Born in 1944, John Sherman grew up on a farm 50 miles south of Fort Wayne, a city that was, believe it or not, a cultural Mecca for him during his youth.

During a tour of his show at the Indiana Interchurch Center Art Gallery, the first thing Sherman showed me was his poem “Fort Wayne,” printed on his photograph of the Roman Coliseum. Making reference both to Fort Wayne’s municipal coliseum and the slightly more renowned relic of the Roman Empire, the poem reads:

Coney Dogs were
the bread of our circuses
we were always happy
without even contemplating
being safe from the growling lions in Fort Wayne
whose ancestors
ate ours
in Rome.

Such juxtapositions are par for the course in this exhibit that combines Sherman’s passions for poetry and photography. Both are informed by his rural upbringing, as well as his experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, aid worker and world traveler.

Often, the poem and the photograph that accompanies it address subject matter separated by more than forty years. But the poems don’t feel tacked on, as it were, to the large slabs of gator board onto which the photographs are printed. Instead, these works seem greater than the sum of their parts.

A fine example of this approach is Sherman’s “On Soon Returning to Nigeria,” which pictures a Nigerian nightclub where, as a younger man, he danced the night away with his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. He took the photograph in 1966, but wrote the poem that would accompany it forty two years later, when returning to Abuja, Nigeria, for a conference in 2009.

In the mid-'60s, Abuja was a small backwater town that Sherman recalls hitchhiking through. It’s now a large metro area of 1.5 million people, having become the nation’s capital since he last lived there.

Sherman met his wife, Lois, during Peace Corps training in 1966; she, like him, was trained as a Peace Corps English teacher. They were both evacuated from Nigeria when the breakaway Biafra region, in which they were posted, declared independence.

John Sherman, "Fort Wayne"
  • John Sherman, "Fort Wayne"

Until Sherman met Lois — an African-American woman who grew up in Memphis —he didn’t realize just how much the dehumanizing Jim Crow laws permeated every aspect of Southern society. “You couldn’t try on clothes if you bought them in a department store,” he told me. “If you bought them, you couldn’t return them.”

A number of works deal with the African-American experience in the New World. Such is the case with “Middle Passage,” a poem printed on — and inspired by — a photograph he took at the Castillo San Felipe del Moro, a 16th-century citadel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In this photograph, you see through an opening the Atlantic Ocean that the slave ships made into a superhighway.

Sherman’s travels also brought him to Amsterdam, Holland, where Anne Frank wrote her diary. The visit prompted a poem entitled “Anne Frank 1974,” where he imagines the young author — who died in the Holocaust— as a 45-year old, with kids. The photograph he chose to accompany the poem in this exhibit, however, was taken in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in September 2011. “What I wanted was a very quiet peaceful scene that reflects on the poem,” he says.

The topical nature of much of Sherman’s work never ceases to engage, but for me the most thought-provoking piece is the one least tied tied to history. The backdrop to the poem “Millennia of Birds” is the interior of the Pantheon in Rome. Through the huge opening in the roof, you can see three birds — a breed of creatures equally indifferent to Caligula and Berlusconi — against the blue. Against this stunning background he writes:

perhaps they’ve always thought this temple
was dedicated to them
we see birds but they see their fellow gods
flying in the sunlight and the space of millennia.

"Three Journeys That Redefined Lives: John Sherman" is on display at the Indiana Interchurch Center Art Gallery, 1100 W. 42nd St., 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, through March 30. Copies of two of Sherman's books — War Stories, a memoir of his experience as an aid worker in Nigeria during the Biafra War, and Marjorie Main — are available at the show.

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