Writing workshop

Tue 22 October 2013

The Cornwall Workshop included a one-day writing workshop led by curator and writer Ellen Mara De Wachter, who has contributed this report.

The writing workshop was a daylong collective exercise aimed at exploring writing, as a process akin to making art, a way to access the imagination and give it clear expression. Its goal was for each participant to develop a piece of writing to communicate effectively about art, in an enjoyable way. Text is one of the most powerful tools for transmitting information, opinion and meaning about art. It can enhance people’s understanding and appreciation of art, give people pleasure and generate new ideas. If good art makes us see the world differently, good writing (which is so often good art too) makes us see art differently.

For the first half of the day, participants presented and discussed texts that had played some part in their understanding, appreciation or approach to art or art production. Each participant had been asked to bring an influential text, and read it out to the others. There was then an opportunity for people in the group to ask up to three questions and have a brief, spontaneous discussion of each text. Many brought literary texts, ranging from science fiction to short stories and poetry, while some shared theory and others brought artists’ writings. There is a full list of what people brought at the bottom of this page.

For the afternoon session, the group was summarily divided into artists and non-artists. Artists worked with the notes they had produced for ‘say what you see’, an exercise they had begun on Sunday, directly after the second Hamish Fulton walk, when they had been asked to jot down their immediate impressions. The aim was to record anything they had noticed in simple terms without interpretation or analysis, and to avoid the distortions wrought by time and feelings. At the writing workshop, the group compared notes and then broke into smaller groups to assess the usefulness and communicative potential of each of their statements, and use them to write a letter about the experience to a sympathetic reader. Interpretation, poetry and feeling found their way into the finished texts in a natural and balanced way and the artists produced letters that conveyed their experiences with sensitivity, humour and accuracy.

The curators, writers and researchers worked on an updated version of art historian JP Hodin’s questionnaire for artists working in Cornwall in the 1950s. One of the participants, Rachel Smith, a PhD candidate researching artists in Cornwall between the end of World War II and 1960, had told the group about Hodin’s questionnaire a few days earlier. This simple survey, with its idiosyncratic questions, limitations and assumptions, is an intriguing research tool. The group rewrote it for artists visiting and working in Cornwall today and distributed their new version to the artists participating in the workshop. The completed questionnaires were read out as a group, gathered in the living room at Kestle Barton, to mark the end of a long and fruitful day.

– Ellen Mara De Wachter

The texts Cornwall Workshop participants brought to the writing workshop

Anna Best – Frances Stark Collected Writing, 1993-2003 and Dave Eggers The Wild Things
Beth Richards – Ilya Kabakov The Man Who Never Threw Anything Away
Bryony Gillard – Donald Barthelme The Balloon in Sixty Stories
Jesse Leroy Smith – Albert Camus Ephemeral Creation in The Myth of Sisyphus
Naomi Frears – Fischli and Weiss How to work better
Oliver Sutherland – Franz Kafka Amerika, Jean Baudrillard Hyperreal America and Jorge Luis Borges On Exactitude in Science
Rachel Rose Smith – D H Lawrence on Cézanne in Poets on Painters
Simon Bayliss – Siri Hustvedt Mysteries of the Rectangle: Essays on Painting, Vemeer’s Annunciation (an essay comparing Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace with renaissance annunciation paintings, pg 11 – 27)
Simon Morrissey – Edgar Pangborn The Judgement of Eve
Nick Davies – John Dewey Art As Experience
Nicola Bealing – Ingmar Bergman Each Film is my Last and Mark Rothko Writings on Art
Pedro de Llano – Text from Jimmie Durham’s Pedro del Rio
Sean Lynch – Seamus Heaney Sweeney Astray
Agnieszka Pindera – Susan Sontag Regarding the Pain of Others
Samuel Saelemakers – Douglas Coupland Life After God and Padgett Powell The Interrogative Mood
Paula Santoscoy – Suely Rolnik Micropolitics: Cartographies of Desire
Phil Rushworth – Mark Hutchinson Four Stages of Public Art in Third Text Volume 16, Issue 4, 2002
Teresa Gleadowe – Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop (a description of the way of life of the Navajo Indian, pg 245-8)
Ellen Mara De Wachter – Mel Gussow Conversations With (and About) Beckett

JP Hodin Questionnaire

Rachel Smith, one of the participants in The Cornwall Workshop, is currently in the third year of an AHRC-funded doctoral research project entitled ‘Connecting St Ives c.1948-60: Common ground and international exchange’ with the Tate Research Centre for Creative Communities and the University of York. She is also one of the curators of the exhibition ‘International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915 – 1965’ at Tate St Ives, 17 May – 28 September 2014. Here she describes the questionnaire drawn up by J P Hodin in 1964, which she introduced into the Workshop discussions.

