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Inspiring Creative Writing through Art with Mary Hall Surface

Inspire your Creative Writing through Art



Today I’m delighted to be talking to playwright, theatre director, teaching artist and museum educator Mary Hall Surface about her work. We’re talking all things creative and reflective writing through art.

As a museum educator, Mary Hall uses both theatre and creative writing to expand perspective, uncover complexity and deepen understanding.

She is the founding instructor of National Gallery of Art’s Writing Salon in Washington DC, and a six-summer faculty member of Harvard’s Project Zero Classroom.  Her plays have been produced at major professional theatres, museums, and festivals throughout the US, Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and Canada, including 4 art-inspired productions at the National Gallery of Art.

Mary Hall has an impressive online presence too, facilitating creative and reflective writing workshops and classes, all inspired by art for museums, schools, and arts centres throughout the US.

Mary Hall and I have a lot in common and in today’s chat we talk about our love of close looking, thinking routines and how you can use artworks to inspire writing.

We talk about a variety of projects that Mary Hall has been involved in at the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the different types of online workshops that she teaches.

Mary Hall shares 4 wonderful tips for how you can improve your writing through art – so make sure you don’t miss those.

We really could’ve talked for hours and I loved our chat. So, here it – enjoy!


Support the Show

Join the Slow Looking Club Community on Facebook

Masterclass with Mary Hall Surface 26 April: Inspire Your Memoir Writing through Visual Art

The SAAM Social-Emotional Learning Toolkit

Link to Open Window, Collioure, 1905, Matisse

Link to Edward Hopper, People in the Sun, 1960, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.,

Website & mailing list signup Mary Hall Surface – website and mailing list sign up:

Upcoming Smithsonian Associates workshop: Mothering: A Reflective Writing Workshop

Upcoming Van Gogh/Mary Oliver Workshop: Springs’ Awakening: A Reflective Writing Workshop

Writers’ Studio on the Amalfi Coast


Claire Bown 00:03
Hi, Mary Hall. Welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Mary Hall Surface 00:06
Thank you so much, Claire, I am thrilled to be here.

Claire Bown 00:10
So Mary Hall, tell me. And we always do this with all our guests, because I think it’s quite nice for our audience just to imagine where you are. So could you tell us a little bit about where you’re based and where you are right now?

Mary Hall Surface 00:23
Yes, I am, in Washington, DC, where I’ve lived for about 30 years. And I live very close to Rock Creek Park, which is a beautiful national park that runs right through the city. And so in two minutes, I can be in the woods, and in about 10 minutes, I can be at the US Capitol. So it’s a beautiful city to live in.

Claire Bown 00:47
That sounds like a perfect location. And tell us all, Mary Hall, a little bit about yourself and what it is, is that you do.

Mary Hall Surface 00:56
well, I essentially have sort of three interlocking practices. And I guess is the way I’d talk about it is, I’m a playwright, I’ve got about 40 plays out in the world. And I’m also a theatre director, and producer. I’ve done all sorts of productions, and my great love really is creating what I call intergenerational theatre plays that really equally engage and inspire and challenge adults and young people. And I’m also a teaching artist, and I choose to bring my skills in drama and creative writing into schools and art centres, working with educators and most especially to museums. I work with public programmes, school and teacher programmes as well as in docent training.

Claire Bown 01:53
Fantastic, so you wear many hats. And today, we’re gonna be talking about some of these hats that you wear, because I’m fascinated by your work that you do. So I understand that you’ve done some work in the past with the National Gallery of Art in DC?

