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A screenshot of a dress rehearsal at the Fitton Center for the Creative Arts. Image shows an orchestra seated on stage next to a live printmaking session.

A Creative Collaboration Unfolds on Stage: Music and Live Artmaking Combine at the Fitton Center

The live printed piece created by Hamilton-based artist Billy Simms during the world premiere of Paul John Stanbery’s With Eyes That Hear and Ears That See. Photo courtesy of Billy SimmsWhat color would you make a major chord if you were to hang it on a gallery wall? How would you transpose an artist’s sketch onto a music staff?

These questions aren’t silly riddles meant to puzzle and perplex. Instead, these are possibilities the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra and
visual artist Billy Simms aimed to explore during a collaborative performance at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts on Feb. 1.

In celebration of the opening of its Shifty exhibition, which featured “large-scale abstract and narrative artworks” that played with perception through “shifting spaces, absurd moments, and woven walls,” the Fitton Center brought together visual and musical arts to stage a live printmaking presentation set to a special orchestral composition.

Following the gallery opening, guests enjoyed a concert by the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra that began with a 22-minute piece called “With Eyes That Hear and Ears That See.” Composed by the orchestra’s music director emeritus and composer-in-residence,
Paul John Stanbery, and inspired by the artwork in the show, the music accompanied the creation of a brand-new print by Simms, who completed his work on stage while the orchestra played.

“I have never done anything quite like this, so it is really exciting,” said Simms, who resides in Hamilton, Ohio, in an pre-performance interview. “I know there have been times where things like this have been done, where people create works on stage along with some sort of stage performance, but I’ve never heard of one like what we’re doing, where the music was composed in response to the artwork, and then I am in turn responding to the music.”

For Stanbery, the composition process required that he reflect on the visual artworks in the show through notes, rhythms, and musical motifs. While structuring his piece and determining instrumentation and themes, Stanbery aimed to convey his impressions as a viewer of the pieces in the Shifty exhibition.

“As I was looking at these works of art, I began to make a list of words that popped into my mind,” Stanbery said. “As a result, when I would start to write the music, I would simply look at those words and try to emulate that emotion, whatever the emotion might be—it could be anger, it could be chaos, it could be love. Each of the artworks had its own particular list of words, and that became the impetus for the music that I wrote for each one."

Footage from a dress rehearsal of the collaborative performance.
Video by the Fitton Center for Creative Arts

Those in the audience got to see how Stanbery’s artistic interpretation matched up with their own thoughts when images of the pieces were displayed digitally as the score progressed. He said he thinks the piece encourages others to be open to experiencing art in new ways through a combination of the senses.

“So, the first things you use (when viewing art) are your eyes. And then, as a musician, how do you respond to that? That’s sort of the first half of the title, “With Eyes That Hear,’” Stanbery said. “And then ‘With Ears That See’ is the flip side of that. Those ears are really Billy’s ears, and then he is creating something on the spot that we all can see. To me, it kind of encompasses the entirety of the effort.”

Hamilton-based artist Billy Simms on right and composer Paul John Stanbery by Simms’ live printed piece at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. Photo courtesy of Billy SimmsSimms said he thinks the most exciting aspect of the performance was the infusion of spontaneous creative elements into his print. Using a mono-type printmaking process, a departure from the woodcuts he typically employs, he was able to work quickly and adjust his design in response to dynamic factors such as the orchestra’s sound and the crowd’s energy.

"Having the live music and then being able to see the musicians, being able to look over at Paul as he was conducting, and then looking up at the art on the screen, it really did add an element of kind of feeling all of those things while working on the piece," Simms said in a follow-up interview. "In theatre, they call it 'the illusion of the first time,' where every time you perform something, it should seem like it's the first time it is happening. And I kind of had that feeling. It felt really fresh and alive to me."

At intermission, Simms’ completed print was displayed for audience members to view up-close in the lobby.

"People really seemed to enjoy it. You know, when you do something different, you never know what people will think, but I think the response was really strong in that they thought it was a really fascinating and unique thing to experience," Simms said. "They just enjoyed the process and enjoyed that way of working."

The rest of the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra concert followed, with the orchestra under the direction of guest conductor Scott Woodard and featuring works by Franz Schubert, Max Bruch, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Stanbery said his composition and the accompanying experiment into live collaborative artmaking gave the community the opportunity to celebrate an evening of the arts in Hamilton and throughout Butler County.

“To speak as one voice is the goal of the piece, Billy’s print, as well as the work by the artists in the exhibition. I think that’s the whole premise that makes this so unique,” he said. “That is what excites me about all of this.”

Both the Fitton Center and the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra are Ohio Arts Council grantees, with the Hamilton-based Fitton Center most recently receiving a Mid-sized Organization Sustainability grant and the Orchestra receiving an ArtSTART grant.

For more information about the Fitton Center, visit

Keep up to date with news from the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra at


The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured photo: Printmaker Billy Simms and the Butler Philharmonic Orchestra rehearse their collaborative performance of "With Eyes That Hear and Ears That See," an original composition by Paul John Stanbery that celebrated its world premiere at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts on Feb. 1. 
Update 4/6/2020: This article was updated with post-event quotes and photos.

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