Summer, 2017, Yorkshire Dales and St. Pere de Ribes, Barcelona.
By now Paco and I know these woodlands intimately. He has built a library of photos from each location and my notebooks are filling. Already we’re beginning to wonder how a Work and a Product will come out of this joint endeavour.
Then, in June, I read a review of the writer Teju Cole’s book Blind Spot1. My eye locks onto a line from Adam Zagajewski’s poem “En Route” which the Guardian reviewer includes to sum up what Cole is doing with his images and words: “Passerby, open your eyes,”. Instinctively I know this has great significance for our project.
The reviewer says the words Cole sets alongside his decidedly un-touristy photos
…aren’t quite descriptions of the pictures; they’re not straightforward commentaries…often lacking a direct relation to the photos. In the space between each image and its paired text, much is implied.2
Again, I instinctively know this is significant: what is this space between an image and its accompanying text, and how does a space command the power to imply? The book arrives within 48 hours.
Cole’s forensically composed images reveal layers of detail rich in story; they demand attentionand to be made sense of. The cumulative impact of his images interleaved with his concise, soul-piercing commentaries leaves my ears ringing. Periodically, I need to take breaks from the intensity of the experience to allow it a place to settle before going back for more.
From blending his kind of prose with his kind of images, Cole has achieved a transcending synergy of visual auto-socio-biography: the form transmits his philosophical sense of humanity’s largely troubled place in the world.
I see from my own response to Blind Spot and from several other published critical responses that his method and iteration of form truly work. This, I conclude, is art as human development. I see the potential the form offers for viewing-readers to deepen their experience of the world through heightening their awareness of themselves in it. I explain all this to Paco. Inspired, we agree ‘Game on!’
But Teju Cole is both the photographerandthe writer. How would this work for us? We are two very different people who happen to be married. We are working with Paco’s kind of images and my kind of prose.
‘I will not have my work diluted, and I will not have the images and words forced together.’ This is Paco’s opening gambit when, months earlier, we seriously discuss collaborating on a piece incorporating images and words for my Masters in Creative Writing project. It hangs over us untilwe finally seethat Cole self-imposed this same limitation: it was fundamental to his artistic vision.
Co-creation in our consulting partnership is usually a tough process. Paco has strong convictions, enjoys defending them and likes creative conflict; I prefer progress to come through an organic process based on cooperation and exploration. I usually end up exhausted from the fireworks but what we come up with is always far better – certainly it is bolder – than either of us could have produced alone.
Thrashing-out a fusion of artistic compromises on this project could never work for us here. We agree to identify an overall Concept and then give each other the independence and creative space to work on it in our chosen forms. Our faith that these will synergistically gel into something developmentally useful is based on us sharing the same loci of inspiration: these Dales and Spanish woodlands.
In my research speaking to co-creating artist-couples, poet Harriet Fraser explains how things work for her and her photographer husband Rob:
‘I write, Rob makes the images. Generally we each have our own terrain but there can be cross-over: on occasions I pick up on some of his phrases or comments in my writing, and he follows my lead to photograph specific things.
‘Our project The Long View3 evolved over five years of talking and walking, and was two years in practice (though we still visit the trees now). It turned out that before we met, we had both loved visiting the same isolated tree on Whitbarrow Scar in south Cumbria, and we had both climbed it. This became the spark that got us thinking about developing a project based around lone trees. We spent a long time imagining and planning what our work could look like and involve.’
What, then, is to be the Concept for our project, and what is the origin of our co-creative spark?
Summer, 2012, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Speechless, Paco and I face a floor-to-ceiling sepia reproduction of Edward Curtis’ 1904 image: Cañon de Chelly, Navajo. As if standing on that canyon rim, we are bearing witness to a small band of Navajo riders far below passing like spirits through their sacred terrain. We don’t discuss the craft implicit in the image-making or forge a narrative from our interpretations. We just feel the work impacting on us.
