As I don’t believe in ALL work and no play for writers, I want to include posts, here and there, that will give you a break from Writers’ Repairs and suggest some ‘Things to Try’ of a less onerous kind...
We are told that writers get their ideas from life experiences and it’s easy to think that this means life events, things that have happened to us or others and that’s true but somehow not broad enough. Writers get not only ideas but much of their technique from experiences of everything, from watching and listening and experimenting and finding parallels and mixing experience and this should, without doubt, include other art forms like arts and crafts and watching plays.
The bank holiday brought some longed for sunshine to Scotland, and the Hawthorn that usually flowers in May decided it might show a flower or two. Less shy blooms told us summer was finally here and erupted in a blaze of colour.
The bank holiday also brought us Spring Fling when over 90 artists and makers, spread across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway, throw open the doors of their studios and give us an unprecedented opportunity to visit them and see where and how they work, ask about the medium they have chosen, their sources of inspiration and buy some of their work, if we wish to. Buses cover a number of circular routes on each of the three days, in various part of the region, for those who prefer not to risk getting lost by taking their cars. These buses are run entirely by volunteers who are often as interested in art as their passengers. I chose the yellow bus route around my own area because when you live somewhere, daft though it seems, that’s often the last place you go to visit places of interest.
I had several reasons for going: To have a great day out, to see work I knew I would love, discover something about work I would not normally have been drawn to and to see if anything might suggest a poem. On the way I discovered much more.
My Contribution to Spring Fling
Just by chance, after hearing three artists speak at a pre Spring Fling meeting last year, I was motivated to write poems about their work. I asked them if they would be happy to tell me a little more about themselves and their work and began with Patti Lean, an abstract artist based in Dumfries. Over the year I wrote four poems for her and I am proud to say that this Spring Fling,those poems were displayed in her open studio alongside some of the paintings that gave them life.
In the time I worked with Patti, I learned so much about what gave her inspiration, how poetry and art speak to the imagination through the power of image and how we appeared to have working methods in common. One of my poems wanted to be three poems; another didn’t want to be one at all. Patti was enormously encouraging. She said:
“ I find very interesting the parallels I think I can see between our working methods; the wish to simplify things versus the reality of them growing and becoming ever more complicated – that’s certainly one of my biggest issues, so I sympathize.”
The soft pastels, dull greys
of wind-whipped Scottish beaches
were the backdrop to my girlhood
arrivals and departures,
later ferry crossings and trips to the beach
with children; the days they swam and I watched
taking note of islands, points of light,
sand patterns, sails, rigs and piers,
seeing the ocean remake itself wave on wave,
discovering its open, careless geometry
and the salt traces of its mark on me.
You will see that this particular poem is not about a painting as much as about the artist. My approach is to act as the voice of the artist, whether it be telling a story behind a painting, exploring themes that gave rise to it or, as in this case, a memory and the importance of the sea as an ongoing source of inspiration.
I would have liked to have written poems for more artists last year but life got in the way, so, when I finished these, I got back in touch with the other two artists I had originally approached as well as two more, each one working in a different medium. I find I am ridiculously excited about what I may learn from them all.
Patti Lean’s studio was further east so she was not on the yellow bus route that I want to tell you about. However, you can find out more about her and her work at http://www.pattilean.co.uk.
Our little bus visited too many studios to include them all here, so what follows are the highlights of the tour and some of what it meant to me as a writer.
Joanne B Kaar is artist in residence in Wigtown at the moment. She showed visitors how the leaves and grasses she collected from local gardens could be made into simmans or rope using traditional methods and has fashioned a series of rope dogs called the Wigtown Waggers. She has also invited people to ‘spin a yarn’ by adding words to the simmans which will evolve into the next chapter of the story of two of these dogs, Newton and Stewart, which was begun during the Wigtown Book Festival last September.
