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An exploration of art in fiction: finding your inspiration

The focus of this week’s exploration of art in fiction is finding your inspiration.

We kick off with a contribution from Michael Jarvie. Michael is a working-class writer from the North East of England. He is the author of the composite novel The Prison and the thriller Black Art.

With a BA Honours degree in English Language and Literature from Birmingham City University and an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from Teesside University, he has been interested in writing from an early age and, given his German heritage, is an accomplished translator from that language.

He also writes screenplays and poetry. When it comes to reading, he usually has several books on the go at the same time.

My thriller Black Art began, rather innocuously, with a trip to a paintball venue. Even so, the sight of those red and yellow paintballs spattered on a brick wall was reminiscent of one of Jackson Pollock’s action paintings. Although that outing didn’t provide me with enough momentum for a novel, I knew that art would eventually find its way into my writing.

The multi-coloured fingernails of a fellow student provided yet another element. I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the time, and her eye-catching fingernails suggested a young woman who was intensely visual, perhaps someone who worked in an art gallery. So now I had a possible character – a feisty young woman with an artistic streak – but still no story.

Then I had a stroke of luck, though writers make their own luck. I read an article about an old woman in France who had died recently. When the executors looked into her affairs they discovered that she was regularly paying rent on an apartment in Paris, even though she lived elsewhere. It turned out that the apartment in the Pigalle district had been abandoned since 1940. Here, then, was a mystery and no mistake, all of it connected with World War Two – Paris had been occupied by the German army in 1940. Now I could see a possible storyline developing – but there was still one piece missing from this particular jigsaw puzzle.

Not long after reading the account of the so-called “time capsule apartment” the final piece slotted into place. German art dealer, Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hitler’s art thief, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, was found to have concealed an amazing treasure trove of looted art in two of his properties. The art experts put a valuation of two billion Euros on these works of art. Gurlitt died shortly afterwards and, snubbing the German authorities, left his collection to a museum in Switzerland.

With all of these elements in place I could now plan and write my novel.

Want to find out more?

Follow Michael on his Amazon author page , on Facebook or on Twitter. 

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We now hear from author, Sandra Danby.  Sandra is a proud Yorkshire woman, tennis nut and tea drinker. She believes a walk on the beach will cure most ills. Unlike Rose Haldane, the identity detective in her two novels, Ignoring Gravity and Connectedness, Sandra is not adopted.

I created Justine Tree, my artist protagonist in Connectedness, based on an amateur fascination with art. So how did I get into the head of an artist when I didn’t even take an O’Level in the subject? My starting point was two British artists. Tracey Emin for the emotional world, Kurt Jackson for Justine’s practical plein air approach to collage.

I set about absorbing art, visiting exhibitions, reading memoirs and watching television documentaries. This was not hard work as I love art but am an enthusiastic amateur. My box of watercolours is sadly under-used. My strategy was to visit as many exhibitions as I could, particularly those of artists or schools of which I knew nothing. This, I hoped, would expand my understanding. It turned out to be huge fun.

Most influential was Emin and her in-your-face way of baring her emotions in her work. How would it be, I wondered, if Justine seemed to be like Emin – Justine is criticised in Connectedness as ‘emotionally incontinent’ – but was hiding a secret behind the PR and controversy. When Justine was an art student she had a baby daughter, Jenni, later adopted. Connectedness is the story of her struggle twenty-seven years later to find Jenni, but to do this Justine must admit what she did and recognise the lies she has told. Most helpful in creating Justine’s daily life was My Life in a Column, a collection of the newspaper articles written by Emin for The Independent between 2005-2009. As I grew more confident in my subject I felt able to allow Justine to become herself, to develop her own personality. Key to this was the creative force unleashed by her migraines; these headaches are a physical manifestation of her shame at abandoning Jenni and the quantity of lies told afterwards.

Here’s a short excerpt:

Today’s pain was black. Black on black. White flashing lights, Titanium White? Justine stood with a microwave-heated wheat pad on her shoulders, a thick fleece hat pulled down over her ears and a ski neck-warmer snuggled up to her chin, wearing sunglasses despite the grey sky outside. She felt feverish and over-medicated, but over the worst.

Scooping a handful of glaziers’ putty from the pot, she spread it thickly across the canvas to represent her skull.

Putty is bone-coloured.

Grey, cream, brain-coloured. Using a tablespoon, she scooped black oil paint from the pot on to the canvas, tipping it this way and that, and then lying it flat. She surveyed the result; the damp putty was slicked over by an oily black sludge. She balled her fist so the bones of her knuckles shone white through her parchment-pale skin, and then hit the canvas in time with the pounding in her head. The chemical smell of the paint made her head spin but it cleared a path through her sinuses and gave her brain a kick-start. After a break to retch in the sink, she added more putty, more black, more drips of Titanium White like splinters of light creeping round the edges of her sunglasses. She pressed the linseed oil putty now, massaging it as if to force the pain away, kneading it like bread dough. Her fingertips left a trail of grease across her temples.

Today’s pain was black with grey.

Afterwards, she felt a kind of relief. As if a headache cleansed, bringing a new emptiness with which to face the day.

Artist Kurt Jackson was the starting point for my idea of Justine making collages outdoors. Until I found him I was unsure if my idea was impractical. Jackson works outdoors on the cliffs of Cornwall, using paint and collaging with sand and found materials. Watch him talk about this process in his short film ‘An Mor Kernewek/Shave Green (2009)’.

As a teenager, Justine experiences a torment of betrayal, jealousy and anger and begins to paint outdoors.

Here’s a short excerpt, which in my head is set on a clifftop footpath:

Knowing she might throw up, Justine ran until she had no breath left, sinking to the ground with a puff of summer dust. She cried for a long time, for lost love and lost friendship and then, recognising betrayal, she got angry. She opened her satchel and took out a sheet of drawing paper, orange furry pencil case and tube of paper glue. She weighed down the paper with lumps of chalk culled from beside the path and then, careless of the dust and grass seed flowing freely in the soft breeze, she created her first collage. A tangle of gull feathers, grass, dock leaves and smears of mud made of the dusty earth mixed with tears. She carried the half-finished jumble to her father’s shed where she carefully dismantled it, sorted and re-assembled it, fixing it together permanently with some plaster-like stuff from his workbench. She rescued a Frosties cereal packet from the dustbin and then, imagining it was the boy’s A-grade physics essay of which he’d been so proud, she tore it into strips. She sat holding a felt tip pen feeling empty of words until they spilled forth from a subconscious thesaurus: Traitor. Betrayal. Envy. Hurt. Jealousy. Theft. Unfair. Friend. Pain. Lies.

The process of learning about art and putting it into Connectedness has given me a new interest and one which is guaranteed to appear in future novels.

Want to find out more?

Follow Sandra Danby at her website, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Goodreads.

For all the latest news about Sandra’s books, sign-up for her occasional e-newsletter.

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If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested to read about how I used art as an expression of grief in my novel,  Smash all the Windows.

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