Later that day in the Georgia O’Keefe museum, we see in the paintings how O’Keefe conveys her response to the Badlands and mountains around her home in Abiquiú. Absent are details such as the razor-sharp lines and edges typical of the scrubby, weather-beaten terrain we see for ourselves when we pass by her shack the next day on horseback. She has literally trans-formed and abstracted them into curvaceous, swollen representations of themselves and preserved them in the vibrant colours of an eternal dusk or dawn magic hour. That which affected herspirit is made accessible to anyone’sspirit.
In the museum, Paco isn’t interested in the short paragraphs on the wall accompanying each of O’Keefe’s paintings (he buys the book). But I can’t separate the artwork from her words and am compelled to toggle between the two in a kind of mental and visual circularity, absorbing the essence of the pieces.
‘Much as I enjoyed the horse ride,’ I tell Paco after our visit to Ghost Ranch, ‘I would rather spend an hour with My Front Yardin the museum than an hour in the yard itself.’ Saddle-sore, he readily agrees.
But seriously, why? Because it seems that when something vast is framed or constrained by a chosen form, it becomes more graspable, manageable and potentially more memorable, and this is as important for human growth and development as it is for producing fine art.
Siri Husvedt, in her Foreword for Blind Spot4points out that the retina has a very limited area of focus relative to the plethora of data it receives each millisecond. Sending to the brain only what it can deal with, the retina is already establishing form for the mind’s machinery to work on. The mind-brain alliance seeks out patterns, initially, to ensure we survive, then goes on to make meaning to help us thrive.
Navajo Indians and their photographer; a ranch homestead and its painter; us in galleries and riding horses in the New Mexico outback: we are all passing through these places or derivations of them in various ways and roles, and in doing so, something of existential importance also passes through us.
The Navajo riding through the canyon are entrusting Curtis to document the loss of their traditions. In our own passing through these galleries and landscapes, Paco and I begin to see how we, as individuals, can go on to express and develop ourselves outside of our mainstream career work. Paco decides to specialise in fine art photography and I embark on becoming a writer.
We can’t know that within five years we will be exploring synergies once again through uniting our work in an artistic collaboration.
Through spending a lot of time in our local woodlands we find ourselves having more and more creative, developmental experiences, like the ones in Sante Fe, which we begin to call our “passing through” moments. When Teju Cole’s timely book appears, Passing Through, our first foray into art as human development, becomes enshrined as our title and Concept.
February 2018, St Pere de Ribes, Barcelona and Yorkshire Dales.
Paco places an A4 box full of photos on my desk. It sits unopened for days, daring me to create a collection of prose-poems. My joy is long form fiction. Whose idea was this?
The breakthrough comes in a talk by dramatist Marcella Evaristi.5Her butt-kicking advice on the creative process hits home: get it started(write anything down – eventually it finds its form); be bold(do something meaningful); get it finished(paint yourself into a corner).
The next morning, I open the box. I ask three colleagues if they would critique some work to an agreed deadline. The first reader loves the concept and the pieces; the second approaches it as an editing exercise; the third hates it. Such ambiguity couldn’t help me more: I believe in the concept and I believe that by determinedly working and playing with different prose and poetry forms, a voice is emerging, and it has something to say. I especially believe the finished work will do its job.
In preparation for meetings with potential exhibition curators, Paco prints our selected work to date – images and prose – on the highest quality fine art A4 paper. He also prints some A2 (large poster size) samples, each containing an A3 photograph set alongside prose which is also given A3 space. We see a bold collection of prose-infused monochrome tree portraits. It is as far removed from typical Lakes and Dales full colour landscape photography books as can be imagined. When we stand back to look at it, it feels like we’re back in Santa Fe.
Days later, both curators of the Dales galleries who responded to my email pitch are visibly moved by the prose and photos in the Dossier and the A2 samples. Unprompted, both comment on the powerful impact of the prose and photograph combination. We’re offered gallery slots for 2019 and 2020. All the Wensleydale artists I interview about publishing and exhibiting are especially supportive and Piers Browne, author of The Glorious Trees of Great Britain6enthusiastically agrees to write a Foreword for our portfolio book and website. It is immensely exciting and satisfying.
