It was wonderful to return to Jerwood Gallery this Saturday, for the first of our Arts Council England funded Drawn To The Page Workshops. And we were spoiled for choice this month with two exhibitions to draw inspiration from, Rachel Howard’s At Sea and L.S. Lowry’s By The Sea. Howard’s distinctive, abstract paintings have been globally recognised and are held in many prestigious international art collections. She paints a multitude of human experiences and emotions and, for this exhibition in Hastings, has created a significant body of new work. For Lowry, the sea’s unpredictable nature made it a perfect metaphor for what he called ‘the battle of life’, and was a subject that he returned to throughout his career. He was fascinated by the sea, and spoke of ‘the vastness of it and the terribleness of it…I often wonder what would happen if the tide didn’t turn, and the sea came on and on and on and on, what would the place be like, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to see it.’ The Jerwood exhibition features everything from Britons at play on the sands of holiday resorts, to giant tankers in the great ports of the nation, and the sea in many different forms.
There were clearly strong thematic links of the sea between these two exhibitions, but when I came to the gallery to view and plan the session, I was also struck by the strong similarities in mood, tone and emotion between the work of the two artists despite the strong contrast in the style of their paintings. So it is was mood and emotion that became our theme for the workshop – the thread that ran through our day writing in the gallery.
We started with Rachel Howard’s paintings in the foreshore gallery, and after a period of wandering around, looking, reflecting and writing initial responses down, I asked our group of writers to gather together and share 5 words that for them summed up what they got from the paintings. We collated these words together, to form a kind of linguistic palette we could draw on. Unstable, dark, memory, oppressive, tracing, static, internal; were just some of the words we began to discuss and play with as we brought in ideas about mark-making, comparing Howard’s use of paint to seismographs or ECGs – and to the idea of being ‘at sea’, unstable, weightless, uncertain. We also talked about interiors and exteriors, darkness and light, comparing the different spaces of Howard’s work and how they made us feel.
I then shared some short extracts from poems by the American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Anne Sexton, whom Howard has been influenced by. Some quotes mentioned the sea and windows, and therefore had more obvious thematic links to the paintings, others were more to do with associated moods or emotions. Writers then chose a quote they liked, and linked it with a painting in the exhibition, and through a period of free-writing, developed ideas around the 5 words they’d chosen, the quote, and the appearance of the painting. We finished with a period of editing, using a fun cut-up and shuffle technique, which produced some really atmospheric poetry – some of which we’ll be sharing in the next couple of weeks.
After a tea break we went upstairs to look at the Lowry paintings, using the same approach of finding 5 words to describe the mood, emotion and tone of the paintings, noticing the similarities and differences between the work of the two artists. Where as our discussions and explorations downstairs had focused more on the internal landscapes of the mind and heart, here we shifted our view to the external, and to looking at the sea as the personification of human experience and emotion.
I then offered writers two writing exercises they could work from First – to choose a seascape and do a free-write about it, deliberately using personification to bring out the emotion of the scene. This approach allowed writers to work lyrically again, moving towards another poem. But for those who wanted to try their hand with narrative, I suggested they choose one of Lowry’s lively beach scenes, look at some of the groupings of people and turn them into characters – creating a simple short story or flash-fiction, centred around who they were, what their relationships were to each other, and why they were on the beach that day. They could then use the scenery itself to convey the emotions and mood of the characters, bringing personification in in more narratively convenient ways. We finished with another short editing period before sharing our work as a group.
With our new discount on multiple bookings, many of the writers on Saturday’s workshop are also booked into the other autumn season Drawn To The Page workshops at the De La Warr Pavilion and Towner Art Gallery, which means these sessions are now providing a regular contact point for writers all along the south coast. Do join us for future sessions – you’d be very welcome. We also now have a new Drawn To The Page Facebook page and Twitter feed – and we’d happy to chat with you on these too.