Mary Hall Surface 02:10
I have. Yes, very much so. So they really, I met actually, it’s someone we know in common, Heidi Hinish, came to see a play that I wrote, that was inspired by the work of Alexander Calder. And I’ve always loved art. And so artists sort of run through my work as a director as inspiration. And then this was the first time I’d actually written a play inspired by art. And Heidi saw it. And so she then commissioned me to write a play for the National Gallery inspired by the work of the American artist, Edward Hopper, and it was very successful. And then they asked me to write two other plays. And these plays essentially, were to engage the public in a very emotional and lively, personal way in the art and, and sort of inspired by the artists life and the artists methods, but they weren’t, you know, biographical plays, they were really sort of fantasies inspired by the work. And then out of that project, they invited me to launch what we call the Writing Salon. And that was in partnership with Natalie Ryan at the National Gallery. And that began as an in-person programme, we, we hope it’s going to come back it hasn’t yet, but an in person programme, a public programme, where we use art as an inspiration for creative writing, and then writing as a way to really deepen our connection to the art. And I absolutely loved that programme. And I never really thought about sort of sharing what it is that I do as a playwright, you know, in a broader way with museum audiences. And so just crafting those and imagining those, I just love and so it’s really taken off as a big part of my life and my practice and the National Gallery. I continue to offer them now online. And then they have a programme called Virtual Studio. And so when I am the guest teaching artist, it’s very much like Writing Salon online.

Claire Bown 04:23
Amazing. And that’s how we connected as well, because I was teaching a course and an Art and Words course, which was all about, creative writing and reflective writing that had been inspired by art and our paths crossed and we started talking and I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could come on to the podcast, talk about your work. And then we also found out that we have sort of Project Zero in common as well. So, tell us a little bit about being on the faculty there.

Mary Hall Surface 04:52
Well, yeah, it’s a funny story. When the play that I wrote about Hopper opened at the gallery, Heidi Hinish again from the National Gallery came up and said, Gosh, you know, we, our education programme is so deeply involved with the pedagogy of Project Zero. And we really appreciate, you know, integrating their thinking routines and strategies into the way you imagined and presented the play. And I said, What are you talking about?

Mary Hall Surface 05:21
I was actually unfamiliar with Project Zero at that point. And they introduced me to the thoughts and the practices. And then ultimately, I was invited to join the faculty as one of very few sort of drama-based instructors. And so I taught there for five years, and my course was really focused on perspective, taking, it’s called standing in a character’s shoes, and it’s about stepping into a character, either in a text or history or most often in visual art, and really imagining the emotional complexity of that character in a very specific moment, and then giving voice to that complexity in a dramatic monologue. So my time with Project Zero was incredibly expansive to my own thinking, my own practice, and in many ways, very galvanising, because I really discovered that I am artistically disposed to think and create in thinking routines, in a sense,

Claire Bown 06:29
Yeah, and I love this because it’s so influenced my work as well, and has also brought me in touch with Heidi Hinish. And we’ve done workshops together in the past because of the work of Project Zero because of Visible Thinking and thinking routines. And yes, still very much informs my work today. And it’s, yeah, my part of my mission, I guess, is to spread this love to the wider world and actually make the joy of thinking routines more well known, I think, in the world. Yeah. And so tell me some about the core values and principles that are essential in your work.

Mary Hall Surface 07:10
Well, I, I truly deeply with all my heart and soul believe that the arts are transformative for individuals, for communities, for the entire world, they are central to our humanity, and thus, really, to our well being, and to our potentials. And I also really believe that the arts are an embodiment of possibility and change, personal change, social change. So I work to ensure that the arts have a vibrant and robust presence in everyone’s life as successively as possible. across communities, diverse communities, and in schools and museums.

Claire Bown 08:03
Wonderful values. Yeah. Wonderful principles. And linked to this, do thinking routines still play a role in your work? Are you still actively using them?

Mary Hall Surface 08:15
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. As I said, I think they just align with how I naturally think and feel. And imagine. I mean, the wonderful thing about thinking routines is that they are really crafted to support, you know, sort of ever deepening understandings, and really expansive thinking, which is what I’m all about. So they are sort of explicitly and implicitly everywhere in my work, and, and I’m also very, very creative with them. I think when people first begin to work with thinking routines, they think, Oh, well, okay, this one is this one. And this one was that one, and I need to follow the steps. And yes, that’s a good way to start. But I’ve also become very creative with thinking routines, I imagined my own and I adapt them, you know, to whatever purposes I’m applying them towards. So I encourage folks to enjoy their fluidity as well as the structures as presented.

