Earlier this week I made my first visit to Winchester as Poet in Residence for the ’10 days: Creative Collisions Arts Festival’ to take place this autumn. The three purposes of this visit were 1. to sit for a portrait by the artist Michael Weller; 2. to meet the festival organisers in the cathedral; and 3. to meet one of the artists with whom I shall be working in the coming months, to discuss her project.
One of the major aims of the festival is to bring together artists from different disciplines. Over the coming months I shall be working with a few visual artists, but it also seemed like a good idea to agree to have my portrait painted.
I spent the morning in Michael’s studio. I’ve never had my portrait painted before, so this was a new and interesting experience. I sat for nearly three hours, with a few short breaks to avoid getting a stiff neck, as I was requested to maintain the same position throughout. An extremely comfortable chair was provided, and some lovely mp3 tapes of poetry. In the company of John Donne, Tennyson, and then Richard Burton’s wonderful performance of Under Milkwood, the time did not hang heavy, and I really appreciated the unusual luxury of sitting in enforced idleness. The only slight problem I had to struggle a little with by the end of a very hot morning was the tendency to become drowsy.
Michael, who paints in oils, uses a limited palette of black, white, cadmium red light, yellow ochre and ultamarine blue, and with those colours produces a whole world of colours and shades. It is strange to sit under the intense gaze of someone for such a long period of time – very different from being the focus of attention when lecturing or reading poetry. Like a medical practitioner, the artist’s gaze is detached and academic. From time to time Michael would take the painting off the easel and hold it to a mirror in order to see it from a different perspective; and he would periodically clean his palette to avoid the colours merging into each other.
At the end of the morning I was shown the portrait. That, too, was a new experience. It is something of a shock to suddenly come face to face with oneself, and for some reason which I haven’t quite fathomed yet, it is very different from looking at a photograph. After my initial dumbfounded response, I realised that it is a very good portrait, and I actually like it. I’d be interested to know what other people think of it. Michael reckoned that I looked ‘reflective’; but I wondered what else anyone could look if they sat still for three hours. One can hardly grin at the artist for all that time!
Michael would like to do another portrait of me, so we arranged a date for later in the summer. This is likely to be rather different as I’m due to have my ‘annual haircut’ before then! The paintings will be displayed in the cathedral during the festival.
I went on to the cathedral, where I met the organisers and curators of the festival: Trish Bould, Angela Peagram and Jo Bartholomew. A ceramics exhibition was being mounted in the cathedral, so there was quite a lot of noise and activity. It is an exquisite building, and I’m thrilled to be working there.
I mounted to the triforium with Sue Wood, who is one of the artists I shall be working with. Sue’s piece is a sound installation called ‘Listen’, and her intention is to provide a space and incentive for people to sit and listen to the sounds of the cathedral. We spent some time discussing how Sue’s piece will work, and how much she should be present and/or visible while people experience the artwork. I have started writing a poem about her installation, and this, too, will be on display in this space in the triforium during the festival.