Miranda Boulton / Island Series 12, 2018 / monoprint with gouache 39 x 48cm
For a year and a half, between January 2017 and July 2018, I witnessed and recorded an artistic collaboration between two sets of friends, one working and creating in the present, the other – because mortality need be no barrier to art – in the past. The painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, became interested in creating art in response to each other’s work and then discovered a mutual fascination with the painter Winifred Nicholson and her friend, the poet Kathleen Raine. An unusual kind of collaborative circle sprung into being as Benyon and Boulton opened up an imaginative space that stretched back in time across the twentieth century in which Nicholson and Raine lived and worked, and outwards in space to the Hebrides, where they travelled for inspiration. Within this space the living artists responded creatively to both the art and the friendship of their counterparts in the past, allowing their paintings and poems to be infused with found artistic elements that were resonant or evocative to them. During this time I interviewed them regularly to track and examine the creative process as it unfolded.
When I came to the project, I had been working on a book about crisis and creativity, believing to some extent that creativity was forged in the white-hot necessity of processing events that lay beyond the boundaries of normal comprehension. What I found here was an entirely different approach to creativity; one based in attentive observation and the elasticity of empathy, energised by the knowledge that another person is interested in what you are doing. It was beautifully sane, and it made me want to understand creativity in its liberated and playful manifestations.
I began to search for theories of creativity that offered integrative perspectives on the creative act. What caught my eye was Christopher Bollas’ account of the life of unconscious thought, which he describes in his book, Cracking Up. Bollas pointed to the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved as the basic element of our fundamental creativity. Like curious bystanders, these mental elements are drawn towards experiences that have a particularly intense emotional charge, and towards objects or events that awaken a potent cocktail of memories, feelings and instincts. Freud called the clustering of rich mental elements around a heightened moment a ‘psychic intensity’. Bollas describes how a ‘psychic intensity is also something of a questioning, when the individual implicitly asks what has happened, but in doing so unleashes the dispersing forms of the question itself.’ In this subconscious moment, mental energy blooms swiftly, saturated with meaning, into a starburst of thoughts. Or as Bollas puts it, ‘intensities create psychic bangs which create small but complex universes of thought.’
This seemed to me a fine springboard for exploring what was happening as Kaddy and Miranda responded to the art and poetry of Winifred Nicholson and Kathleen Raine, and as they responded to each other’s work, too. Throughout the project they saw through the eye of the magpie and were guided by the experience of what Bollas calls ‘a not unpleasant turbulence’ of psychic density. This seemed especially complex and intriguing in the artwork created as the culmination of the project, ‘The Monoprint Sequence’, which I will look at in some detail here. This comprises a series of monoprints and a long poem, two stanzas of the poem interpolated between each monoprint, speaking to, and with, and for, each other in a chain of profound resonances that are both interrogated and enhanced by the difference in media.
By the time these artworks came to be created, Miranda and Kaddy had steeped themselves in the art of Winifred Nicholson and the poems of Kathleen Raine, reading essays and letters the women had written as well as biographical material about them. They had also become deeply familiar with each other’s work. Kaddy had lived with a succession of Miranda’s paintings on her walls, Miranda had read Kaddy’s poems and had them tacked up by her easel. But when it came to creating their own art, they would often literally turn their backs on the work of the other members of the collective and be guided by the desires, memories and impulses that arose spontaneously within them. Kaddy articulated the experience that all three of us felt at various points across the project. She said, “I feel that throughout the research I’ve been an empty cartridge and I’ve filled myself to the point of bursting with facts about these women and any other associations I’ve got. And then I’ve just scatter-gunned. I don’t know what’s coming, I just know that I can feel it needs to.”
The Island Series of monoprints was created during a week-long residency in Sweeney’s Bothy on Eigg during the spring of 2018. Eigg was a significant location for Winifred and Kathleen who had travelled there together in the 1950s on one of their creative holidays. Kaddy had completed her own residency at the same bothy in 2016, a trip that had become for us a kind of creative precursor to our project. So Miranda had a weight of associations to the location and creative choices that she felt compelled to make. “I want to do a lot of drawing and watercolour or gouache,” she told me prior to her residency. “Quick paintings when I’m there of the [flower] arrangement through the window. I often have a motif that I come back to and use within a series.” The arrangement of wild flowers on a windowsill was a particular motif of Winifred Nicholson’s, and it had already featured in the series of oil paintings she had previously created. Now her intention was to explore it in the rapid and chancy medium of the monoprint. She explained that “Winifred painted in the moment, and that was why she wanted to use flowers. There is nothing else but the moment, it’s the stillness of that she’s trying to capture. She really did finish a painting in one sitting as well; she worked very, very quickly. It’s about copying her way.”
