Words and pictures make an ideal match

Michael Stewart
Michael Stewart
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A new exhibition opens today featuring a collaboration between a writer and an artist. Nick Ahad finds out what inspired the idea.

It’s an intriguing image and easy to see why it beguiled writer Michael Stewart.

A few years ago he was editing an anthology of poems for Grist, with works written by poets from around the world. One of the works was called Rough and another, Smooth.

“Smooth was on the left hand page of the book, Rough on the right. I made them both line up and then realised when I closed the book that they had this relationship to each other. When the pages were closed, they were coming together in the dark,” says Stewart.

It was such a powerful image that Stewart began toying with the idea of the relationships between poems and in particular those that lie together in books facing each other. From there he began writing poems, which could stand alone, but also work as one half of a couple.

“There was His and then Hers, Me and You, Meaning of Life and Meaning of Love, it was one of those ideas that, as a writer, you toy with and then it takes hold,” says Stewart.

That was in 2009 and the idea didn’t exactly fizzle out, so much as run its course. By the end of the project, Stewart had written a total of 22 poems – 11 of each and its opposite.

“It seemed like a good number, one and one, to fit the idea,” he says.

As the festival director of Huddersfield Literature festival, author, playwright, radio drama writer – and more – Stewart already had plenty to keep him occupied, and the idea of the poems written in couples sat on the back burner for some time.

Until that is he went to the Bradford Art College MA show, where he saw the work of Carole Griffiths.

“The couples poems had always been quite a strong visual idea and when I saw her work I quickly realised that she shared a sort of blackly comic view of the world that informed her work,” says Stewart. “I thought it might work alongside the poetry pairs.”

Griffiths was intrigued by the proposal and Stewart handed over his Couples poems and she went away for six months.

“I wasn’t sure what she would come up with, but I felt I had exhausted the idea. With just 22 poems there wasn’t really enough for a collection, so I thought it would be interesting for Carole to take a look,” says Stewart.

“When she came back with the work she’d created in response to my poems it exceeded all my expectations.”

In those six months Griffiths had created a series of different works, including sculptures, paintings, images, which complemented and enhanced Stewart’s original poetry.

The pair knew they had something and approached South Square Gallery in Thornton, Bradford about the possibility of an exhibtion. With the combination of Stewart’s words and Griffiths’ visuals the gallery snapped up the chance to exhibit the work.

Stewart says: “As a writer I don’t necessarily work collaboratively, but from the start I was always going to be a partner in this piece of work, I was never going to be the curator.

“I think the result is an exhibition that relies equally on the visual and the text for its impact.”

The South Square Gallery, a venue which continues to gain a reputation for interesting work, was perfect because it understood the aesthetic of what the pair had created, but also for another reason.

“The walls contain a number of bricked up windows – like the closed pages of a book.”

Creative collaboration

couples features the visual work of Carole Griffiths alongside and even incorporated into Michael Stewart’s texts.

More than a piece of sculpture or painting and the poem which inspired it, in some of the works, the words appear to literally come out of the visual work.

The exhibition is open to the public from today until January 31. There is a launch night on January 13, with a performance piece and a screening of video installation art which Griffiths and Stewart have also collaborated on.

Gallery details on www.southsquarecentre.co.uk