As part of my doctoral research on the international networks affecting art in mid-twentieth-century St Ives, I have been drawn to traces of information which help to re-connect histories of art practice in West Cornwall to artists, critics, dealers, cultural organisations and audiences elsewhere in Britain and further afield. This is not to undermine the importance of West Cornwall, its landscape or its inhabitants to the art made in this terrain, but rather to work towards a more sensitive understanding of how the history of St Ives as an artistic ‘school’ or ‘centre’ is embedded in wider relationships between art works and place in the twentieth century. A set of documents I stumbled across in an archive forms a particularly interesting case study for considering the interplay between the art historian’s desire to place artists in relation to a particular context or locale, and their works in relation to other artists, landscapes and traditions, and the tendency of artists to question or reject such associations.

In February 1964 Josef Paul Hodin, a celebrated Czech art historian who settled in London during World War II and also spent summers in Cornwall, posted a questionnaire to artists he associated with St Ives. In a covering letter, addressed to each artist, Hodin explained that his intention was ‘to collect material for a major article for The Studio magazine.’ The questions he asked were:

1. When did you come to Cornwall?
2. How long did you stay, or are you living there now?
3. What attracted you in Cornwall?
a) the landscape
b) the artists’ milieu
c) other reasons
4. Is your work influenced by the Cornish landscape?
In what measure?
5. What are the characteristics of this landscape in your opinion?
6. Is Cornwall particularly attractive to the artist?
7. Would you consider the notion of a Cornish School of Art, or even a Cornish style, acceptable?
8. Make a short statement of your own aims in art.
9. Give the dates of the various stages of your development and the influence of trends or personalities upon each of these stages.
10. What is the main source of your inspiration?
a) nature
b) works of art

The article, as Hodin imagined it, did not appear. However, held with Hodin’s papers at the Tate Archive are responses from eleven artists: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Paul Feiler, Barbara Hepworth, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Roger Leigh, Alexander Mackenzie, Denis Mitchell, Karl Weschke and Bryan Wynter. Through their responses, the artists were invited to reflect on their relationships with Cornwall, both as a landscape and as an artists’ community, to assess how important the characteristics of the place were to them as artists, and to describe other influences on their development. For the artists involved this was an opportunity not only to reflect on their own histories but also to portray themselves in certain ways, and especially in relation to place.

Hodin’s questionnaire suggests that he had already formed strong views on the importance of the landscape for the work of the artists he had selected for his study. The Cornish landscape is continually referred to, much more than any other feature of the place, such as its people, politics or history, although respondents were free to add these. Interestingly, the majority of artists responded disapprovingly to the assumptions implicit in Hodin’s questions. At least half of the responses returned to Hodin arrived with covering letters expressing dislike of the questionnaire; many found the idea of explaining their work in relation to Hodin’s pre-given concepts particularly offensive. John Wells wrote to Hodin at the end of February 1964 saying, ‘I must confess I find such questions almost impossible to answer and in fact, I can’t help it, exceedingly irritating!’

Out of all the respondents, Peter Lanyon was the only artist who did not dislike the idea of their work being seen to represent Cornwall and ‘Cornish-ness’. In fact, the force of Lanyon’s answers comes from his determination to stand apart through his Cornish identity. His responses, always humorous, sarcastic or proud, were followed by his ‘suggestions for a better questionnaire,’ which included the questions ‘When were you born in Cornwall’, ‘IF not when do you propose to leave?’ and ‘Is your work influencing the Cornish landscape, e.g. do you object to tin mining?’ Through these rephrased questions Lanyon highlighted the way Hodin’s questions framed Cornwall as a place for artists to migrate to (and perhaps leave again), a place of privileged recreation and cultural activity rather than local labour and industry, a place whose image was constructed primarily through the eyes of incomers and outsiders.

The most successful aspect of Hodin’s project was his creation of a space for the artists to contradict and contest his assumptions.  It is the rigorous interrogation of Hodin’s questions by Lanyon and others that makes Hodin’s project so interesting today.  The artists engaged critically with the foundation blocks of Hodin’s questionnaire, so that it seems likely he would have recognised where his questions fell short.  Having set out with presumptions rooted in his belief in the overriding power of a shared cultural geography, Hodin was confronted by the conflicting characters and stubborn individualism of the artists, who denied the possibility of a communal, or rather uniform, understanding of their relationships with place.

– Rachel Smith

Note: Peter Lanyon’s responses to the J P Hodin questionnaire are reproduced by kind permission of the Tate Archive, the estate of J P Hodin and the estate of Peter Lanyon. This material is part of the archive of Hodin’s papers at the Tate Gallery, as are all other questionnaire responses referred to: Josef Paul Hodin Papers, Tate Gallery Archive 20062,  (uncatalogued).  Rachel Smith first came across J P Hodin’s questionnaire and the artists’ responses in the Tate Archive. We have since learned that Peter Lanyon’s responses to J P Hodin’s questionnaire were reproduced in ‘Peter Lanyon, The Cuttings’ published by his son, the artist Andrew Lanyon, in 2006.

Selection of updated questionnaires