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Suzanne Bellamy's Visual Essays

Professor Dianne Gillespie

I first met artist-scholar Suzanne Bellamy at the Seventh Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, held at Plymouth State College in Plymouth NH, June 12-15, 1997. It was the first of many Woolf conferences to which Suzanne traveled from Australia. I was told immediately upon my arrival in Plymouth that someone who had read my book, The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (1988), was anxious to meet me. Thus began over a decade of stimulating encounters at Woolf conferences. What Suzanne calls her “visual essays” have included print series and paintings based on novels, large installations and miniature clay sculptures, as well as painted backdrops for multimedia performances. Also gracing programs, posters, T-shirts, tote bags, and once even a cake, Suzanne’s Woolf-related designs have provided several successive conferences with visual energy and definition. I have often introduced her presentations and exhibitions, and it is an honor also to introduce this book.

Although the Plymouth conference helped to expand Suzanne Bellamy’s knowledgeable and appreciative audience, her intimate responses to Virginia Woolf’s writings began much earlier. They are worth a look since Suzanne is a gifted writer and, as Virginia Woolf said of her biography of Roger Fry, it was “a gamble in R’s power to transmit himself,” and to “shine by his own light better than through any painted shade of mine” (L 6 417). “I have written a series of partly autobiographical essays over a number of years,” Bellamy recalled in “The Pattern Behind Words” (1997), “each of which has a Woolf title and philosophical underpinning (22). In her partly retrospective essay, Bellamy summarizes, in a more detailed Woolfian context and from a lesbian perspective, the evolution she dealt with piecemeal in four previous essays. Woolf’s ability to seduce women readers, noted by Jane Marcus and affirmed by Bellamy, impacts all kinds of women (“Pattern” 24). “She was not my only inspiration” for choosing independence from patriarchal institutions—urban life, the academy, the gallery system, Bellamy notes, “but she was the one who has lasted the distance” (“Pattern” 24).

While each early essay has an immediacy, reflecting as it does a stage in Suzanne Bellamy’s personal and artistic development (one and the same), the summary essay elaborates on each stage in a context more exclusively focused on Woolf. It also indicates shifts in her readings that are the result of greater maturity and contemporary applications (“Pattern” 26). As adept with words as with visual images, Bellamy describes how, to varying degrees, Woolf has provided insight into “the dilemmas of dual creativity, sister love and envy, child abuse memories, madness, sibling suicide, the failings of love and lust and loyalty, the drive and passion of work” (“Pattern” 22). Having “imagined and explored those shapes” in Virginia Woolf’s brain for two decades, Bellamy notes, she has evolved a life story of her own with Woolf acting as “teacher, muse, companion, beloved” (“Pattern” 22).

While Suzanne Bellamy’s path away from academe has diverged from my own career in the academy, as feminists we have both found inspiration in Virginia Woolf’s work, hers for “visual essays,” mine for often illustrated scholarly ones. In recent years, confident now of her intellectual and artistic independence, Suzanne has taken her historical, archaeological, and feminist emphases back into the academy while I have retired early to continue the research and writing part of my career. By writing a doctoral study of Nuri Maas, writer of a forgotten MA thesis on Virginia Woolf in 1942, and of other women who in the 1930s and 40s pioneered women’s readings of a writer too often ignored in her own country, Suzanne is joining those of us who have tried, and are trying to have a leavening influence on institutions of higher learning.

Initially (and still) a sculptor, Bellamy identifies with Woolf’s shaping creative process, with her complex overlapping of verbal and visual, with the struggle to verbalize the visual and visualize the verbal. For Bellamy it is “a kind of sex in the mind, a complex experience of words and shapes and potencies that can be shared, but not essentially—that can be physical but will not stay there” (“Pattern” 30). For her it is a study in dual creativity, Woolf’s ability to get “past the limitations of painting as a way ahead, drawing from another, more robust form of construction, literary but breaking into the same new territory as a maker of physical shapes that free themselves from direct representation but take on independent form” (“Pattern” 33). Through all Bellamy’s ponderings of the creative process runs a sense of humor, a willingness to play, as she puts it, “the Fool,” confident enough in her “imaginary culture” of women to experiment and take risks (“Narrow” 132), as Miss LaTrobe does in her village play (“Pattern” 35).

