The participants for November’s Drawn to the Page workshop gathered in the Studio room at the Jerwood Gallery on a stormy afternoon in Hastings. As waves outside beat at the shore, we talked about Century: 100 Modern British Artists and In Focus: Stanley Spencer – a Panorama of Life. The main exhibition brings together one hundred Modern British artists, showcasing a mixture of paintings, sculpture and works on paper selected from the Ingram and Jerwood Collections. A Panorama of Life is a single room which brings together paintings, drawings and archive material from the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, exhibited alongside work by Stanley Spencer and Daphne Charlton from the Jerwood Collection. It focuses on Spencer’s affection for the ordinary, everyday domestic life, and the spiritual significance and profound satisfaction that he saw in daily work. The gallery notes quote Spencer as saying: ‘When I see ordinary circumstances I seem to see the whole of which it forms a part. All these isolated happenings touch in a conception of life which I call religious; they tell of it and there is a truth in their revealing. I like to celebrate all loveable acts. All ordinary acts such as sewing on a button are religious things and part of perfection.’
This quotation became the starting point for our exploration of the exhibition spaces. Workshop participants were asked to note details of sculptures and images that caught their attention. We also looked for interesting people or figures as well as abandoned houses, empty landscapes or deserted urban scenes. Back in the Studio, each of us wrote two details we had noticed on two separate cards, and gave one of these to a fellow writer. This led to a rich discussion of the works which had engaged us, for example, the rose on a labourer’s sock in a Stanley Spencer painting and an abandoned hat in the Crucifixion scene by Tristam Hillier. Our peers’ observations inspired us to look more closely at other works as we returned to the gallery.
The notes about Dora Carrington’s painting of Iris Tree describe Tree as having ‘bobbed hair and a scandalous reputation.’ Once we had chosen the subject of a figurative painting or sculpture, we described a physical characteristic of theirs and then pictured something to do with their character or reputation. We let these qualities come from our experience of the painting or sculpture rather than information provided by the gallery. When we began to write, we told our ‘characters’ what we would do if we were them. For example, ‘if I had bobbed hair and a scandalous reputation, I would get up at dawn and climb out of my casement window and throw paper gliders across the rooftops of Paris…’ As this was a ‘free-write,’ the writing could change tenses and viewpoints. The aim was to imagine ourselves into world of the painting or sculpture, as experienced by its subject.
Our next exercise also involved entering the world of the image. To prepare for it, we discussed Sigmund Freud’s essay on the Uncanny, which developed the notion of unheimlich – literally, ‘unhomely.’ Freud influenced the Surrealists, for example the painter Tristam Hillier, several of whose works are included in Century exhibition.
Tristam Hillier Abandoned Farm in Mayenne 1981.
Deserted landscapes or buildings can often provoke a sense of unease, of the unknown, and raise questions such as ‘what happened here?’ Our participants chose an image of an abandoned house, empty landscape or deserted urban scene and imagined themselves walking around inside the picture. They began to write about something unusual or out-of-place and tried to create an atmosphere of either magic or unease, by describing what can they could see/not see, hear, feel and smell. They wrote for ten minutes to generate ideas and then began to craft this ‘raw’ material into a story or poem.
In the upstairs part of the Century exhibition, there are several collaged images. Collage has its verbal counterpart in the cut-up, which was also used by Modern artists, including the Dadaists and Surrealists. Beat writers like Brion Gyson re-discovered cut-ups, slicing through texts to create new combinations of meaning. As songwriters Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke have all used the cut-up technique to create song lyrics. Contemporary visual artists like Susan Hiller use found texts as a source of inspiration.
In the final part of the workshop, participants experimented with this method by swapping fragments of writing and then weaving them together to make new work. They already had cards describing details from a painting or sculpture. The next step was to write down words and phrases from the afternoon’s writing in gallery. Once again, cards were swapped. We looked at examples of ‘cut-up’ song lyrics from Dylan and Bowie and then crafted this raw material into a poem, adding or subtracting words. When we read out the resulting pieces, some extraordinary combinations of images emerged.
You can read writing from this session here on the Drawn to the Page blog, and we’ll be back for our next session, at the De La Warr Pavilion on Saturday 3rd December.