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ARTFUL BLOGGER: Ottawa artist Karen Bailey inspires Australian poets with Afghanistan war art


Xray Technicians with Halo Traction Patient from Karen Bailey’s book Triage

 The fallout from a series of paintings created by Ottawa’s Karen Bailey following her 2007 trip to Afghanistan as a war artist continues to reverberate in surprising ways.

Michaëlle Jean, while Governor General, was so impressed with Bailey’s paintings of Canadian Forces medical personnel in action in Kandahar that she selected Bailey to paint her official vice-regal portrait for Rideau Hall.

And now comes news that a group of “ekphrastic” poets in Australia was so taken with Bailey’s paintings — as seen on her website — that they have created a book of poems inspired by those very paintings. (Ekphrastic poets are ones who write poems inspired by specific works of music or art).

Bailey’s body of work from Afghanistan is called Triage. The poetry book by the School of Music Poets based at Australian National University in Canberra is titled In Response to Triage. It contains 12 poems by five poets. The cover reproduces a Bailey painting showing a Canadian soldier handing an orange to a young Afghan girl in a wheelchair.

One of the poems, by Hazel Hall, is titled Thirty-nine. That is a reference to the 39 ramp ceremonies honouring fallen comrades that were personally witnessed by Capt. Bruce Reeves, the subject of a Bailey painting. Reeves was the head nurse at what was called Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar, where the Canadians treated both military and civilian casualties.

Hall’s poem begins:

a number – etched in my memory
thirty-nine …
hitchcockian steps that march to the past
in the roar of unending crescendos
distant shades
of old comrades – the brave and steadfast

Another poem called Sacred, written by Moya Pacey, was inspired by a painting showing a wounded Afghan man in the Kandahar hospital whose head is immobilized by a metal halo. The poem ends with these words:

All life is sacred
whether you are friend or foe,
in the field hospital at Kandahar.

The poems are not just a tribute to Bailey’s ability as an artist. They are also a tribute to the Canadian soldiers who served at the Kandahar hospital. Australian soldiers, like Canadian ones, served in various capacities in Afghanistan so Bailey’s paintings resonate, not just at home, but in Australia as well.

Bailey is thrilled with the poets’ efforts. “I’m amazed at how they responded. It was as if they’d been there. The words that they used, the feelings, everything was just so appropriate and heartfelt and accurate.”

Each poem contains a link to the painting that inspired it. Anyone wishing to purchase a copy of the poetry book can contact Bailey

Bailey’s paintings in the Triage series were purchased by an individual who wishes to remain anonymous. The owner has, from time to time, lent some of the works to the Canadian War Museum for exhibitions.