The lengthy journey to Eigg was a time for artistic gorging, as Miranda sought among the artworks of the collective for “anything that spoke to me.” When I interviewed her afterwards she said that she had “researched all the way up on the train, or just re-read and articulated things. Then it was like having all these elements and throwing them in together, just being so full of our project that I had to get it out.” Sweeney’s Bothy on Eigg turned out to be an energising space, and Miranda drew intensely for more than thirty hours over the course of six days. “It was so calming up there I could contain it. I had to sit there and be completely still to channel it. I’d been really careful with the things I had, so it felt like this beautiful, empty space that you could fill with whatever you wanted.”
The process for the monoprints began with the selection of lines from Kaddy’s and Kathleen Raine’s poems: “I’d read a whole poem of thirty lines but there’d be two lines in there and those were the ones. And that was what I really wanted to do: home in on snippets.” These she would transcribe onto the paper before laying it face down on the perspex screen, unconcerned whether or not she was drawing over the words. The drawings came as always from memory, using some of the elements of Winifred Nicholson’s paintings that had become emblematic for all of us, others that were personal to her. The exception to this was the landscape lines, for the “landscape I really tried to take from Eigg, because it felt right that it was placed in the work.” Then, once the initial print had been made, Miranda continued her process of pentimento, a process that is the signature of all her work. She told me that she “got much more interested working more deeply into them and creating layers, reacting to what had already been laid down.” She began to turn the paper before creating the next layer. She found that “it helps keep the composition and process fresh, unexpected and experimental. It’s not predictable and has become an adventure for me, worked out in real space and time on the artwork.” Finally, there were splashes of colour too in gouache, marking the yellow of a petal, the blue of a gate in a brief, visceral appeal to Nicholson’s work.
Kaddy’s poem ‘The Blinks’ also began with choices drawn from Winifred Nicholson’s work long before the piece was ever begun. In this case an essay that inspired her, in which Nicholson wrote of the ‘many colours that have not yet been seen’. Nicholson was fascinated by nuance of colour and brought to her appreciation a spiritual depth of meaning. ‘It takes several blinks in the dark to see colour,’ she wrote. ‘These are the blinks I needed – everyone will have their own.’ Kaddy told me: “What came first for the poem was the title, I knew way before I started collaborating with Miranda that The Blinks was going to be the title of something I would one day write – I just had no idea back in 2014 what it would be.” When Miranda returned from Sweeney’s Bothy, the answer became clear. “That title came back as soon as I saw Miranda’s monoprints, there’s a quicksilver energy to them that she’s captured in the act of creating at speed on the paper. That resonated strongly with how I experience remembering my dad. My memories of him feel like distilled, potent moments – it’s actually quite photographic.” She also added that she “had no intention of writing about him for this project, he just seemed to stroll into the poem and take up residence there”.
Also taking up residence in the poem was Kathleen Raine. Kaddy told me that whilst Winifred supplied the title, she was “far more in touch with Kathleen as I wrote,” especially with “her own significant attachment to a nature-loving man”. ‘The Blinks’ is studded with small extracts from Raine’s On a Deserted Shore, brief fragments that are incorporated into her lines, marked by italics. (“That’s really interesting that you homed in [on snippets] exactly the way I did,” Kaddy said to Miranda. “We haven’t talked about this before.”) The nature-loving man in Kathleen’s life was Gavin Maxwell for whom she had a fierce but unrequited love. Their friendship lasted until the end of his life, and included many housekeeping stays at Sandaig when Kathleen would look after Gavin’s otter while he travelled. But their relationship was also fraught with tension and conflict. Gavin could be cruel and took Kathleen’s devotion for granted, whilst Kathleen never accepted his homosexuality and wrote publicly about their relationship in an intimate way that horrified him. No matter what happened, Kathleen clung stubbornly to her belief that they shared something spiritual and loving, and when Gavin died, she insisted she knew the moment it happened because of sighting a formation of curlews flying. On a Deserted Shore is the sequence of 130 short poems written in the three years after Maxwell’s death that gave Kathleen’s grief expression and seared her love for him into words.
