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Drawn To The Page John Virtue Towner

Drawn To The Page made its first visit of the year to Towner in Eastbourne on Saturday, to view the John Virtue and Ori Gersht exhibtions and do some writing. Virtue’s new paintings take the vast, dark expanse of the North Sea as a central theme, and fill the upstairs gallery with their huge, monochrome canvases. Whilst the Ori Gersht exhibition is showing two major moving image works Evaders and The Forest, (2005) alongside a series of large scale photographs. The works on display are visually entirely different, and yet both artists are exploring ideas about landscape, how it’s represented, and our human relationship to it. This then was our starting point for a writing workshop that explored not just the artworks themselves but also landscape and our place in it.

We started with the John Virtue paintings – writers took time to wander, writing in response to the enormous paintings. I asked them to do what Virtue does in his sketchbooks – “capture visual facts and personal responses.” We then gathered together and each writer summed up what they found in the art with five words. Mine, for example, were – restlessness turmoil movement darkness energy. Virtue calls his paintings ‘a diary of existence’ and doesn’t give them titles, avoiding any narrative associations. We discussed how this threw us into the painted surface and talked about what we found in the movement of sky and water portrayed abstractly on the canvas. How can we approach or enter into a landscape that seems to have no fixed point or obvious perspective? How can we position ourselves in relation to such a landscape when scale, paint and colour leads us into a chaotic space, always in flux, always moving and changing? This led to a discussion of the connection between universal forces in nature and an individual’s internal landscape. Could the Virtue paintings be said to be just as much a portrayal of an internal landscape as an external one.

Drawn To The Page John Virtue Towner

Writers then disbursed again with their notebooks, this time free writing, treating the paintings either purely as seascapes or as internal landscapes, or as a combination of both. I invited them to try and bring some of the qualities we’d talked of into their writing as themes; movement, texture, energy, flux/change, turbulence, light and dark. Writers allowed their imaginations to wander around these, writing but not planning anything, creating a ‘diary of associations’, exploring emotions, sensations, ideas, images, or a place, just letting them all flow from the pen. Once the free writing period was finished, I invited writers to select the parts of it they were happiest with and begin to draft a poem. Some writers did this purely with words but I did suggest that they could also use a concrete poem to express their response to the exhibtion, laying words down almost like Virtue does the paint on his canvases, allowing words to be layered like oil from a tube. You can see Helen Gibb’s first draft of this below.

Drawn To The Page John Virtue Towner

After a tea break in the Towner cafe we went downstairs to look at the Ori Gersht exhbition. Gersht’s photographs draw stongly on the romantic landscape painting tradition and his sublime landscapes initially seem more inviting than the harsh monochromes of the cold North Sea. And yet there is turmoil in these works too, since they depict places associated with wartime traumas and displacements from the 1940s. After a look around and a scribble in our notebooks we got together to discuss how Gersht’s landscapes compared with Virtue’s. The human element was far more obvious in these works, it was implicit in the idea of journey, in the dwellings photographed from the moving train, and most of all by the histories and memories associated with these places. Virtue’s paintings seemed spaces outside time, with no clear reference points, but not so Ori Gershts photographs, time – that human construct – was evident there, history made evident through place.

We then went back inside to view Evaders, a fascinating film work that uses long panoramic shots to trace the journey of writer and poet, Walter Benjamin through the Pyrnees in 1940 during World War II to escape the Nazi regime. We looked at Benjamin’s words from his Theses on the Philosophy of History – which are featured at the start of the film:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I then invited writers to write in the 2nd person – you – and to write about the journey they saw taking place on the two screens; a man battling his way through the elements, through the mountains, almost it seemed against time. They could, I suggested, either write to Benjamin, or imagine it was them making that journey, but still to use the 2nd person, which creates an intimacy for the reader, so that they too are addressed and included in what is written. We finished our session with some time to share reflections and some of our writing. As always, the richness of the artworks, and the sensitivity of the exhibition curation provided a rich resource for the imagination and everyone came away with writing they felt could be redrafted and submitted to the Drawn To The Page blog.

“Thank you for such an inspiring workshop on Saturday, I enjoyed it so much, and have been working on the two pieces I made a start on. I’m off to Suffolk for a few days today, so will be able to gaze at the same sea as John Virtue and think about his wonderful paintings :)” Pippa

“As always, an inspirational workshop – where interaction/practical exercises merge to perfection. Wendy is a superb faciltator and these workshops are a dream!” Hilary

“It was my first workshop, ever – writing, I mean. And it was a great start for me as a French language speaker. Wendy is lovely and all the participants too.” Beatrice

“Of course, never enough time – ever, but always inspirational and brilliant.” Andy

“Another brilliant, stimulating workshop exploring 2 exhibitions with the creative vigour demonstated and inspired by the teacher. These workshops are very special and long may they endure.” Helen

If you’d like to join us for a Drawn To The Page workshop – we’ll be at De La Warr Pavilion in March.

Drawn To The Page John Virtue Towner

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