Second Workshop: Text Totems

The second workshop in our first series – working with a group from Bilborough Community Centre alongside Nottingham Contemporary associate artist Jo Dacombe – took place today, but this time, instead of taxis bringing the group to Weekday Cross, it was our turn to gather materials and head to Bilborough, where we’d be picking up the threads of last week’s viewing of the Anne Collier and Jack Goldstein exhibitions. Once we’d arranged the tables, had a much appreciated coffee (these are mornings, after all) and prepared ourselves, the group assembled and we set out on a mission to build some Jack Goldstein style text totems of our own.

As we’d more or less anticipated, the group was different this week to last: some members who’d taken part last Tuesday were missing today, but if anything our numbers were slightly up overall, with several new members joining in today. This was one reason why the original plan of using objects or pictures brought in by the group had to be side-lined (though one lady had brought along a beautiful piece of framed copperwork she’d made, and it came to loom large in her own approach to the workshop). The idea may return in another session.

Given the shifting membership, the ‘text totems’ exercise had the virtue of being accessible to everyone, whether they’d been to the exhibitions or not, and we had photocopied examples of the pieces on show at Nottingham Contemporary to pass around, along with other images from the two shows, to offer inspiration and starting points for new texts.  That said, it’s always important to leave exercises like these sufficiently open ended for each individual to pursue them as literally or tangentially as he or she likes – often the best things emerge when someone runs off in a direction you hadn’t forseen and ends up doing an entirely different exercise to the one with which the session began.

The responses were varied: one lady drew four points on a journey (Home, Boat, Beach, Home) as captioned pictures, then reinterpreted them as a Guillaume Apollinaire style Calligramme in which house and boat fused, then became a treetop with the addition of the borders of a path to the front door.

Another pursued her own ideas with extraordinary focus, and after creating two striking (and very different) totems was already halfway through a third when she looked at her watch, gathered her materials and left, promising to bring the new one along next week.

A further drawing into text approach began with a line of swans, separated by reeds and surrounded by trees, which then became the words ‘graceful swan’ written in linked swan-like curves, and trailed a landscape of words behind it.

Others worked in pairs, cutting out and passing words and phrases from newspaper headlines back and forth, building a bold (and cohesive) totem journeying from the darkness of “tortured and robbed” to the light of a “high-flying love affair” by way of a giraffe, a bounce back and a “fantastic journey”, while others still worked quickly or slowly – one woman extending her text into the third dimension with flamboyant curls of green paper, while one of our two men used pre-cut phrases from old encyclopaedias – the material used to build the Collage Poems – and created his own oblique spin on a folktale by picking and arranging phrases from the pile.

By focusing on each individual in turn, and allowing the group to wander in different directions simultaneously, the atmosphere can seem a bit chaotic: people dip and out, go for a cup of tea and return, or chat among themselves while we talk to someone else in the group. But the results are good, with an air of interest in what’s being made, and everyone producing something during the session. I think we work hard at recognising when our interventions are welcome, and when they’re likely to seem intrusive; when someone is happy to chat, or simply wants to concentrate.

One of the good (and fairly rare) things about a group like this – where there is not only myself and Jo but also the Write Here mentee Aimee Wilkinson – is that between us we can spend most of the session working one to one with people, taking time to listen as each person expands upon the work they’re making, and being able to hear the stories, experiences and details that often don’t show up in finished works, as these emerge from wider conversation. Because there are three of us present, everyone in the group can be given full attention in ways that just aren’t possible when there’s only a single person running the workshop, as is more standard. 

Because we can devote that time to listening, it’s also possible to find conversations moving over larger than usual stretches of territory – from the flippant to the serious, the enthusiastic to the reflective. And within that is revealed – as so often, with all kinds of people – that we are often able to ‘write’ in conversation with an ease and vivid detail that the blank sheet of paper seems to intimidate away – one hope is that sessions like this might perhaps be the beginning of a process of building confidence, so that at least some of the texture  in the voices that emerge in conversation find their way onto paper.

There’s certainly plenty of good material circulating around our table today: stories being told ranged from one lady’s account of the day her big chance at a career in fashion coincided with the bombing of her family’s home during the Blitz: all survived, but a necessary move away from London led her away from the opportunity. Another talked about life in a village where the Rev W. Awdry was the local vicar (it’s not every day you hear the phrase “my husband was at school with the Fat Controller” in casual conversation). Others spoke of family complexities, lost spouses, news stories that had caught the imagination, wartime experiences, mining fathers and husbands, craft skills, former jobs, random interests and thoughts, chess, and much else besides. 

While all this went on, the totems we’d set as the exercise for the day were being made, and the stories kept returning to questions of how to represent things on a page: how to convey the elegance of swans or the feeling of being underground? (The latter question prompted by thoughts of Postcards from the World Beneath: the collection of Gerhard Stein, as curated by Thomas Demand in the Small Collections Room). Stencils, chance juxtapositions, neatly handwritten paragraphs, photographs and drawing were all pressed into service.

Next week, we’ll be back in Bilborough again, before returning to Nottingham Contemporary’s Studio for a final session, which will hopefully leave time for participants to revisit the exhibitions. In the meantime, I’m gathering old record sleeves and discs in preparation for our next session, which will focus on the soundworks. One thing that quickly became clear today is that a full week on from the first visit, something in those Jack Goldstein records and the sounds played back in the headphones had made a lasting impression.

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