Since collaborating with an artist for the image on the back cover of my first book, Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning, I have been drawn to the notion of exploring the possibility of ways in which writers and artists might work together. While these two activities may seem quite independent of each other, each requiring a certain amount of solitude and inner thought, it struck me that there were convergences. Both require observation. And both require patience. Perhaps more pertinently, both require some sort of creative transformation of an event or a place or a feeling into either a visual or written form. Why does a writer choose one word over another? Why does a painter put a brush stroke just there or a dash of colour, here, in one particular place? What is it about the creative process that engages a person and encourages such decisions? In many ways, we might argue, that this whole process is quite mysterious. Is it ever possible to say why one word feels better than another? Perhaps not, and there is beauty in this mystery. But equally, beginning to explore why certain things might ‘be’ could lead to exploring more generally the transformation of the physical and emotional world into a creative text.
With this in mind, I made a recent visit to Whitby, North Yorkshire, with Tony Cockayne, a painter and illustrator. Our main purpose for the trip was to trace Sylvia Plath around the town via a little-know short story published in 1961 called ‘The Perfect Place.’ I intended to make notes and take photographs, and Tony intended to respond visually to some of the scenes from the story. However, while there we decided to see what kind of discussions we might have, and what sort of possibilities might arise for a more in depth, bigger project.
Sitting in a sunny, cobbled courtyard over tea and cake we realised that certain creative interests connected, namely the importance of places and traces and often striking emotional responses that can be felt in a particular location. Coming from an academic background, I tend to theorise this, drawing on all sorts of concepts to explain why I may react in a certain way to a certain place. Coming from a less rigid, art school background, Tony is happier to just let the experience ‘be.’ We began to draw up a list of places that we would like to visit to see what might happen or what type of work might arise from simply being there and observing and feeling. Places such as the ruins of Elizabeth Bowen’s home, Bowen’s Court in Ireland, the death site of Wilfred Owen at the side of the narrow, green Canal in Ors, France and the mysterious, ivy-clad ruins of Ashley Combe House, home of Ada Byron in Somerset. How might literature and art give back a voice to the silence of these abandoned places? And anyway can we say that a place is ever truly silent?
As we visited key sites in Whitby, we both engaged in our own ways with the surrounding environment. Climbing the steps to the church which sits atop the steep cliffs above town, Tony writes:
Ascending the 199 steps to St. Mary’s Church, from the cobbled lanes below, one is astounded by the tall cross of Caedmon and beyond the great abbey ruin of Streonaeshalch. Whitby Abbey is where the monk Caedmon would take care and shepherd the animals and as the story goes, experienced a vision here, guiding him to write verse; some of the earliest recorded on these islands.
It is day two of our visit and I am here again. This time alone; to paint and draw. On the recently mown grasses of the cemetery slopes of the East Cliff, I choose a spot and spread out the contents and materials of a deep drawing case. Looking up through a myriad of gravestones, I gaze up to the Abbey ruins and begin working on heavy watercolour paper with charcoal, before superimposing black and white gouache upon Indian ink washes of varying density. Later, I swivel and turn to face the sea and the pier lighthouses on their sea wall crescents and sketch the scene, which will become a small oil painting back in London, where the Abbey charcoal will also transpose to a moonlit scene, described in Plath’s story, ‘The Perfect Place.’ Several hours work on the cliff are afforded, prior to the arrival of a distinct chill, followed by cold rain that will drive me back down into the town.
While Tony was sifting through materials choosing ink or gouache or charcoal on a glowering day, I was wandering about taking photographs and thinking about stories. All of the people buried in the churchyard – children, sailors drowned at sea, shipwrecked bodies, and families stacked on top of each other with names engraved on tall crosses. The gravestones were warped and melted by the harsh sea mists and rains. The abbey looming over the churchyard was a place where hundreds of monks must have walked and prayed and looked out across the sea. All of those voices were still there, somehow, as a seething presence. How would it be possible to access them? Would it be possible to access them? Creatively, fictionally, almost certainly. “All those people, all those lives, where are they now?”
On Bloomsday night, sitting between coloured beach huts in the curve of the bay, Tony responded to the scene visually and textually in an impressionistic manner, recalling a song which ends with the sound of the sea:
From Between The Beach Huts (Bloomsday)
On the horizon, the gold descending glow, precedes orange and the space between the yellow and the blue. We wait for the green ray, before the arrival of the transfixing eye of the gull. The waves cascade and roll, crash and draw back, through stones and retrieve the memory of Tim Buckley’s “Love from Room 109 at The Islander (on Pacific Coast Highway).”
I, however, merged the present with the past, thinking back to how the beach huts had looked earlier in the day, mizzled with drizzle and fog:
The place between the beach huts.
In between the red and blues and yellows of the beach huts, the midnight sky is carved up into the slanting shape of the roofs, each slice of starless black fenced in as if belonging individually to each hut, first this one, then that one, until the astonishing explosion of openness out across the sea, the sky suddenly released from its constriction to blacken and gleam above the water. We sit. Earlier the sea mist had covered the huts lining the curve of the bay. I imagined salty beads and drippings. The headland stretched out beyond, the dramatic falling off of the cliffs. The gulls reeled and circled in the back-draft. But tonight, each wave booms against the side of the path, throwing spray, creaming against the rocks. We feel it.
We realised that there were similarities here, yet the interpretation using the visual and the written word in fact described slightly different scenes, with a focus on different moments and different elements. How then does this become negotiated? How do these elements collude? There is creativity and space for interpretation in difference and diversity and perhaps this is the place that needs to be explored.
Experiences cannot be shut off and moulded. They have a mind of their own. And when we give them a creative shape, who knows what they might look like?