This Saturday, nine writers joined me for the first Drawn To The Page workshop at the De La Warr Pavilion. I Cheer A Deadman’s Sweetheart, is a vibrant exhibition of 60 years of British painting, and what I was most struck with was its immediacy. Paintings offered up spaces in which I could rest visually as well as imaginatively. This is something curator, David Rhodes writes about in the exhibition catalogue.
“We have selected works that we believe evoke a response to painting and about the practice of painting much as they inspired such a response in us when we saw them,” he says.
The writing exercises I devised for writers were designed to allow them their own responses to the work, by encouraging them to occupy the paintings creatively and imaginatively. Our exercises took us from the figurative, realist, fiction and narrative and moved writers towards abstraction, the lyrical and poetic.
After allowing writers some time to wander through the gallery, writing spontaneously about the paintings they encountered, and their impressions of them, we finally gathered in front of one of the main installations – a mural, specially created for the exhibition by Sophie Von Hellermann. This is paired with an Alessandro Raho painting, Ben. Van Hellermann’s painting, titled, A Shropshire Lad – after the sequence of A.E. Housman poems the exhibition draws its title from, depicts an allegorical landscape, and we read the Housman poem Is My Team Ploughing, from the sequence as we looked at the painting. I then invited writers to start to develop ideas from the groupings of figures for a Flash Fiction inspired by the two works.
We then moved on to look at another Von Hellermann piece – Field Day, in which figures in the foreground move across an abstracted landscape, and then on to Jeffrey Camp’s sea inspired – Pulling Out, in which a figure is almost obscured or subsumed into the energetic play of colour and mark making on the canvas. What might it be like to occupy these spaces, I asked? I encouraged writers to imagine themselves the figures in the spaces of the paintings and to write an encounter with the world within the canvas, in which colour, texture, the materiality of the paint itself was part of the landscape. They were encouraged to experiment with this free writing exercise, their writing might have a narrative, but it might – like the paintings – occupy a space, neither realist or abstract, fiction or poetry, something inbetween, that might be surreal, magic-realist or expressionistic in nature.
For our final period of writing we gathered upstairs in Gallery 2, to look at Jessica Warboys’ Sea Paintings. These huge canvases occupy the high walls of the gallery space, glowing with colour. How, did writers think they were created? Someone suggested a ‘very large washing machine’, which, it turned out, was very close to the truth. Warboys herself describes her process;
“Sea Paintings are made below the high water line at the sea’s edge. After immersion, the sodden canvases are pulled from the sea and stretched out on the beach. Mineral pigments are thrown directly onto the sea-beaten canvas; its folds and creases catching the grains of colour. The process is repeated with the canvas returning to the sea or being left to dry. Wind, sand and folds create forms through the movement of colours directed onto the canvas surface.”
Moving finally into abstraction and the lyrical, our final writing exercise invited writers to imagine themselves the artist and the sea, to write about the creation of the paintings in a way that brought in movement, the elements, the landscape, the canvas and the pigments.
We ended by discussing ways in which writers could develop the drafts they’d started in the gallery, in order to be ready to submit them for publication on the Drawn To The Page blog, in two weeks time.
“The workshop appealed to me as an exercise in creative writing, but also the subject matter of visual art and the location in the gallery made it a very stimulating event, and it was nice to meet others with different experiences of writing – and views on the art!”