This year’s journey began at the Shire Hall Study Centre where we encountered Lorina Bulwer’s extraordinary tapestry. An outpouring of, often scurrilous, emotions with a stream of consciousness energy and yet remarkably in the medium of embroidery; each bitter word made from countless prickings of the fabric. The scavenged cloth, thoughts and coloured thread aesthetically coming together in such an original coherent way, its force of character shining out. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorina_Bulwer The work engaged everyone; Nora Gaston and I immediately saw it as a way of bringing together the visual and written elements of the project. To that end I switched my workshop exercise to looking at epistolatory writing i.e. in the style of correspondence. This provides a seemingly straightforward framework, but also opens up an infinite range of possibilities. Participants might enter into correspondence with their research subjects. Buildings or objects might write letters; seasons or abstract nouns might have something to say.
Some of this year’s participants brought existing artistic practice to the table. We had a published writer, an architectural designer, a photographer and artist with a military background and someone who has kept an extraordinary journal of their research and ideas. We also had some who hadn’t had the nerve or encouragement to express themselves in writing before and went on to produce very interesting work.
The project begins with participants researching inmates of the Norwich St Andrews Asylum from the latter part of the 19th Century. One of my favourite aspects of working on this project is the stories that this research has uncovered. They had temporary stays in the asylum for various reasons and were photographed on admission and on discharge, so we had an idea of how they looked and how the stay affected them. Their weight was also recorded; they all gained weight during their stay. The language of the reports, archaic now and words such as ‘excited’ (used for delirium) carry a certain poetic beauty with them.
The tone of the reports is factual, giving them a restrained directness that makes them affecting. It’s impossible to not quickly establish an empathy with the subjects and this showed itself in how participants responded. All the writing was full of sympathy for the ordeals of people at a low point in their lives. Of course, the subjects have all been dead for over one hundred years, which makes it an odd concept; to have an empathy with someone so far removed.
The other response common to all, what people talked about when describing their subjects, was not what they knew about them, but what they didn’t know. Every subject had a life before and after the reports and details on what had brought them there was sketchy and non-existent as to what happened to them beyond. This is what fascinates us; the mystery. It also carries with it some hope, in that through imagination we can make a life for them outside of this period in their lives. It is of course informed speculation at best, but it contains possibilities, something of value that could and should have by rights been theirs. Some chose to write to great effect in the voices of their subjects, not just of sorrows and regrets, but hopes and dreams too.
I’ve been astounded by the quality and creativity of the participants’ writing and cheered by the diversity of approaches.