Plymouth Literature Festival 2017:

Surrealist Women and Writers Block

by Matt Thomas

ocean-studios space

Leonora Carrington

The long, narrow upstairs gallery at Ocean Studios is a great space for an event. It’s full of windows, pale stone and aged floorboards. There’s a massive brick fireplace at one end. At the other, you enter the room through a maze of partition walls, like discovering a secret. It feels both grand and intimate, a good quality in an arts venue.

When I was there on the last weekend in October, to sample some of Ocean’s tempting offerings for the 2017 Plymouth Literature Festival, diffuse sunlight poured in through the room-length skylight. The art installation-like arrangement of seminar furniture (projector, table, red extension lead, portable screen, bottled water), suggested an informality that fit the rustic environment.

Exeter University lecturer Felicity Gee began her Saturday talk ‘Surrealist Women’, with an overview of Surrealism, its origins in literature in the mid 1920s, its preoccupation with dreams and the unconscious. She introduced major players in the movement like Andre Breton and Jean Cocteau, and Cocteau’s ‘The Blood of a Poet’, which featured photographer Lee Miller. This set the stage for a discussion of women involved with Surrealism, among them Miller, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun and Dorothea Tanning. Many Surrealist women were accomplished artists in their own right, but their work was often overshadowed by the work of their male colleagues, and at times they were relegated to playing roles of muse, or object of desire. Gee then zeroed in on the main topic of her presentation, the work of Leonora Carrington. Carrington was born in England, but lived and worked much of her life in Mexico.

Leonora Carrington- feminist Artist

Leonora Carrington- feminist Artist

Lenora Carrington

Lenora Carrington

Regarding her own position, Carrington had this to say, ‘I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse. I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.’

Animals figured heavily in Carrington’s paintings, particularly as metamorphic figures and spirit guides. The dynamism of Carrington’s transforming figures stands in contrast to the more statuesque portrayal of women in the work of some male Surrealists. Carrington’s writing, most notably ‘Down Below’, a frank and direct, but also hallucinatory account of her experience in an asylum in Spain, rounded out Gee’s talk. Gee started with the idea that words represented freedom for women in Surrealism, and finished with an artist whose pictorial and written work aimed to describe the complexity of experience and identity.

On Sunday I attended Writer’s Block, a discussion of a project developed by Kernow Education Arts Partnership and The Story Republic, led by KEAP director Amanda Harris and educationalist Rob Lane. They introduced The Writers’ Block, a program designed to help reluctant writers unlock their creativity and bolster their confidence. The Writers’ Block was inspired in part by Harris’ work on ‘A Space To Write’, a book of interviews with Cornwall-based writers about their processes and the physical spaces in which they work. From this, The Writers’ Block idea grew into what now is an actual space in Camborne, as well as a programme of workshops and activities designed to help school kids gain confidence in their writing that they can take back into the classroom.

Writers block website image

Credit Writers Block

A space to write: Writers Block workshops image

A space to write: Writers Block workshops image: Credit Writers Block

The creation of the space involved artists, writers, theatre people and teachers, and has among other enticements, its own cabinet of curiosities. The team at The Writer’s Block have designed innovative, engaging ways to reach out to students, particularly boys, who can be self-conscious about expressing themselves. This became apparent when, after Harris finished, Rob Lane took over and led us through a series of exercises used on the programme. Throughout our workshop, Lane stressed inclusion and positivity; no wrong answers, no contribution dismissed. And it worked. We had a great time. Harris and Lane are clearly passionate about the work The Writers’ Block does, and it was a distinct pleasure to spend time in their company.