“It comes in flashes,” Kaddy told me about her memories of her late father, “the way his binoculars would swing around his neck; the daft expression on his face when I came through arrivals after a trip to Texas; that atmosphere of being in a car with him eating piping hot fish and chips as the rained drummed on the metal roof. Some memories, like the ones mentioned above, are strong and favourite; easily accessible. Others seemed to rise up through my own layers and I won’t have previously been conscious they were there.” The process of writing was a way of sifting through these memories in order to honour her father in all “his versions”. But then something shocking and unexpected happened that added a further dimension to the poem. Not long after the first draft of the paintings and poems had been compiled, Miranda’s father died. We were all in close contact still – I was writing our introduction – and we were there for those first raw weeks of mourning. Later, Kaddy created a new draft of ‘The Blinks’ in which she was able “to tap into her recent grief, because of course it triggered memories of my own”. She told me: “Though ‘The Blinks’ is very much about my dad, it holds Miranda’s dad in mind also, and is a tribute to both of them.”
The opening to Kaddy’s poem:
The breakdown of these artistic processes into their compositional moments gave me much to think about in terms of Bollas’ theory, in which the powerful, potent connection between inner and outer worlds is so elusive to witness. The moment of psychic intensity, as it occurs in the ordinary complexity of everyday life, is rich but fleeting, Bollas tells us. ‘We walk about, have intense moments, and then associate to them,’ he writes. ‘We cohere as intensity, we disseminate as association.’ In fact, the more powerful the feeling aroused by the psychic intensity, the quicker it breaks up and flows away into a plenitude of other associated thoughts. And the harder it is for the conscious mind to register the details of all that then occurs, for often the richest moments create what Bollas describes as ‘a concurrence of thought on differing planes of psychic reality, an overlapping.’ The simultaneity of the (over)stimulated mind creates an impenetrable barrier of its own.
What I was seeing in the creative processes of Kaddy and Miranda was their ability to identify and isolate a moment of psychic intensity and to sit with it until its most meaningful features became first internalised and then transformed into an artistic vision. Then they both worked to recreate the small explosion of associations and memories and instincts that had subsequently arisen. Listening to their accounts of creativity, I understood that the business of art is to crystallise the moment of psychic intensity, to capture it as if it were occurring in real time, and to harness its energy, refusing to let it disperse beyond the frame or the margins of the page. What was even more interesting about this project was its collaborative nature, which took them beyond the identification and elaboration of their own psychic intensities. Artistic empathy opened them up to the experiences of other artists, and created further bursts of intensity. Having followed the process of both research and production, I felt the distilled moments that appeared in prints and poems were both more complex because arising from a multiplicity of perspectives, and yet also simpler because pared back to their universal qualities.
My own experience of Kaddy’s poem and Miranda’s monoprints echoed Bollas’ theory. As I read the one and looked at the other, I was conscious of an upsurge in the thoughts and feelings and associations flowing through my mind, aware that certain lines, certain images, produced concentric ripples of interpretative and reactionary thought. But more than that, there was, I felt, a performance of Bollas’ theory taking place within the artwork. A way of understanding art and how it is read that brought Bollas’ theory to creative life.
If we look at the opening stanzas and the first monoprint together we can start to tease out some of the details. The stanzas of ‘The Blinks’ seem to have an explosive device at their heart which has shattered their lines into fragments, each one of which might be read as a little psychic intensity, an emotional, evocative nugget left lingering in a brief isolation. The absence of any capital letters intensifies this sense of fragmentation, of no beginning or end, just a chain of resonant snippets whose relation to one another we can elaborate in the spaces between them. The poet seems aware of the exploded nature of her verse, speaking of ‘trails of spent gunpowder’ and the father’s voice that ‘detonates into the depths’. Though these phrases are equally comments on the power of memory to disseminate the self around experience in a moment of psychic intensity.
The form of the monoprints, by contrast, offers the experience of simultaneity. There’s equally an explosive device at work here, but rather than view the aftermath, we are in the middle of the conflagration. I had been used to looking at Miranda’s oil paintings up until this point, whose palimpsestic quality is signalled by tonal transitions between the different layers of paint. In the monoprints, accomplished so swiftly, there are no gradations of colour, no noticeable lapses of time built into the viewing experience. Instead, a riot of significant interstitial images – Winifred Nicholson’s blue gate, her vase of flowers, the traces of window frame and the outlines of Eigg’s landscape – ricochet the viewer back and forth between different times, different images and different artistic vernaculars. This is the moment of psychic intensity as it occurs, the complex texture of the monoprint is the texture of the mind that explodes in thought and associations. Bollas said that each moment of intensity was also a moment of questioning, and this I think can be seen formally in the different perspectives and scales employed in the image. The mind constantly tries to adjust to unexpected contradictions between near and far, between radically non-cohering images and, in monoprints where Miranda has turned the paper between printings, between points of view.
