We’ve just come to the end of another term at SouthSide Writers. This time the theme was Decoration. Staff at the South Side Centre are hoping to spruce up the building a bit, enhancing the walls with text and art. This set me thinking about decorative art in general. It tends to be regarded as the poor cousin of the Fine Art, which I, like many others, regularly use as a writing prompt. Yet Scotland has its own great traditions of design: Paisley, tartan, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as well as work derived from Celtic motifs. Every other culture has countless riches in media including textile, ceramics, wood, metal and stone. There are many amazing examples just round the corner from Southside at the National Museum of Scotland. Why not use some of these as a basis for a set of writing classes?
What, if anything, do artistic and literary decoration have in common? Pondering this question in the first session, while Radio 3 was celebrating its Baroque Spring, the Southside consensus seemed to be: plain style good, ornament(ation) bad. Well, long live minimalism – and I like white cubes very well – but aren’t we now in a more tolerant, multiple and eclectic aesthetic era, the nostalgia-kitsch of some product branding notwithstanding? Embellishment of objects adds design interest in the shape of details or features, and doesn’t just foster a sense of comfort in times of austerity. Beautification doesn’t have to equate to falsification here, so why was rhetorical embellishment regarded with such suspicion? Pursuing the connection between literary and decorative arts, we pared down our attention to the line as a unit of meaning, as championed by artists Paul Klee and Richard Long, and practiced writing lines with varying numbers of syllables and stresses. Klee’s phrase ‘take a line for a walk’ is a useful starting point for the timed or ‘flow’ writing exercises often used in writing groups, this one included, even if it tends nowadays to conjure up the undesired image of a dog on a retractable lead. Long literally walked, trod, lines into the landscape; built landforms; and produced huge text panels that ‘captioned’ his walks.
We planned an excursion to Dovecot Weaving Studios to look at some tapestries. By happy co-incidence their current exhibition was by Julie Brook. Brook had been commissioned by the Studios to make land art in Libya and Namibia, and chose to record her work in the medium of film. The two main rooms contained screens showing sequences of mesmerising, immersive moving images. Earth, water and sand moved, evolved. One of the sequences was entitled ‘Drawing a Line’; a number of Brook’s accompanying paper works, hung around the studios, also had ‘line’ in their title. Sometimes the films were more documentary, showing Brook making the work in the desert, slicing into a mudbank; or building a stone ‘raised line’, a 3D sculptural form. (Is there a literary analogy for that?) We simply sat and wrote words and phrases that were suggested to us. I thought of the beginning of the world, in the opening of Wagner’s Ring Cycle specifically, but of cosmic origins generally, and of Blake; of monoliths and landslips and 127 Hours; of wine-dark and blood-red seas, and of this stanza from Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland:
For once, I didn’t want to make a new poem, I just wanted to let the images swim around and mingle with my own associations. I think this may have been true for the other writers too: several turned up at the next session with streams of consciousness and series of fragments and evocative suggestions. This gave rise to an extensive discussion of matters arising from the exhibition. We talked a lot this term: ornamentation generated conversation. Several writers suggested that the very richness of decoration was inhibiting to the writing process. I don’t think it necessarily has to be: you can, for example, use a piece of decorated crockery in fiction as a way of conveying something about the character who owns or uses it, as one member did – but I am nonetheless intrigued by the group’s views.
The evening before our visit to Dovecot some of us went to hear Brook in conversation with Don Paterson, one of a series of talks with practitioners from other fields, including dance and film as well as poetry. Paterson suggested that poetry was quite a cinematic medium. I’ve never previously used film as a writing prompt, but I’m keen to do so again. Certainly one was invited to construct one’s own meaning, if not narrative, from the way multiple relationships played out between the moving images on Brook’s screens. Alluding to Klee, she spoke of reducing responses to place, and form itself, to the simplest possible element: the line. It’s this interplay between the simple and the complex, the detail and the embellishment, that intrigues me, in whatever medium is used.
Paper works accompanied the films, abstract geometric shapes or reduced forms, some using desert clay or the glorious local red Otjize pigment. Was there a literary equivalent of pigment? I asked the writers to ‘translate’ a chosen picture into words. Of course it could be argued that there’s no point in drawing parallels between different media in this way, but I think it is worth asking if we can gain some insight, some enhancement of creativity, from at least considering the possibility. I sometimes have Paul Klee or Richard Long in mind when making a line of text – now I will possibly also think of Julie Brook. One of the Dovecot makers, Jonathan Cleaver, produced a rug in response to Brook’s work on pigment. We learned a new word for an artistic medium: tufted.
Later on in the term we considered places where text and image are actually juxtaposed on paper: in illustration and ekphrastic collaborations (writing about art); in art which incorporates text, from illuminated manuscripts to Blake and onwards into the twentieth century; in calligraphy (when viewing a foreign script, do you ‘read’ it as a text or look at it as a picture?); in concrete poetry and ‘language art’, places where text is presented as art.
We moved on to look at the way the material world is everywhere enhanced – or reduced, some might say – by text, in forms ranging from signage, advertising and branded clothing to standing stones and tombstones. After writing some postcards, ‘wish you were heres’ from the imaginative landscapes evoked by a set of stills from Julie Brook, we considered other applications of the word card (Are all cards used for either communicational, transactional or ludic purposes? Is ‘plastic card’ an oxymoron?). We examined playing cards, recto and verso, in a new light. Why clubs? Isn’t a diamond actually a rhombus? The answers to these questions can most likely be found on the internet, but we hadn’t thought to ask them before. Finally, we returned to the idea of line. The number of pips on the card dealt to each writer was to determine the number of syllables, or lines, to be used, and for good measure the name of the suit was to be included in the piece of writing produced.