2021 Ekphrastic Poetry Winners

Last month, National Poetry Month San Antonio invited the community to write ekphrastic poems in response to artwork in local museum collections. South Texas poets submitted over 125 entries inspired by works on view at the McNay, San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe Western Art Museum, and the Witte Museum. We congratulate these winners for their outstanding poems written in response to Sarah #9 by Heidi McFall.

Judges—Jim LaVilla-Havelin, National Poetry Month Coordinator; Octavio Quintanilla, 2018–2020 San Antonio Poet Laureate; and Linda Simone; poet, artist, and educator—selected three adult winners and three youth winners.

Many thanks to the participants, winners, and judges for sharing your talent!


Day Nine
by Diane Gonzales Bertrand
When she looks at me,
storm clouds appear
in her distance
way, way back
coming from the place
where she thinks
she knows the answer.
Lightning flickers
makes her pause
the question of rain
shadows the rim of her lips.
Adult Winning Poem
by Ramiro Rodriguez
Woman's face in front of my face,
universe of luminous insects behind the eyes.
We are all born from her
in an unfolding of bodies.
Nobody say never.
We all arise from her womb
in a saturation of waves without foam
and every morning, as the eyes light up,
I understand that origin
is an inexplicable tunnel of stars
in the black and white of her face,
of my face,
nobody's face.
Adult Winning Poem
To Dust She Shall Return
by Janice Bethany
Leaving Plato’s cave, her profile flashed on
the wall. She enters 2021,
Lenten Ash print on her head. The world is
closed, no one to notice her, just stone and
glass tombs, empty streets. She hoped to
apprentice, study nature and function,
to give to and liberate the prisoners
locked in the cave. But she is stoic, lips
tight as Sphinx’s, no dialogue afloat
on democracy. Her enigmatic
stare is apt and deep, unaware of this
republic’s chaos beneath. She turns back
to the cave, an empty knave, back to
the dark, to the dust whence she came.
Adult Winning Poem
by Ruby Vallarelli
My expression frozen
My heart stopped
My face white
Truthfully I was scared
Truthfully no one cared
The hot tears ran down like acid on my cool face
In my ears I heard the echoes of broken promises and fake laughter
In my eyes I saw my own child
The one I’d loved for a lifetime
Her still body
Her innocent eyes
Beautiful, Terrible
The priest came in
Read the last parable
Her frail body was carried away
But I know in my heart her soul would stay.
That’s my name
Youth Winning Poem
Sarah #9
by Weathers Jessee
George Washington
has a chocolate coin
I       love       you
bring your surprise
after naptime
We’re at the museum
Youth Winning Poem
Eyes for No One
by Heaven Raechi Navarro
She looked at me
Through eyes for no one
With features like-
Pillars of white marble
Existential moon woman

With pleiadian free flowing light
White waxing, black waning
Cheeks slender like cabaret legs
I saw eyes for no one

Her gaze washed over me
Like plentiful waves of salt
Through unknown surfaces
Crystal shades illuminate
Soft and decorated
Warm, sweet, breast milk.
Youth Winning Poem
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About Heidi McFall’s Sarah #9

Sarah #9 is a large-scale pastel portrait by Iowa-based artist Heidi Draley McFall. Most visitors mistake this drawing for a black and white photograph in the galleries because of its incredible detail, the white space that resembles overexposure, and its huge size. The drawing, which measures 60 by 40 inches, was made in San Antonio where the artist was living at the time.

McFall considers herself a self-taught artist because she didn’t have any formal art training beyond high school. She photographs her subjects on 35mm film, whose graininess, she says, relates well to chalky texture of the pastel. Over the years, she has compiled a personal archive of photos that she continues to revisit (You’ll notice that the McNay’s Sarah is #9).

According to McFall, the success of the portrait is highly dependent on starting with a good picture. “I’ve been thinking about the process from front to back. How do I want it to look, how bright, how dark? What kind of emotion, mood do I want to create?”

Beginning the drawing, McFall works upright on an archival paperboard, using the absolute minimum of pastel. For Sarah #9 and Gabby (another work in the McNay’s collection), she used only black and white pastel. Because McFall is working so large, she treats the pastel like an abstract painting. There are hardly any lines, instead gradients and perfectly blended, pure pigment. She not drawing facial features; she’s depicting light and shadow. She talks about how working big allowed her to be more adventurous, more experimental in her mark making.

The end result for the viewer is an intimate experience where you closely inspect someone else’s face, imagine their story, and as McFall says, connect with your soul.

Heidi Draley McFall, ​Sarah #9, 2001. ​Pastel on paper. 60x40 in. Collection of McNay Art Museum, Gift of Isabella del Frate Rayburn.