Claire Bown 09:19
Yeah, I’m nodding along furiously here, because I absolutely agree. I think one of the reasons I’m so drawn to them is that they do offer this structure, but that it’s a structure that is very flexible, and you can be creative with it. And you can combine or as you say, develop your own thinking routines. And I think the more you work with them, the more your mind tends to go in that direction. And you start thinking of all the possibilities. So yes, that very much speaks to me as well. I’d love to talk about perhaps some projects that you’ve worked on. Perhaps you could talk a little bit more about your work at National Gallery of Art thought, for instance, about some creative writing reflective writing opportunities that you’ve developed there?

Mary Hall Surface 10:08
Yes, absolutely. I mean, the thing about Writing Salon is that it really is designed to look at the craft of, of writing and offer folks some very specific tools, using art, as the inspiration I mean, each of the workshops have a focus of, of a element of art, like Sorry, an element of writing, like character, setting, stories, story arc, points of view, dialogue, tone. And we always start with close looking at something I know you are a big fan of slow, close looking. And the idea is to really take in all of the artists choices before beginning to interpret or imagine and we know the value of that in, you know, relating to museum visitors, but it’s also really important for a creative writer because if you can really hold back that human urge to spin story, you know, to know and assign meaning then you you have a much larger imaginative canvas from which to work. So we begin with that slow looking and then we go through a series of scaffolded prompts that really offer tools to the writer to enhance their craft. And we can talk more about Writing Salon too, but other things that I do at the National Gallery, I’ve mentioned that the article productions, most recently was a play called Colours Garden that was inspired by the work of Henri Matisse, specifically his cutouts and I was so impressed with how the gallery really leveraged the opportunity to have a theatrical production not only did school audiences come, public audiences came, it became the centrepiece of family days where families could make together cut outs inspired by the Matisse cutouts. They could go see the gallery’s collection of the cutouts. It was just a very rich, rich way to sort of embed theatre at the centre of programming public programming. Yeah, yeah. But I thought it might be fun. Just to mention that I, you know, I’m working with docents. I mean, this is sort of a whole other subject. But my focus there is really encouraging docents to animate their content, by really thinking about story and how stories are structured with beginnings, middles, and ends and incorporating dialogue, and where do you start in your story? So I really, really enjoy that work as well. I mean, I do that at the National Gallery and other museums.

Claire Bown 12:53
Wonderful. So docent training, basically. Yeah, very much. Perfect. And I also because I had the pleasure of seeing you, but you were at MuseumNext as well, recently.

Mary Hall Surface 13:03
Yes, yes, that was such a wonderful conference. And for that, I was sharing a collaboration that I was involved with, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and wonderful educator there Elizabeth Deines and it, we created a Social-Emotional Toolkit, which is now available for anyone in the world to download on the internet. And it really, it was based on a workshop that I created in response to the pandemic. And it uses close looking and reflective writing, to develop self awareness, you know, really tuning into our thoughts and our feelings and our responses, as well as to really develop and build and strengthen resilience in our ability to adjust, stretch, and even grow in the face of challenges. And, and that uses, again, sort of a variation of a thinking routine, which is we see what is usually to teachers and students an unknown work of art. So we have to navigate through an unknown and then we feel we meet and manage really new and strong emotions. And then we connect, we strive to really see how this unknown connects to our lives. And that really encourages students and educators to frame their responses in such a way that they experience a real sense of agency and in the process, deepen their understanding of themselves and and one another. So it was really a beautiful project and the Smithsonian American Art Museum has done a wonderful job in trying to get this toolkit into the hands of really diverse communities around the United States and, and I hope today will encourage people around the world to seek it out

Claire Bown 13:49
as well. Yeah. Well, hopefully it will provide a link to it for the for the show notes so people can also download it. Absolutely. That’d be great. Yeah. Yeah. And you’ve been online recently. So we were just discussing before we started recording how we’ve moved, or everybody has moved online in the last couple of years. And that gives new possibilities, new creative possibilities. But, you know, also a chance to reach people further afield as well. So can you tell us a little bit about your online workshops that you run?

