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The world is a strange place

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Everywhere, things are not what they seem.

Or they are more than they seem.

Folds of rosy flesh turn out to be a sunlit canyon. Eyes look out
from a puckered old tree, from the face of an oncoming cobalt-blue
locomotive, from the profile of a swirling green-and-yellow geode.

It's all part of a photography show by JP Briggs called "Objects,
Sprites and Spirits," at Westfield Athenaeum through March.

"JP Briggs," with no periods, is what John P. Briggs of Granville
calls himself in his artistic endeavors.

His new book, a collection of short fiction called "Trickster Tales,"
is also published under the "JP Briggs" rubric.

But most people in Granville know this multi-faceted man as John
Briggs, the volunteer police officer and former head of the board of
selectmen, who pondered such problems as how much electricity the
ladies' auxiliary was using on bingo nights and whether a campground
sign was bigger than the law permitted.

At Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, he is Professor
Briggs, who runs a master of fine arts program in professional

These many roles may help explain why he's delighted when viewers see
his photos as something other than what they are. Metaphors, he says,
reveal both sameness and differences.

Not surprisingly, Briggs says the creative process is "one of my key
focuses in life. What is it? What role does it play in our lives? I'm
convinced that it does and should play a huge role.

"Creativity is essential for our survival. If we're not creative, we die."

His definition of the word goes beyond the arts, into sciences and
social issues. "Nothing," says Briggs, "requires more creative energy
than keeping a relationship vital." More evidence of Briggs'
creativity can be found in his new book, "Trickster Tales," which
sometimes has a Franz Kafka-meets-Salvador Dali flavor.

Stories range from surrealistic flights (a woman finds a 3-inch man
in the drawer of her dressing table) to graphic description (a family
man has an encounter with a prostitute), with both styles constantly

In one story, a man's bow tie keeps showing up in places where he did
not leave it. His wife discovers that when the man is not looking,
the tie flies through the air like an odd mechanical butterfly
looking for a place to land.

Theme of the collection, says Briggs serenely, is that "the world is
a strange place."

He writes sometimes from the point of view of a woman, sometimes of a
man. One of the stories takes the form of in-house memos, another is
couched in the lingo of a "paper" presented at a psychiatric

Even the lengths of the stories are strange. Some are a conventional
length, but some are tiny - a quarter of a page. The ones that are
shorter even than a short-short story are called "flash fiction" or
"micro-fiction" these days. "It compresses the sense of a life in a
very short space," says Briggs.

"You can think of photographs as short fiction," he adds.

If people feel a little disoriented when they look at his pictures or
read his stories, that's all right with Briggs. "I'd like you to fall
into a little abyss for a moment," he says.

Looking at his photograph of the gnarled tree with the hole that
looks like an eye, he says, "The definition of a tree does not cover
what that is.

"That's the 'little abyss' I'm talking about."

Briggs often gets ideas for stories from his wife, Joanna Myrh, who
tells him her dreams. "The Bow Tie," which won an award from a
literary journal in 2004, started with a dream Myrh had. Often she
doesn't recognize her contributions afterwards. "She gives me these
little gifts and then she forgets," says Briggs.

The couple has been married since 1968. Myrh is a singer and dancer.
"I courted her by visiting her in summer stock," says Briggs, "in
Pennsylvania, at Lake Placid, in Rhode Island."

They have traveled widely together, camping in a South American
jungle and savoring colorful markets in France.

In Provence, Myhr recalls, Briggs would set up his camera in the
middle of the road, oblivious to traffic. "I'd say, 'Honey, there's a
car coming,' and he'd pick up all his equipment and run to the side
of the road."

"My wife is very tolerant, and has probably saved my life several
times," says her husband.

Briggs grew up in the suburbs of Tarrytown, N.Y. His parents, now
living in Amherst, were both psychotherapists.

His longing to be a writer and his thirst for experience showed up
early. He graduated from high school in three years and went to work
for the local newspaper at 17.

He then moved on to the Hartford Courant, working the 6-2 shift on
the police beat while earning a degree at Wesleyan University in
Middletown, Conn.

"Trickster Tales" includes an affecting story about an old-fashioned
newspaperman that Briggs describes as "homage to a lot of guys I

His love of nature, which began in the woods near Tarrytown, has been
deepened by his friendship with a Native American photographer who
appears in the last story of "Trickster Tales."

Briggs is editor of the Connecticut Review, a literary and cultural
journal, and author of several nonfiction books on aesthetics,
physics and creativity, three of them co-authored with a physicist.

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