“Only a few women artists have written about their work processes,” Bellamy wrote already in 1984 in an article with a title from Woolf (“Form—‘we are the thing itself’”), and included Virginia Woolf--along with Tillie Olsen, Georgia O’Keefe, and Judy Chicago--among her examples (“Form” 69). This lack of women’s words about “non-verbal exploration” has led to the neglect of the visual arts by the radical feminist movements with which she identifies (“Form” 72). Indeed, visual and verbal creative processes are similar, and again she includes “the sculptured words of Virginia Woolf”as an illustration (“Form” 72). Bellamy, like Woolf, kept journals from which she quotes to illustrate her attempts “to find words to express what […] was happening” in her creative evolution, her attempts to find women’s forms of expression (“Form” 75). She quotes parallel passages where Woolf describes the way form “flows from her own life and work” and becomes inseparable from her own “real presence and power” (“Form” 83). Bellamy recognizes the inseparability of life and art in her own, and Woolf’s creative process, something too often denied by formalist theorists among Woolf’s Bloomsbury friends and even by artists like Vanessa Bell whose paintings sometimes benefit from psychological and narrative readings she would not have approved.

A later autobiographical essay, “Freedom from Unreal Loyalties,” again takes its title from Woolf as Bellamy describes her attempts to balance academic historical studies, involvement in women’s liberation political activity, and artistic work. She describes how Bessie Guthrie introduced her to Virginia Woolf’s writing; how she wrote radio scripts on Woolf’s feminism as expressed in Three Guineas; and how, inspired in part by Woolf’s admonitions, she left the patriarchal academic world. A “pilgrimage” to sites important to women included the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library where the manuscript of Three Guineas had unfortunately been “captured.” Nevertheless, with “Freedom from unreal loyalties” echoing in her head, she sees a future for herself and other women (“Freedom” 196-7).

In another autobiographical essay, “The Creative Landscape” (1994), Suzanne Bellamy describes her movement from “radical feminism and the city” to “words and clay free from ideologies” (373). “Like Virginia Woolf’s Miss LaTrobe in Between the Acts,” she observed “with disbelief” as plans for a sculptural “Earthworks project” designed to “integrate at a ritual level the overlaying cultures, the archaeological realities” of her rural place took its bureaucratic route from a supportive community to the regional Council which rejected it (“Creative” 376).

“The Narrow Bridge of Art and Politics” (1996) again takes the first five words of its title from a Virginia Woolf essay by that name. Again Bellamy evokes Woolf’s phrase, “freedom from unreal loyalties” to describe her attempt to detach herself “from excessive devotion to the work and ideas of others” (Narrow” 128). She continues her investigation of “a women’s culture as an imaginative construct” in which there is an imaginary “artist/scholar who could be witness, commentator, creator of dynamic artifacts and stories, and most importantly traveler on the trade routes which crisscrossed the geography of this rich hypothetical Reality” (“Narrow” 129). Evoking simultaneously in clay sculptures, like “Boat,” both companies of women and their individualities, Bellamy defines her work in part as an attempt “to fuse art and politics, thought and feeling” (“Narrow” 132).

Employing etching and screen printing techniques, Bellamy has chosen several “visual essays” for this book. One of my favorites from her “Love and Politics…the room within. A Virginia Woolf Print series” (1997), embodies the dual creativity Bellamy attributes to Woolf and identifies with herself. The words inspiring it are “Only when we put two and two together—two pencil strokes, two written words…—do we set up some stake against oblivion.” Here (figure ), Bellamy uses screenprint adaptations of parts of two photo portraits of the mature sisters,[i] overlaying Vanessa’s image with a shape that suggests her sister’s verbal art, a book, and Virginia’s image with a shape suggesting an easel. Hands folded alongside her chin, Vanessa becomes part of a dust jacket with a decorative row of circles at its bottom. Just as a portion of Vanessa’s shoulder, spotted with white unlike the rest of her dark dress, is outside the dust jacket, so the hand and wrist at the side of Virginia’s face nudges out a little bulge at the edge of the canvas. A vertical pattern along the left side of Bellamy’s print echoes this half-circle, just as the circles on the dust jacket reappear between book and easel and on the easel’s legs. Bellamy’s print suggests that each sister could achieve to some degree the other’s artistic perspective and that, although the sisters used each other as the basis for characters or painted portraits, neither could quite contain, nor did she seek to contain, the other within the framework of her art. Bellamy positions the two faces, each in three-quarter profile, so that they look towards each other. One of the difficulties of using existing photographs, however, is that she cannot get their eyes to meet, but that helps to declare their artistic independence. Bright yellows and red and orange accents on Vanessa’s side and cooler burgundies, pinks, and purples accented with yellow on Virginia’s side compensate for the lack of color in the photographs. Woolf’s words, handwritten by Bellamy at the bottom of the print, bring into focus the most important link between the sisters, their creativity. The full quotation, which viewers of Bellamy’s Woolf Series can be expected to know, is from Woolf’s ‘Anon’: ‘Only when we put two and two together—two pencil strokes, two written words, two bricks (notes) do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion. The passion with which we seek out these creations and attempt endlessly, perpetually, to make them is of a piece with the instinct that sets us preserving our bodies, with clothes, food, roofs, from destruction’ (Anon 403). Artistic creation, for both sisters, is essential to life itself.

