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From margins in his poetry, paintings emerged

Harvard prof Peter Sacks shows his art in Paris

PARIS -- All his adult life, Peter Sacks has been searching.

His path has led him from apartheid-era South Africa to race-torn Detroit in flames. From studying at Oxford and the Ivy League to trekking by foot across three continents. From Princeton to New Haven, Baltimore to Cambridge, and now, to France.

"I wasn't just traveling," he says. Sacks's ongoing intellectual, creative, and spiritual explorations have been a search for a meaningful response to the world. Along the way, he hopes to find his place, however itinerant, in it.

So it should come as no surprise that the soul of this 53-year-old poet and Harvard literature professor hasn't yet finished wandering. On March 27, Sacks added a further twist to his quest when he made his international art debut at a respected Parisian gallery, Piece Unique.

Left Bank art spaces like this one -- actually, two: Galerie Piece Unique and Piece Unique Variations -- are known for exhibiting established artists such as Christo, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Louise Bourgeois, not literary figures. In both galleries, Sacks is showing the bold, primal paintings he's completed since living part time in rural Normandy.

"We were very interested in Peter's work, its intensity," says Galerie Piece Unique codirector Christine Lahoud. "His manner of treating his subject resembles no one else."

Taking on such an unknown isn't a worry, she adds.

"Each exhibition is a risk," says Lahoud, who notes that Sacks's work has received excellent word of mouth: "People like it. They're touched by the art." Attending the packed opening reception last month were several art collectors who expressed interest in the work, Lahoud says.

Two years ago, Sacks and his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, bought a half-tumbled-down 14th-century abbey/farmhouse about a 10-minute drive from Omaha Beach, the Normandy American Cemetery, and other memory-laden sites of the D-Day invasion.

Graham has a study in the former abbey; Sacks's painting studio is in a converted stone hayloft. The two travel to France during school breaks and summer vacations, but a joint sabbatical spent there last term cemented this country retreat as a center of their artistic work.

A former Olympic-caliber backstroker banned from competition because of his then-South African citizenship, Sacks dove into disparate experiences at an early age. After finishing high school at just 16, he went straight to medical school, as is the practice in South Africa. But then he landed an American Field Service scholarship to attend senior year at a Detroit high school.

Imagine: It's 1967-68. A 16-year-old kid watches the city's race riots explode around him. Sacks says seeing America as a land of plenty, but not immune to violence and injustice, was a real eye-opener.

Back home at the University of Natal, studying the humanities and social sciences, Sacks discovered the lid of the apartheid regime was "being screwed on more and more tightly," he says. Several of his professors and fellow students -- Sacks knew classmate Stephen Biko -- were arrested. Others were assassinated.

By 1970, he returned to the United States to get a BA at Princeton, then uprooted himself again to be a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. During school breaks, he trekked across North Africa and India. In 1975, he spent four months hiking from Venezuela to the headwaters of the Amazon in the Andes, then went back down the Amazon by boat through Brazil.

"I was traveling with a hammock, a backpack, and books," he recalls. "The idea of learning from the outside world was a crucial equipoise to studying within stone walls and cloisters."

After Sacks received his PhD at Yale, his dissertation on elegiac poetry became a standard academic text. He published books of poetry and taught at Johns Hopkins. Harvard hired him in 1996.

Around this time, Sacks was becoming increasingly intrigued by what he calls the "unfilled right-hand margin of poetry": what he was failing to describe in words. Largely from that empty space, that silence, the paintings emerged. Sacks had studied art history, but he never took an art class.

When he paints, Sacks mixes media (oils, acrylics, gesso, collage) and chooses an approach somewhere between abstract and representational. He says he also uses the entire studio, which is "about the size of an Olympic swimming pool." He moves toward the canvas, then steps back, as if swimming -- which he still does, both at Omaha Beach and on the North Shore back in Boston.

Sacks says his origins as both poet and painter are "inseparable" from a childhood experience he singles out as primal: seeing old cave paintings by San "bushmen" tribes on hiking and horseback journeys in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains.

"They set the standard for what art could be," Sacks recalls, the images still apparently engraved on his consciousness. "They paid homage to the natural world. They had a sense of the sacred, of animism. But it wasn't in a museum. I absorbed it the way one drinks water." In his art, he still strives to achieve this seamless integration of mystery and ritual: "I want to get at lower levels of instinct, more primordial levels of decision making."

Sacks's 1985 poetry debut, "In These Mountains," is a tribute to the San, who were eventually "hunted to extinction," he says, in that region. The title poem describes them as: Shadowy figures burdenedand yet floating as they walk -- the waythe dead might move, or spirits walking toward life. Two decades later, this poem would be an apt caption for his painting "Checkpoint," which is displayed in Galerie Piece Unique. On a discarded 7-by-9-foot furnace shipping carton, Sacks painted quasi-tribal motifs and shapes that look like looming gateways or gallows. Shadowy figures seem to be entering or leaving -- or are they trapped in some Dante-like limbo? For Sacks, checkpoints under apartheid became places "where you don't know if you'll be allowed entry."

In fact, for someone so concerned with issues of passage, exile, and conflict, it makes sense that Sacks would be drawn to Normandy, a landscape so charged with meaning. The lovely pasture around Graham and Sacks's farmhouse hides a history of hardship: snipers, bombings, occupations, and invasions. William the Conqueror staged his assault of England from these shores in 1066.

"This whole area was a checkpoint," Sacks explains.

"Even the hedgerows dividing these fields were checkpoints during World War II," adds Graham, whose next book of poems, "Overlord," to be published this year, will be an inquiry into these overlapping histories.

Sacks's "Spirit Markers" series of paintings responds strongly to this haunted place by bearing traces of violence -- dark bars, scorch marks, and confined spaces -- along with collaged scraps of newspaper stories. Other works incorporate the found materials of 21st-century life, such as FedEx boxes.

Last summer, while preparing materials for his paintings, he was burning 19th-century antique linens in his studio when he accidentally set himself on fire. He turned this into a kind of ritual and incorporated it into his art: Some paintings contain shreds of his charred clothing.

Through all these rites of passage and transformations -- even though he's now a US citizen -- he stills considers himself African. "In my bones, in my blood, I feel like an African," Sacks says. "The ocean, the fields -- the core is still with me. I think that I carry anger, grief, and guilt for having left. There's a lot of loss."

Yet making art in a 600-year-old French farmhouse "makes perfect sense" to him, he says: He cherishes the "open energies" of the United States, while in Normandy he thrives on rural France's continuous rhythms of cultivation. The stone walls recall his Oxford college and the caves of his native land.

He even says that here, he feels closer to Africa.

If trying to get back home, at least metaphorically, is an ingredient of the fuel driving Peter Sacks's creative powers, then Normandy is a significant checkpoint along the way.

Ethan Gilsdorf is a Paris-based poet and Globe contributor. 

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