Joanne, originally from Caithness, is also currently working with the curator at Caithness Horizons Museum, to document the pressed herbarium collection of Robert Dick who was baker and botanist of Thurso from 1811-1866. This experience has hugely inspired her own papermaking, bookbinding and collage projects as you can see here:
This lovely collage has a narrative of its own but is organised differently and unfolds in various directions at the same time. This suggests to me how the same technique could work for a short story, or even a novel, using fragments of life. (www.joannebkaar.com)
Jennifer Smith is a fine art printmaker, specialising in collagraph and drypoint processes which she loves because it allows her to emphasise colour and texture with unpredictable results. You can find out more at http://www.jennifersmithprints.co.uk. She is inspired by the beauty and changing colours of Wigtownshire. Below are some pages from her sketch book, an artist’s version of a writer’s journal. On some pages print and paint merge to create rhythms and textures which I love.
Gary Craig is a portrait and figurative artist who works in oils and whose work is disturbingly real. He gets to know his sitter really well, learning their individual expressions and gestures so he can reveal their personality more naturally, as we might do with characters when writing a story. (www.garycraiggallery.co.uk)
Kevan McGinty‘s studio was our next stop, in Whithorn. We spoke for several minutes before it dawned on us that we had met before! Kevan paints mainly, though not exclusively, in acrylics, and clearly enjoys mountain and coastal subjects. However, his work shows a variety of techniques from the representational to experimental . At first I was surprised by this but, if writers enjoy exploring fresh ways to express themselves,why not artists? Paintings are individual ‘stories’ that may share themes and tropes but they are not all approached from the same angle or use the same techniques and with practice they mature over time. (www.mcgintyart.com)
We then made our way down to the coast:Lisa Hooper is an artist and printmaker based in Port William (www.hoopoeprints.co.uk) She makes linocuts, woodcuts, etchings and other types of hand made prints and her interests lie in the landscape and its natural history and birdlife. She also makes batik images on paper and experiments with Japanese woodblock prints. She has a wonderful old house cum gallery and workshop where she keeps bees and grows her own vegetables. We were offered tea and cake which went down very well. I am hoping to speak to Lisa soon about working with her on some poems.
Look at this: It’s called ‘Going Fishin’. I can’t believe there isn’t a story there!
After visiting Lisa we drove to Portpatrick where I ate my packed lunch overlooking the sea and where a couple were getting married on board an RLNI lifeboat. I wondered what she would have done with that veil in the blowy weather we had had the day before. My poem ‘Seascape’, mentioned above, will be appearing in an anthology soon, with proceeds going the RNLI.
Suzan Malcolm’s bright airy studio, scattered with her joyful paintings of flowers, was a pleasure to visit after lunch. I think her paintings would be enormously healing for anyone suffering from depression as they seem to lift the heart. Flowers are her starting point, stemming (excuse the pun) from her years working as a freelance botanical artist but, she says “recently and quite unexpectedly, birds with their bright eyes, have crept into my work”. She also uses gold leaf in some of her paintings which is wonderfully effective, as you can see here on the right:
We were offered a glass of wine and invited to see her preliminary sketches and hear about her working methods. Again I was struck by the similarities to writing. Like stories, her paintings “combine elements of the remembered and imagined as well as the observed,” often with a hint of transience. We talked briefly about how we both tinker with various drafts/sketches trying to get some sense of the poem/painting of our imaginations, how we strive to uncover what seems already to be there, waiting to be discovered. (www.suzanmalcolm.com)
In the 12th century, lines of poetry were used to test the prowess of painters at court and paintings were regarded as “ soundless poems” where meaning was not to be extracted but to be felt. I think this is still true of much of our contemporary art.
We then had the delightful pleasure of getting lost in Castle Kennedy Gardens (above), on the way to Lochinch Castle to three more studios before finally being treated to cake and tea and the gracious hospitality of textile hat maker Kay Ribbens (www.craftscotland.org) at the last studio of the day and the end of our journey.
Exhausted by the pace of the day and with a head buzzing with ideas, I drove home to shower before rushing out again for ‘Spring Sing’ – a really enjoyable evening of song at the Bladnoch distillery, featuring local singers and musicians Zoe Bestel, The Mermaids, Steve Dowling, The Cochranes and graphic artist and musician, Hope London. I am hoping Spring Sing will now be an annual event.
(The above photo of the Cochranes was taken by Andy Farrington. All other photos are my own)
Next Post: Problem: ‘There is something fake about my characters. My invented characters never seem to turn into fully realized people. How do I make this happen?