“I always wish to be meeting you somewhere,” poet Greg Cantrell writes to his wife, the artist Marlene Koenig. Evidence of that wish and those meetings is found in the couple’s first collaborative book, “What Passes Between Us Over Café Tables.”
The title is a reference to a ritual the two observe to make art while traveling. “Every morning we sit in a café. We don’t speak very much at first. I write, she draws, and then we pass our work back and forth.” Sourced from their respective journals and collected over years, many countries and many more empty cups, the book pairs Koenig’s images with Cantrell’s words.
Supported in part by a grant from the Anne McKee Artist Fund, the raw material of the book was constructed using minimal tools: paper, pens and glue sticks. Koenig explains how limitation lends itself to creation, “As with any practice, it takes the choice out so that action can happen.”
The couple was strict in practice, but lenient in curation. “It’s much more about a way of life than trying to get a perfect poem or perfect image. The point is the moment, and making something poetic of it,” said Cantrell. Koenig agreed, adding, “When you make art, you hold on to that moment in a different kind of way. It’s this ephemeral feeling of bits and pieces and how they collect into a broader picture.”
The broader picture of “What Passes Between Us Over Café Tables” is as beautiful as it is intimate. “It’s a love letter to her,” admitted Cantrell. And yet, the intention and the audience extend beyond the couple. “The tone of the book is to live well, to be good to yourself, to be good to others, to celebrate the imperfection and the fleetingness of the moment. I think of it as a love letter to life, a celebration of love, and a celebration of an affair that has taken us across many continents and into this experience.”
Said love affair began in New York City 20-some years ago in a former sweatshop turned into an artist collective. “It was the ninth of July. She came all by herself in the rain to the seventh floor of this industrial building. I opened the door and immediately knew that I was going to like this person.” One all-night, rooftop conversation and two months later, Cantrell proposed and within a year the pair were married. In lieu of traditional rings they wear matching tattoos, blue Venn circles on their forearms. “I can’t lose the tattoo,” laughed Cantrell.
In the early 2000s, the couple was priced out of their apartment in Brooklyn’s Dandy Zipper Factory, detailed in a poem by Cantrell as “emptied out and torn apart, where our together got its start.” Koenig and Cantrell made way for the end of the road and before long, called it home. “It’s the same Key West story you always hear: we spent the afternoon here, went back to New York, packed our shit and moved down,” said Koenig, laughing.
Key West gave the couple the financial freedom to travel more widely and collect the miles and moments that would become their book. The pair describes “What Passes Between Us Over Café Tables” as an experiment, to see what could happen if they allowed their work to engage with and be influenced by the other. It’s an influence Koenig felt long before the couple traded notebooks. “When I met Greg, I felt so small and insignificant as an artist. I didn’t go to art school. He showed me that there is a way to be that is completely valid and should be celebrated. He gave weight to it, where I couldn’t. He didn’t judge me as a creative. When somebody supports you when you’re vulnerable and really sees you, it’s everything.”
It took months before Koenig was able to show Cantrell her own work, a privilege for him then and now. “It was amazing to reach that place in our relationship. To have witnessed what I first saw to what’s going on now, and everything in between, the development and the growth and the change, it’s astounding.”
Fittingly, or fatedly, on the day of our interview, the pair sit below Koenig’s latest painting, two love birds perched on a flowering pelvic bone. Koenig explains that the birds represent the nadis Ida and Pingala. “They’re two opposite energies, the right and left side, the solar and the lunar that we’re in constant effort to balance so we can move through the world in a more holistic way.”
Throughout the book are references to Talula Blue, Koenig’s nickname, born of sketches passed between the couple during the pre-Cana classes they took to appease Koenig’s Catholic mother. “I started to doodle this girl and I wrote Talula Blue and that became the daughter that never was, then it transferred into my nickname because I never felt like mine fit me.” Talula Blue has become Koenig’s creative alias and the namesake of her studio, Blue Skin. “It stuck because she always has paint all over her. Blue paint, blue sky, blue skin, Blue Skin Studio,” said Cantrell.
In kind, Koenig calls Cantrell “Knobby,” a reference to his shaved head and penchant for bumping into things with it. Cantrell asks in the pages of their book, “How many times can you hit your head before your own light comes on? I have a thousand scars on my knob, but only one or two good ideas.” His work and life suggest otherwise. Up before dawn, Cantrell watches the sunrise every day and once arrived in Lithuania with a suitcase full of journals and books, but not a single article of clothing, his priorities present in his packing.
Cantrell studied philosophy and draws inspiration from Koenig’s dedication to living fully and creating consistently. “I love her work, but what I take from her is daily practice, discipline, the totality of being someone who is a creative entity. Philosophers talk about how your life, a life, can be constructed and composed in the way a work of art is. More than any single thing she does, it’s that way of living that moves me about her. She really, authentically lives and what’s produced is reflective of that.”
Likewise, what passes between Koenig and Cantrell is made alive by them; countries, coffee, history, memory, the infinite love letter.
“What Passes Between Us Over Café Tables” is available for purchase through Koenig’s website, marlenekoenigart.com/book and at Salt Gallery, where works from the book are on view through Feb. 28.