Mary Hall Surface 15:34
Yes, it has been a real opportunity to transform my practice in ways that I would not have done probably had the world not taking the turns that it has. And it’s really been through the Smithsonian Associates, which is actually a nonprofit that operates in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and offers all different kinds of programming and workshops. And so through them, I offer a series of Creative Writing workshops, they’re 90 minutes, people can take one or they can take the whole series. And again, they’re rooted in the craft of writing, inspired by visual art. And I also teach for them reflective writing workshops. And in the reflective writing, I often pair it with poetry, and appear a work of art with poetry. For example, I have one called ‘Springs Awakening’, where we use Van Gogh’s almond blossoms, and pair it with some points by the American poet Mary Oliver, who’s very much engaged with nature. And we look at the lessons that spring offers us if we slow down and reflect. I guess the other thing about this practice it’s really evolved is, there’s a lot of ways that you can use art as an inspiration for writing, you can just, you know, jump into a candlelit painting, and imagine you’re in Venice and what it feels like and smells like and tastes like. But something that I really like to do also is to align the writing exercises that we’re doing with some particular aspect of either the how of the painting, or the some aspect of the artists life or, or practice like, just this week, I taught a workshop called Impact, tone and mood. And we used Matisse is beautiful photo of painting, Open Window, Collioure, which is vivid colours, and all different kinds of love that painting and all different kinds of brushstrokes. And so I encourage the writers to describe the painting really trying to parallel the tone of their language, the length of their sentences, the sentence, the word choices, the punctuation, really tried to parallel their verbal choices with the artists visual choices. So long language sentences, contrasted with little dogs of adverbs and poppy words. And so that sort of approach is something I really enjoy. Or, like, with Edward Hopper’s painting People in the Sun, this is a painting where is a group of five people and they’re all just sort of sitting in the sun on a on a porch, all looking in the same direction and not engaging with one another. And when I’ve worked with that painting, share the fact that Hopper had a lifelong love of the cinema. And so we one of our prompts was Imagine if these, each character is watching the film of their life. Where are they in the film, what’s happening in the film. So again, it was a very creative prompt, but it was rooted in Hopper’s own life and practice. And so that’s, I guess, it’s the playwriting me but I just love making all of those connections, and inspiring people in that particular way.

Claire Bown 19:13
And an artwork can provide so so just such a big jumping off point for so many ideas as well. I’ve also worked with that same Edward Hopper painting in the past in another thinking routing class. I know that one very well, and I will include links to some of these artworks that you’re mentioning, and obviously the Van Gogh’s beautiful springtime blossoms as well thinking about those and connecting those with poetry. What a wonderful idea. So what I’d love our listeners to take away with them is maybe a few tips for how they can develop their own writing through art. Have you got anything that you could share with this?