Two of the images chosen for this book, give prominence to the same photo of the mature Virginia Woolf with the book-lined shelves that were intrinsic to Woolf’s reading and writing, from her father’s library to her own to the women’s library she supported in her later years (Figures & ). Woolf’s words, the inspiration for the print with a bookshelf on each side, are “We think back through our mothers if we are women” from A Room of One’s Own (1928). The book titles we can see on both sides of her are her own, and written on the lower part of her photograph is “a room of one’s own,” the prerequisite for those publications. The titles are not visible on the other print, or they are replaced with Bloomsbury designs (cross-hatchings and geometric shapes) on the books lining the single bookshelf to the right of the photograph. Woolf’s words behind this “visual essay” are “I think I am about to embody, at last, the exact shapes my brain holds (Diary IV 1931).” She continues. “What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!” (D4: 53). There are no waves in this print, although the shapes are purple and circular. They seem to bubble from Woolf’s head. And there are smaller ones, in browns, blues, and golds against a background shading from deep blue-green, to sand colors. The purple circles surround one open black circle on the side of her head, and crown another closed black circle hovering above an upside-down Omega symbol. The vase of flowers is a motif that appears in both these prints, on the top shelf.

. Another print shows the well-known three-quarter profile of the young Virginia Stephen, the lower part of her covered by what seems to be the shadow of a mantelpiece. Is she being threatened with the sacred hearth of the Victorian “angel in the house” whom she has to kill in “Professions for Women”? Are the connected circles that surround the part of the firebox that we see a chain that binds her to traditional expectations for women? Or do these circles, along with a vase of flowers decorated in Omega fashion now prominent on the left, the column of circles, and the cross-hatched circles and rectangles above and below, suggest the Bloomsbury art revolution that liberated her? Woolf’s inspiring words are “If I could catch the feeling I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world [V.W. Diary, 1929]”. Bellamy introduces music into her mix of words and images and orchestrates patterns on two sides unified by a column of red cross-hatches down the middle topped by a cluster of black circles.

Two prints in this selection use the wave motif, the first combining waves with moths, an allusion to the story told to her by Vanessa Bell that was the genesis of The Waves. The words inspiring this visual essay are “I felt all the doors opening…and the moth shaking its wings in me…Everything is vivified when I think of the Moths. [1930].” [where is quote from?] Virginia’s mature photo appears in a rectangle shading from deep to light blue. Two dark blue lines of deep, pointed, scalloped waves cross the bottom. Orange and red moths fly upwards, two from the left, three from the right, against a pale yellowish-pink background.

The other print has calmer, more rounded white wavey lines angling across the blue lower portion of the picture. Superimposed on them, facing center, are both Woolf’s mature image, in a red rectangle and that of the younger Virginia Stephen, orange in a blue circular form. Surrounding them are what appear to be bubble shapes. These seem inspired by Woolf’s description of Miss LaTrobe’s consciousness in Between the Acts: “The mud becamae fertile. Words rose. Words without meaning. Wonderful words.”

The next print also has two photos, this time of the mature Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Both looking towards the center, they exist in overlapping squared shapes, Virginia’s black, Vita’s green and pink. Against a background washed with variegated colors, curved and spiral lines surround the figures as well as small circles. Between and above them is a red, amorphous, but vaguely heart-shaped form. The inspirational words are “Your adoring and perfectly solid Orlando” from Sackville-West’s letters. [find and date reference]

The final print again pairs the mature and young Virginias, in dark frames above the vivid oranges and reds of a stylized beach scene with two mounds whose banded wide-brimmed hats suggest figures seated on the sand. Below, Bellamy has written “AFTER STUDLAND BEACH: ..’Hearing this splash, seeing this light.., feeling the purest ecstasy,” a quotation from Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past.” The full quotation reads “It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little accord across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive” (Moments 64-65). Bellamy confounds Woolf’s memories of her childhood experiences at St. Ives, described in “A Sketch of the Past” (1940) and also reflected in To the Lighthouse (1927) and Vanessa Bell’s painting called Studland Beach (c. 1911) where the sisters stayed, once in 1910 with friends and family. Bellamy’s “after Studland Beach” suggests that she is working in the manner of Bell’s painting with its radically simplified forms by echoing horizon-less areas of sand and sea, but curving upward rather than downwards, and the straw-hatted two of Bell’s seven figures, mirrored on the lower right rather than on the lower left. Bellamy links the large and small figures with photos centered above of the mature and young Virginia. The visual allusion to Bell’s Studland Beach, along with the quotation from Woolf’s memoir, also suggest the presence of the past in the present; the overlapping of the sisters’ art forms; and, in spite of the “significant form” that is supposed to have erased narrative elements from Bell’s painting, the inevitable “impress” of the “’emotions’ of life” upon art (Tickner, 80).

