Fourteen writers joined us at Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne this Saturday for some writing inspiration from not just one, but two fantastic exhibitions. Julian Germaine’s The Future is Ours explores the universal themes of school and childhood through film and photograph, showing portraits of school children from 19 countries around the world. Germain spent 8 years documenting 461 school classrooms throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, South East Asia, Middle East and South America. Whilst multi award-winning set and costume designer John Napier brings theatre and art together in a new exhibition, Stages, Beyond the Fourth Wall.
Julian Germaine’s work proved such a rich resource for writing that we spent most of our time with this complex and exciting exhibition. Writers started with time to wander round and form their own responses to the show. As one regular Drawn To The Page writer, Helen, shared, one of the things she values about these sessions is that chance to develop her own responses to the works on display, even though she doesn’t feel she knows much about art in any official way. And indeed, that’s what our ‘first looks’ are all about, allowing individuals to find their own unique way into the session. This month I gave them some questions to assist that process.
- What do the photographs and films tell us about identity, individuality, uniformity and conformity?
- What do they tell us about the power of the group and the power of the individual?
- How do we read personality – character, moods and emotions, and things like intelligence, curiosity, boredom or humour in these images?
- Which faces do you find it easiest to connect with and why?
After our ‘first look’ we got together to discuss what we thought, starting with each writer offering 5 words they felt summed up their response. We all agreed that we felt the works brought up questions about identity, individuality and conformity than they did questions of education, with many questioning Germaine’s methodology – how and why he took these photographs. This led to discussing the formal qualities of the images, how they were taken in a certain way, with their subjects required not to smile as they would for social or even more traditional ‘school portraits’. We also talked about the feeling we had of been stared at or closely scrutinised by the young people in the images, and compared this with traditional art-historical ideas about ‘the gaze’ and the power that holds.
We all found that certain portraits or individuals within portraits had particular impact for us – and this led us nicely to our first writing exercise. I invited the writers to pick 3 students from one image and to write an inner-monologue for them, which would incorporate the thoughts that were going through their heads whilst their photograph was being taken by Germaine. To give some concrete memory, issue or idea to pin this stream of consciousness onto, I suggested that we could think about what each student might have been doing or experiencing:
- Immediately before they came to school in the morning
- During break or lunchtime
- And immediately after school finished, later that day
These three pointers gave us the opportunity to imagine the children as characters, with a life, relationships and histories that contextualised their time at school. Once these single paragraphs or stanzas were written, our final task was to break these up, interspersing a couple of lines from one ‘character’ with those of another, so we built up a chorus of voices or symphonic points of view – giving the impression of overhearing this group of children.
But what of the future? The introductory text to the exhibition suggests the future is implicit in the photographs, raising questions about what the years ahead will hold for these children. So our next writing exercises focused on this, and the possible futures these young people might encounter. Using the 2nd person, which for most of the writers in the group was a new narrative mode they’d not experimented with before, we tried to imagine one of the three children we’d already written about 5 years in the future. And then 10 years in the future. And then 20.
The 2nd person allowed us to explore these hypothetical futures in an imaginative and intimate way, which we all enjoyed sharing at the end of the session. Writers read sections from both the first and second exercises, and we offered some feedback and encouragement, before finally moving downstairs to the John Napier exhibition.
I’d been very struck by Napier’s sculptures when I came to see the show, especially because so many seemed to be caught in a moment between one form and another, going through some kind of metamorphosis – physically and perhaps psychologically or emotionally too, a process that resonated with the children going through puberty and adolescence in the galleries upstairs. So for our final writing exercise we took these sculptures and their strange transformations as inspiration. I invited writers to imagine what states or forms they were moving between. Could they write this metamorphosis – showing this ‘being’ as it morphed, describing both the strange twists and turns of its form, and the inner changes they might be mirroring?
Writing from this session of Drawn To The Page, will be going up on this blog soon. And we’ll be back in the new year from another season of workshops. Discounts are available if you book more than one session, and the Spring 2016 dates will be going live on the New Writing South website very soon.
Saturday 30th January, 10.00am-1.00pm
Art From Elsewhere: International Contemporary Art
Read more here
De La Warr Pavilion
Saturday 27th February, 2.00pm-5.00pm
Tonico Lemos Aud and Steve Farrer
Read more here
Saturday 19th March, 2.00pm-5.00pm
John Bratby: Everything But The Kitchen Sink Including The Kitchen Sink
Read more here