What unites poem and monoprint in the first instance is the use of the palimpsest, though this is deployed in diverse ways. In ‘The Blinks’, Kathleen Raine’s sequence, On a Deserted Shore, floats up in italicised phrases, like flotsam from a shipwreck, settling into a complementary relationship with the other poetic fragments on the incoming tide of memory. In the monoprint, the poetic quotes appear and disappear beneath other lines, rendering them not entirely legible, suggestions that are never quite completed. In both cases we are faced with blanks that must be respected, a fantasized wholeness that we will never know. ‘In the course of ordinary self-experience,’ Bollas writes, ‘I lose grasp of my thoughts, am interrupted by forgettings, frustrated by my failure to find a word for itself.’ In the shadows of his mind, there are ‘discarded mental contents that seem to slide into darkness.’ For Bollas the incomplete and incoherent nature of mental life is essential to the human condition. We are, he says, ‘constantly breaking the textures of inner experience with the movement of nothingness’ for this is the truth of the ‘inevitably tattered fabric of being.’ The intellectual resonance of ‘The Monoprint Sequence’ comes, I think, from the use of psychic intensity crystallized in art; but its emotional clout comes from this formal enactment of loss.
Then there are the interruptions caused by the constant switch between prints and poems. As much at this creates disruption, it also produces resonance. The emotion of loss evoked by the poem bleeds into the images, whose ghostly, half-seen nature is emphasised. The images, in turn, absorb meaning and cohere briefly into narrative, in context with the poem. As I work my way slowly through the monoprint sequence, a stanza about ‘night terrors’ and the fear immanent in seeing the ‘cracked lenses’ of the poet’s father’s glasses is followed by a monoprint whose lines quiver with uncertainty, its patterns more lost than usual, and hazed by texture. The poet’s dissolution (‘I’ve come undone again’) is followed by an image in which Winifred Nicholson’s candle burns fiercely in its centre, the bright colour of hope. The announcement of the poet’s pregnancy is followed by a monoprint in which multiple bulbous vases of flowers lie on lightly intersecting planes with, lurking behind, the further containment of an oval frame, a visual suggestion of Plato’s chora. As I read and look and think and feel, the layers of psychic intensity provoked by the artworks become almost overwhelming, until my mind hones in, looks for coherence and convergence, makes interpretations, follows paths of association, becomes lost in the creativity that is the act of reception.
‘Can I characterize the nature of my inner experience during such moments of being lost in thought?’ Bollas asks. ‘I think these are moments when we are in the heart of darkness, dispersed into so many elements that constitute being that from the point of view of consciousness we are no longer present.’ This is one of the most intriguing of art’s many paradoxes: that we should not be present to ourselves when we are functioning at the most intimate levels of the mind. Art takes us out of ourselves by asking us to tunnel deeper, to travel further into what we think we know and understand. And whilst we travel always towards revelation – the hope that art will bring epiphany – that very climactic moment can only be subject to the laws of inner experience and suffer the inevitable dispersal into new chains of thought. ‘Belief in the moment of truth,’ Bollas writes, ‘is displaced by the break-up of such truths into divergent interests which are suggestive of still other truths to come.’ It is, I think, the essence of art to provide resonance without closure, and at the end of The Monoprint Sequence, the heart-breaking simplicity of the open gate is matched by the shining ‘single sacred moment I can surface from blinking blinking’ of the final line of the poem. Yet these moments of arrest and arrival send us back into the heart of the work once again, searching for the blink that might provide the undefined sacred moment, and the iterations of that gate in other earlier prints. We know we have found truth, but can we say what it is?
Bollas says that it’s the process that matters. ‘All along, what had seemed to be the means to the truth – free association – is the truth itself.’ It is the gift of art to give us a conscious experience of this unconscious process. Art works to foster creativity in its viewers, overheats the mind to melt its frozen places, loosens us into new mental and emotional choreography. It is a condensation of what happens in everyday experience, a guided encounter, a delicately administered electric shock, the psychic intensity of a psychic intensity, teaching us how to free our minds.
Miranda Boulton / Island Series 8, 2018 / monoprint and gouache 50 x 62cm
A Painter & A Poet: Female Creativity and the Art of Friendship by Kaddy Benyon, Victoria Best and Miranda Boulton will be published by Bridgedoor Press in November 2020.