The challenges of my Creative Writing Class can always be linked to a tea towel! Last week, we moved from our safe base in the college to the wider world of an art gallery. Our task was to look round an exhibition of black and white, and coloured, photographs taken between 1960s and 1980s in America by 17 different photographers. A ‘contemporary’ art gallery would never have been my choice of a place to visit with its soul-less exterior and an interior that superficially was fully accessible but in reality lacked a lot of the necessary amenities – seats to admire pictures from, lighting that does not challenge the eyes and acoustics that should allow for conversation but completely block it, poor signage so that although you know there are four galleries you have no idea how to access them. However, this is what I needed, something to challenge me. We have been asked what we want to do next term and I realise that, while I could answer a question like that, it is not good for me. I need someone who knows what they are talking about to throw out the challenges, take me out of my comfort zone, push me to the limits, not let me pick the safe topics and hide behind them.
Having been set the task of looking at the Exhibition and then writing something about it, in any genre, in any way: the whole thing, one picture, a theme. I knew that, if there was a possibility, I would buy a tea towel from the shop and incorporate what I was inspired to write in a Tea Towel Blog. I wanted to remember this day. Of course, the shop was good and had a selection of tea towels but only one would do. I’ve seen the ‘moustache’ tea towel online; it isn’t one I would naturally choose but this is about taking me out of my comfort zone. My first impression always was of Salvador Dali, a bit creepy. I have to say that I dislike the ‘strap line’ immensely, thinking of it, in a literal sense, makes my stomach turn but it will always remind me of the trip to this Gallery.
Suddenly, thoughts of Jean come to mind; where did that come from? Jean was a woman I worked with for many years, a brilliant woman with an incisive mind who died suddenly, and unexpectedly, on my birthday. Jean was a mentor, a role model, someone who was disastrous at telling a story because she always started in the middle and then flicked back between the beginning and the end. She always assumed you knew the story so it was difficult to interrrupt her and ask questions. Jean is one of the reasons why I wanted to I do a Creative Writing Course so that I would not fall into that trap. Jean died 10 years ago. They played ‘Simply The Best’ as the coffin left the church, and that’s what she was, simply the best, better than all the rest. That is how I remember her. Her mantra was ‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’. She alluded to this many times at work, a way of trying to inspire the team to work together rather than focussing on themselves and their individual needs, the importance of seeing the ‘bigger picture’; sometimes it worked.
In the main, this mantra works for me, has proved successful. The Creative Writing Course is a good example: each session can stand alone, within the theme of ‘Writing and Art’ but looking at 8 weeks, as a whole, brings a cohesion, something more tangible, a bigger learning.
Jean’s mantra, however, will never work for me in an Art Gallery; an Art Gallery, for me, is ‘information overload’. I can only walk around a gallery and pick out one, maybe two, pictures that I can focus on. More than that and I will loose the sense of beauty, artistry and wonderment. I enjoyed and appreciated the Lowry Gallery; it was Lowry, only Lowry, all aspects of his work; I can manage that. It is not interrupted by other artists.
So the challenge for Week 8 of Creative Writing was going to be daunting for me. Was I going to have to ‘blag it’, pretend that I could do what was expected of me, walk round and absorb everything? Then I remembered Jean’s mantra; it doesn’t matter how you do it, the outcome is your personal inspiration from a gallery. Today, the ‘whole’ will be the combined personal reflections of the sixteen people who visited ‘State of America’ that day.
Starting in Gallery 1, I immediately found two photographs that caught my attention. I wasn’t going to be distracted by others. I retreated to the cafe to do my write up. There is something stark and bare and revealing about photography in black and white. The subject and the setting have to be right because no fancy colours or gimmicks are going to improve it. Black and white gives a clarity, a beauty that cannot hide emotion. I am stunned by the impact of the images. I can only take in a few. There is a danger of becoming overwhelmed to the extent that you see nothing, admire nothing, retain nothing. I don’t want to do that with these black and white photographs.
Two women. Two women standing alone, arms folded across their bodies, standing ram-rod, neither smiling, looking straight at the camera but not interacting with it; there is no joy or laughter, no emotion. They both have a sassy look, don’t mess with me. They both know their place in the world and are happy with that.
They are separated by photographers, age, setting, and possibly time and status. I see Mrs T Charlton Henry; is it because I know her history that I see a look of self assurance and, possibly, arrogance? Or am I putting that meaning on her because I see the elaborate candelabra, the antique hall table, the Ming vase and the marble fireplace? Have I made assumptions because she is in a long satin evening gown, with satin above-elbow gloves, five strings of pearls and a hair-do to die for?
In contrast, I look at the woman in black with a black pillbox hat and veil, black sleeveless dress, black, cotton, wrist-length gloves. She reminds me of a picture of Jean I saw at her funeral, from when she was about 20. That same look on her face, a rough elegance. The woman in black looks as though she has been to a funeral; Jean’s outfit was for her wedding, if I recall correctly.
But am I doing what Edward Hopper hated, a viewer putting an interpretation on a work of art that was not intended by the artist? This is the arrogance of viewers when think they know best. Have I learned nothing on this course? I shouldn’t interpret the work of an artist. It is what it is. They knew what they were doing. I have the privilege of being able to look in wonderment, but never to wonder. It is the privilege of access to an Art Gallery and the willingness of an artist to share their work.
I realise that my approach to viewing art in galleries is dependent on art galleries being free to visit, so that I can go back, time and again, and appreciate what is there. If I had to pay a significant entrance fee that would make it inaccessible for me in terms of cost and I would miss those opportunities. I am happy to make my donation for each visit, commensurate with what I saw and how much I enjoyed it. Access comes in many forms and if, like me, you have epilepsy, having to look at a mish mash of pictures, all in one go, is exactly what I mean by ‘information overload’ and may well generate those seizures that I am desperate to control.
So why did I call this Blog ‘Happenstance’? Happenstance is one of those words that I have always wanted to be able to use, not to be muddled with ‘Happenchance’, but of course, given its meaning, there is rarely an opportunity. My visit to the Gallery in Nottingham did provoke ‘happenstance’ where a series of thought-threads from memory and the 8 weeks of creative writing did lead to links and take me down roads I did not expect to follow. I like a bit of ‘Happenstance’!! That is exactly what I want from a Creative Writing Course; I’ll fill my questionnaire in now!