Paul Wilkinson, our Wensleydale neighbour is a Yorkshire Dales National Park Ranger; I mention our project since the first exhibition will be held in the foyer of his workplace headquarters.
‘Shaw Gill Wood!’ he replies. ‘It’s such a shame so few people go there.’ The next day he tells us, ‘I’ve been thinking about your exhibition. It’s such a great thing to do.’
‘Thanks,’ I reply, ‘but it might be bit of a challenge for anyone expecting colourful bucolic landscapes and nature-stories.’
‘But people need to be challenged to look differently at what’s all around us,’ Paul asserts. ‘It might mean a bit of shaking up, but that’s a good thing.’ It’s a powerful response. Our work may be finding its audience.
I’m learning that when the concept fits with the ethos of the galleries and, in this case, their special locations, people welcome and warm to it. They co-create and thereby share in the joy of it. Even before it has been fully realised.
April, 2018, Yorkshire Dales.
‘If you don’t say what’s bothering you,’ says the poet Harriet Fraser about the co-creative process, ‘then the work won’t be how you want it. You have to go with your feelings and keep going until it feels right. Some elements are easy to get right, but we can discuss things in great detail.’
Is working with your life-partner on a creative endeavour worth it, and does it bring creative dividends? I would argue yes to both, as long as the wish and the will to do something unique exists, and as long as it is underpinned by a strong foundation of respect and communication.
‘Rob calls it “super-additivity,”’ Harriet explains. ‘He sees via his habit of framing with a camera; my habit is to use words, whether these are inspired by interview, meditation, walking, or whatever. But there is something else, the ‘third element’ that arises from our partnership and allows us to create installation art that extends, or presents in a new way, what we wish to say with our individual crafts.’
‘Have you found it takes courage to do this?’ I ask, then expand on the root of my question. ‘This is our first artistic collaboration: soon, Paco and I will be facing judgements and criticisms from our loved ones, friends and teachers, and by putting a joint work “out there” we’re exposing ourselves as individuals and well as our relationship. Aren’t artists sometimes made more vulnerable in artistic partnerships?’ Harriet replies,
“Of course it takes courage. Some things feel beautifully right, with no doubts, but some work I can be more nervous about sharing. I suspect that’s the same for any creative practitioner – the process is not without difficulty. It’s not until we put it out there, and get a response, that we can know fully how the work affects other people. I do not think that working in partnership makes us more vulnerable, as you suggest: for me the opposite is true. Rob and I support one another through the stages of the creative process, which include being stuck or challenged. Because there are two of us, the output is something that grows from our collaboration and it can be a great joy and surprise to see what this becomes. In some senses it belongs to us both, but to neither of us as individuals, so rather than feeling doubly exposed, I feel supported. It’s a great journey to be on.’
For the Frasers, their current growth-edge as artists is landscape art installation. They are preparing for a forthcoming event at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Harriet said, “Art installation was an unexpected and fascinating outcome of our partnership – it goes beyond the photography and poetry. It took courage to do it but once the process had begun we revelled in its development. I never know how it will be received and I can be nervous, but we are always clear about the thinking behind our pieces, the process of their development, and their intention. Once you’ve done something like that you have to stand by it.”
Another Passing Through experience Paco and I will have soon.
1Teju Cole, Blind Spot, 2016, Faber & Faber
2RO Kwon, Blind Spotby Teju Cole review – a writer’s photographs, The Guardian,29 June 2017
3Harriet Fraser and Rob Fraser, The Long View: Two Years With Remarkably Ordinary Trees,2017, somewhere-nowhere press
5Marcella Evaristi: The Creative Process, a presentation to M.Litt. Students at Glasgow University, 20 March 2018.
6Piers Browne, The Glorious Trees of Great Britain, 2002, Shorthorn Press and Wensleydale: Etchings and Verse, 1994