Since the Woolf series represented in this book, Suzanne Bellamy’s creativity has taken many forms, including “a multimedia installation called The Lost Culture of Women’s Liberation, 1969-1974, The Pre-Dynastic Phase,” and a “New Hogarth Little Lesbian Book Series” of “high-fired porcelain books with individual once-only titles” (“Imagining” 196-7). In 1999, she and the late Isota Tucker Epes ( 1918-2009) each did and wrote about their painted responses to the Lily Briscoe paintings in To the Lighthouse (“Painting”) and in 2000, they responded visually to The Waves. Bellamy also produced and described another print series called Conversations with Woolf and Stein (“Experiments”). Taking her historical and archaeological interests in unearthing women’s history back into academe, she has been working on, and writing about the history of early Woolf criticism written by women outside the UK (“Textual Archaeology” and “Textual Archaeology and”). I in turn have published a chapter on modernist women painters, including Vanessa Bell, and another on the sister artists, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, including scholarly treatments before and since my publication of The Sisters’ Arts. The latter chapter includes plates and discussions, in relation to Woolf’s work, several more recently discovered paintings by Bell.

Works Cited

Bellamy, Sue. “Form—‘we are the thing itself’”. All Her Labours: Embroidering the

Framework. Hale & Iremenger 1984 [find complete reference] 69-84.

---. “Freedom from Unreal Loyalties”. Different Lives. Ed. Jocelynne Scott. Penguin,

  1. 189-199.

Bellamy, Suzanne. “Experiments in Constructing the Visual Field: Conversations with

Woolf and Stein and Painting The Waves.” Virginia Woolf Out of Bounds: Selectted

Papers from the Tenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Jessica Berman and

Jane Goldman. New York: Pace UP, 2001. 186-192.

---. “Imagining the Muse.” Virginia Woolf and Communities: Selected

Papers from the Eighth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Jeanette McVicker

and Laura Davis. NewYork: Pace UP, 1999. 194-200.

---. “The Narrow Bridge of Art and Politics.” Morally Speaking:

Feminism Reclaimed. Ed. Diane Bell and Renate Klein. Spinifex, 1996. 126-234.

---. “’Painting the Words’: A Version of Lily Briscoe’s Paintings from To the

Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf: Turning the Centuries: Selected Papaers from the Ninth

Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Ann Ardis and Bonnie Kime Scott. 244-

251.

---. “The Pattern Behind the Words.” Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. Ed. Eileen

Barrett and Patricia Cramer. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 21-36.

---. “Textual Archaeology: An Australian Study of Virginia Woolf in 1942.” Woolfian

Boundaries: Selected Papers from the Sixteenth Annual International Conference on

Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anna Burrells, Steve Ellis, Deborah Parsons, and Kathryn

Simpson. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2007. 1-7.

---. “Textual Archaeology and the Death of the Writer.” Virginia Woolf: Art, Education, and Internationalism: Selected Papers from the Seventeenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Diana Royer and Madelyn Detloff. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2008. 131-38.

Gillespie, Diane. “The Gender of Modern/ist Painting.” Gender in Modernism: New

Geographies, Complex Intersections. Ed. Bonnie Kime Scott. Urbana and Chicago

IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007. 765-808.

---. The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and

Vanessa Bell. Syracuse, NY: University of Syracuse Press, 1988, 1991.

---. “Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Painting.” The Edinburgh Companion to

Virginia Woolf and the Arts. Ed. Maggie Humm. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University

Press, 2010. 121-39.

Ticknor, Lisa. “Vanessa Bell: Studland Beach, Domesticity, and ‘Significant Form.’”

Representations 65 (Winter 1999): 63-92.

Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. 2nd ed. Ed. Jeanne Schulkind. San Diego, CA:

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985.

[i] Bellamy has adapted a 1932 photograph of Vanessa by Lettice Ramsey and a snapshot of Virginia used by Quentin Bell as a frontispiece to volume two of Virginia Woolf: A Biography (London: Hogarth, 1973).