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Drawn To The Page Billingham

After all the excitement of a visit from the BBC Radio 4 Open Book programme last month, Drawn To The Page got back to what it does best this Saturday – with another gallery based workshop introducing writers to great art and making new writing happen. This month we were at Towner for an exhibition of landscape photography – Panoramic – by Richard Billingham. Billingham is best known for his photobook, Ray’s A Laugh, which documents the life of his father, mother and brother. One of the original YBAs (Young British Artists) who shot to fame in the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition, he was also shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2001. His landscape photography explore his emotional and creative relationship to nature and proved a great jumping off point for exploring landscape with creative writing too.

We started, as we always do with some quite time in the exhibition with our notebooks and pens. This first look is a chance for writers to gather their initial impressions, and scribble down thoughts, ideas and associations as they wander around. I suggested that from this first view, they distilled their impressions down to 5 words, that summed up what they found in the work. My five were – melancholy, damp, flat, quiet, still – other writers, when we finally sat down together, also came up with – contradictory, gloomy, transient, transitional. dark, lonely.

Drawn to the Page Billingham

This discussion period is a vital part of every Drawn To The Page session, it draws out our responses to what we’ve seen and opens up a space for discussing the ideas we found in the work. We talked about what we intuited of Billingham’s relationship to nature and about our own. We discussed too, what we felt the artist’s visual language was, the muted tones of his work; the very English – or British – nature of the landscapes and his approach to capturing it; the connections we found with the tradition of landscape painting; and the contrasts between Billingham’s work and the landscapes from the Towner collection which he’d personally chosen to hang alongside his own.

Our approach in this workshop was to explore landscape in two ways – both as the subject for writing – but also as setting. We begun with an exercise to draw out the landscape as subject, writing around the images in the gallery, treating them as metaphorical and internal landscapes, as symbols for mood or emotion. There can be tendency when writing from art to work only with the visual, but I encouraged writers to bring in all the senses for this free writing period, using their original five words as a starting point and allowing their imaginations to write around and over what they were viewing.

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After about 20 minutes of writing – we gathered back together and I suggested that writers read back over their free write and select the phrases, sentences and fragments they liked the best. This is a simple and useful way to start to draft a poem from an initial free flowing of ideas. Writers got busy with scissor and paper, writing, cutting and pasting (for real) on the gallery floor and on tables, as they drafted some incredibly sensitive and nuanced poems – which we hope to publish on the Drawn To The Page blog next month.

After an enjoyable coffee break in the Towner cafe, we were back in the exhibition, this time thinking about landscape as a setting for the human body and for human experience and memory. We looked at Richard Long’s 1967 work A Line Made By Walking. Long has said, “The significance of walking in my work is that it brings time and space into my art; space meaning distance. A work of art can be a journey.” So we talked about this, about the presence of time and experience in nature, and about journeys. We made links too with Robert McFarlane’s words, “As the pen rises from the page between words, so the walker’s feet rise and fall between paces, so writing and wayfaring are continuous activities, a running stitch, a persistence of the same seam or stream.” And discussed the idea of journeys as narratives.

Drawn To The Page Billingham

From this discussion writers were guided to choose 3 photographs, and to then construct a physical journey through each of them. This time we were writing about landscape as a setting, a space, a site – and focusing on following a human body through it. Where would they go? What would they do? What would they see? And what would they remember? Once again I suggested that the writing be as sensory as possible, but this time these senses would be located in a person within the landscape, rather than in the landscape itself.

We finished our session with a final sharing of words and ideas.

“Another excellent workshop – fantastically facilitated and very rewarding to spend so much time actually writing within a gallery environment. Please make Drawn To The Page a permanent fixture.” Hilary

“Once again fabulously stimulating working with Wendy at the Towner. The exhibition is brought to life and imbued with creative tones from the word exercises and by the varied people in the group. Such a great way to see an exhibition – the writing workshop really helps to find connections with the works. It encourages you to look longer, and deeper.” Helen

“Very good. Encourages a closer look at artworks than I would on my own. Nice to have access to the gallery.” Alison

“Very stimulating and encouraging workshop. Most enjoyable, would like more!” Kim

“I always find these workshops very useful for my own writing. I just wish they were longer.” Pat

We’re back for the final Drawn To The Page of the season on Saturday June 20th at the De La Warr Pavilion – for a creative exploration of the Bridget Riley Curve Paintings and John Stezaker Film-works. You can book your place with New Writing South here. We look forward to seeing you next month.

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