Mary Hall Surface 19:51
I didn’t think about that. It’s fun to try to distil one’s practice into some tips. So yes, I would say number one And you’ll like this one is to start with looking slowly. And really, really take in the visual information first. Because I think if you start with is, in a sense, the aesthetic story, then you have more possibilities. And then the idea of stepping into a work, really think about all the different possible perspectives that you can step in to mean yes, I mean, if a work is figurative, you can certainly imagine what the people might see think feel, want know, perceive. But what about the inanimate objects in the work? What might the table or the violin know or want? Or if it’s a landscape, what might the different points of view be of the clouds versus the sun? Or in an abstract work of art? And what about the colour the line the shape, or the imagine that the work of art itself, the painting hanging on the wall, or the sculptor on sculpture on the stand, what might it as a thing, see and know and feel. So I really encourage folks to think about all the different perspectives that you can step into. And then also to think about this work as a conversation, sometimes I find people are sort of overwhelmed by the work of art that they are engaging with it, somehow it knows more than they do, or that they have to somehow be right about it. Well, art is a conversation, a conversation across time across cultures, the work of art is giving you everything that it has. And so you, I encourage you to bring all that you are to the process of writing in response to art so that it’s a beautiful two way street. And then finally, I would encourage you to explore what you do not see, when you think about the untold story, if you will, of the work, what did the artist not include in an image? And what might be just beyond the frame? So again, that’s a very prospective expanding approach.

Claire Bown 22:14
So those are my tips. Oh, they’re wonderful, especially the last one. I’m thinking about that already. And thinking about how that might encourage you to imaginatively creates more words on the page. Absolutely. Thank you so much for those. We are delighted that you’re coming to give a class to my membership on the 26th of April, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about this special class that you’ll be leading.

Mary Hall Surface 22:42
I’m so pleased to be able to do this with you, Claire. Yes, it’s called Inspire your Memoir, Writing through Visual Art. And this is going to be a very interactive class, we’ll be writing to a series of prompts. We’ll be using the chat as a place to specifically reflect in response to some specific prompts. We’re going to be working with a really fascinating work of art by Romere Bearden. And he was a 20th century African American artist. And the piece is called tomorrow I may be far away. And it’s a collage painting where he combines multiple pieces of found papers and as well as papers that he paints into forms. And it’s inspired by his memories of spending his summers away from his home, which was Harlem, New York, but spending his summers with his grandparents in the deep south of the United States. And so we’re going to be looking closely at the work and beginning to imagine the artist’s relationship to the place and the people and considering the metaphorical power of some of the images. And then inspired by Bearden’s collage process, we will piece together our own memories of an important place in our lives, paralleling in our writing, burdens layering and recombining of images and textures and memories. So it’s people have really enjoyed this workshop, whether you’re an experienced writer or you’re just curious about writing. What it offers is a real clear series of steps for recalling the past in order to consider its impact on our present because that’s what a memoir is.

Claire Bown 24:32
Oh, brilliant. I can’t wait. I’m so looking forward to this and we’ll put a link for people to sign up if they want to sign up as well because it is open to non members as well. We are approaching the end of our time together very sadly, although we could talk all day I’m pretty sure. So tell our listeners how they can find out more about you how they can reach out to you and Could you share some details of where you hang out?

Mary Hall Surface 25:03
Absolutely. I am not as active on social media as I should be. But you can find me on Facebook as Mary Hall one word. It’s my first name and surface or my website, which is my full name, Mary Hall I have a mailing list. And I would love for folks to join that because I do send out newsletters about what I’m teaching where I’m teaching. I’m actually teaching the ven ven golf, as you say, spring workshop in May in Washington, but it is online and I would love to have people join in on that.

Claire Bown 25:40
Fantastic and i Yes, I subscribed to your newsletter. It’s wonderful. So we can put a link for that and your your Facebook, your social media and your website as well. But it’s been absolutely wonderful talking to you today. Mary Hall, thank you so much for coming on to the podcast. Looking forward to your master class. And yes, thank you again.

Mary Hall Surface 26:01
You are so welcome, Claire. Thank you very much. I look forward to the class as well. Thanks. Bye

Claire Bown
Bye bye bye.


And don’t forget my FREE new Facebook group The Slow Looking Club created especially for podcast listeners. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly. I’ll share resources, ideas and tips for anyone interested in looking at art – whether it’s for your personal enjoyment or your practice as a cultural educator. And we’ll have regular slow looking moments together too!