The March Drawn To The Page workshop was at Jerwood Gallery’s exhibition of Keith Tyson’s work: Turn Back Now. The exhibition is huge in scope. Tyson makes work about the whole of his experience, from the intimately personal to the distant and cosmic. He said ‘everything is a miracle’ at his introductory talk. This belief is reflected in his work.
The title of the show comes from his experience as a child of imagining traveling to the edge of the universe. He would travel so far, imagining the hugeness of the universe until an inner voice told ‘Turn Back Now’. The final room of the exhibition features the painting of this title and other awe-inspiring pieces the vastness of space.
Before you reach this room, Tyson covers a lot of ground. The biggest room is full from floor to ceiling with his wall drawings- 365 large drawings that he has completed as a visual diary over the past 20 years. Each is dated and includes lines of text at the top and/or bottom but apart from this the images are incredibly diverse. They feature exquisitely executed, richly layered pieces made in pretty much every style imaginable, and document a mind boggling range of human experience.
The writers chose to focus mostly in this room. It is the most immediately personal and human-scaled room, full of direct experience – a great idea store for writers. It was like having someone else’s writers notebook to work from- an extraordinary notebook!
We began with an open look at the show, attempting to take in its dazzling scope and complexity. Writers were asked to look at pieces and write alternative titles to the pictures as a simple way of looking and considering their responses.
The show is so diverse the main task of the session could have gone in many directions but we chose to focus on writing in the first person, to find characters in the images and to give these characters voices. The characters need not be people- they could be animals, plants or objects.
Before going back to the exhibition we looked at a few pieces of writing that showed different approaches to the first person. We began with an extract from ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’ by Barry Hines in which a school teacher reveals his personal frustrations while telling off some children. This uses the first person in everyday speech. We then read an extract from Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography in which he makes a highly deliberate statement about his life’s work.
Next we travelled back many centuries and read two ancient Celtic poems- ‘The Mystery’ and ‘Song of The Wind’ which give mysterious voices to elemental forces. They were diverse voices for a show that ranged in tone from the most throwaway whimsy to the most grand and elemental revery.
Writers went back into the exhibition and brainstormed their characters, choosing one image to work on. Back in the studio, we split into twos and interviewed each other in character. These tasks helped writers to get to know their characters, to learn about their back stories and way of speaking.
This work became the idea-store for the main activity: to write and perform their first-person piece for a group audio-piece. Everyone worked in intense silence for 40 minutes before we practiced our pieces out loud and made a few edits.
Finally, we recorded our pieces, which can be heard at the end of the blog. The writing and voices are diverse, emotional and convincingly real. Though disembodied and nameless the voices reveal highly formed personalities and stories. Among others we hear from a poet, a murderer, a dog and an old canvas bag. Like Tyson’s show it is a glimpse of life in its diversity.
The writers appear in this order see if you can guess who the voices belong to – the poet, the murderer, or the bag: