Step Up: An artist’s view of exploring the surreal at West Dean College

Outside In artist Melanie Hodge shares her hopes and highlights of the Step Up: Exploring Collections course at West Dean College

Work by Melanie Hodge from the course

Have you taken part in a  Step Up course before – if so when?
This was my first Step Up course with Outside In. I had seen other courses on offer, but location and timings made them impossible for me to attend. This course had the magic combination of scheduling I could fit into my other commitments & content, especially as the surrealist connections within the Edward James archive and West Dean collections had been of interest to me for years. 

Why did you want to be involved in this course?
I have long thought my work has a strong connection to the surrealists, but lacked confidence both in making the claim and in developing that side of my work. The opportunity to be at West Dean, exploring the archive first hand, and learning more about the surrealist artists Edward James supported, seemed an immense privilege and I wanted to see how this opportunity might affect my work. 

What were your hopes for the course?
I hoped that spending time with the surrealist artists within the West Dean Archive and Collection would give me a better understanding of where my work most closely aligns with the surrealists and how. I also hoped that by learning more about the artists of interest to me, I would gain greater confidence to play with, respond to, and develop surrealist elements within my work. 

Melanie Hodge’s glass painting

What has been your favourite part so far?
Discovering the following text in a handwritten letter from Leonora Carrington to Edward James … which I then found quoted in Stefan van Raay’s essay “Most Dearly Beloved Edward”; “My Dearest Darling Leonora.” (Leonora Carrington: Magic Tales, 2018. pg 150).

            “When I’ve finished chasing cockroaches, I shall arrange my studio and start to paint again. I have grounds laid on two oblong panels – rather small. […] It’s no good trying to paint quickly. I can’t. Dali is very lucky to be able to knock them off as he does.” 

I love the mix of balancing everyday chores against her painting practice and recognise Leonora’s frustration at working slowly (me too!). I also have that sense of wonder (and envy) that others, especially men, can be so prolific … perhaps because they aren’t doing the “cooking, marketing, cleaning and caring for the children” as Edward James complains Leonora does in a letter he writes to her several years later. (Ibid, pg 162). Apparently he’d like her to be painting more … and yes, I know that feeling too. 

What would you say to another artist thinking of applying for Step Up?
Definitely do it. In fact, if they decide to run another West Dean course, I’ll be first in line asking for more time in the archive. Not sure that’s allowed, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I’ve only had a chance to quickly scan through two of the nine (or more?) boxes of Leonora Carrington correspondence in the archive. If the chance arose, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

Click here to see Melanie Hodge’s Outside In gallery

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