Writing Portraits: an Interview with Ella Matthews
Words by Jessica Fynn
At 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein sits at her writing desk. Her pen flicks over coarse paper as she composes written musings on her friends and contemporaries: Alice B. Toklas, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Maurice Sterne, Ethel Mars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway. Artists would wander in and out of her home in Paris, seeking conversation, company, tea, or some other imaginable comfort they thought Miss Stein could give to them. These artists, they would ask to paint her portrait, and she would oblige, sitting statuesque while paintbrushes tickled beiges and blues. Knowing that portraiture asks as much of its creator as it does of its subject, Gertrude Stein would write them portraits in return. These were funny things. Some say that her writings were a blatant attempt to try to emulate the methods of painting, the brushstrokes of cubism. But those details aren’t important here. What fascinates me, is this kind of “you do me, I’ll do you” [Anne Diebel, The Paris Review] pursuit, a transactional relationship where the trade-off between the pen and the paintbrush is reduced to the motion of a credit-card swipe. But there is more to it than that. There has to be. These were artists that shared mutual admiration for one another, that returned compliments through their art. While Gertrude Stein and her friends were outwardly seeking mutual satisfaction, making art in any form – with a paintbrush, a pen – they were also searching inwardly for connection to themselves. Inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein, this is my first in a series of interviews that read like portraits.
It had been a long day of virtual meetings, Wi-Fi disruptions, and trips up and down the stairs, and so I was relieved to have Ella Matthews up on my laptop screen on a quiet Friday afternoon. It is funny to think that in a different lifetime, we might have been chatting over a hot drink – hers a tea, mine a coffee – or perhaps we would never have crossed paths at all. We’d met (virtually) a few days before, bonding over the mutual connections we shared through her work on The Pandemic Podcast, and mine on Lippy Magazine. We’d also bonded over her disarming honesty, and our mutual love of questions that catch you off guard. I’d heard her name shouted from many different directions. "We've been moving house today! This is the first time I've been able to sit down!" she laughs. It strikes me that Ella sometimes frustrates at her own challenge of not having the time to be involved with more projects, more people. From where I’m standing, she could command legions: Ella has spent her last year leading her non-profit organization “Care To Be Better”, running The Pandemic Podcast, working 12.5 hour shifts in a mental health hospital, and fronting her LUU Campaign as she runs for Wellbeing Officer. And today she is chatting with me.
The thread that runs through all of Ella’s projects is what she believes to be her purpose. She tells me that in Buddhism, the religion she practices, “your Dharma is what you think you are here to do, your purpose. I think that when you start doing something which you are supposed to do, you can feel it. You get into that flow slate. Maybe that’s passion. But it’s that sense of…this is what I’ve been brought here to do. If I were to describe myself and the work I do, I would probably begin with my purpose, my Dharma, which is to care.” Ella had been searching for that common thread for some time. “For a long time, I felt scattered. I was constantly saying to myself that I should focus more.” This self-critical perspective led her to realise that the way she felt after putting her time and energy into herself and her projects, was care and empathy. This is the basis for her LUU campaign.
Ella doesn’t believe that self-growth is linear. She openly talks about periods in her life where she didn’t feel herself, her focus straying from self-growth as she sought “lower pleasure after lower pleasure after lower pleasure”, quick fixes. “Lower pleasures are what give us short-term happiness” she says. “That can be sex, than can be drink, drugs…that can things that instantly make you happy. It’s like that short-term dopamine rush you get from sharing a post on Instagram. With short-term pleasures, you have to keep adding and adding, but nothing sustains. They can be great. But everything is to do with moderation.” Finding balance in her life came from long periods of introspection, self-reflection, and travelling. It also came from experiencing the highs and lows of life that make us most human. “When I went to university I started to struggle again. I had started to invest in my Dharma… I had been caring about people and for myself, and then I went to university and I felt as if I had stopped this self-growth.”
“I was around people who wanted to mess around, drink, have that kind of fun. This was their opportunity to go out, their first look at freedom. I had done all of that, and I had gone through that transition phase. There, I felt a massive sense of loss.” Now thinking back to her Dharma, Ella chats to me about her hope to raise more awareness for mental, physical and sexual heath – a key element of her campaign policies. “There is a philosopher, Yuval Noah Harari, and he talks a lot about how we adopt stories in our lives – in history, here has been the communist story, the liberalist story..” Ella believes that at this point in time, our society is trying to figure out its current story. There are a lot of competing impulses. “People hate change, they resist it. But I think that we’re at the point in history where we could change for the better.” As a society, “we are so concerned with what other people are doing, that sheep-mentality. That’s why, while we’re still trying to figure out our collective story, we have to be conscious about the decisions we make.”
This empathetic wisdom extends beyond Ella’s twenty-one years of age. A mental health first aid course that she attended gave her some more perspective. Helping other people and inspiring growth, is also to do with the language we use. “They talked to us about the distinction between empathy and sympathy, and it shocked me because I’d never considered those two words as having such a vastly different impact. Let me give you an example…being sympathetic, you might say to your friend, ‘oh well, that’s a shame you got a bad grade, but at least you tried.’ You’re not putting yourself in that person’s shoes. Sympathy is being situated in your own position and looking down upon someone who is struggling, and saying that you’re sorry, but ‘at least…’. It tries to silver-line a situation which can’t be silver-lined. It drives disconnect.”
“By contrast, what empathy does, is it climbs down the ladder. It sits down there with you and it says, ‘this situation is rubbish.’ Rarely can we ever fix a problem, but in order to heal, you have to feel those emotions and go through that process. Empathy allows you to connect with a person and their emotions, to feel their pain alongside them.” I likened this to that feeling you experience after taking a long, hot shower the morning after you’ve had one too many, washing your hair and your sins away from the night before. It makes you feel lighter. We both laughed. “We all just want to feel understood. It’s about human connection. At its base level, it's adopting the philosophy of treating others how you wish to be treated. It’s about not glossing over things. It’s about sitting with someone and riding with them through the journey of their emotions. That’s what care is.”
One of Gertrude Stein’s favourite musings was “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. Lovers of modernist thought know that this is not a simple reduction, but a complex theory of thought and image. But there are times when words do need to be reduced down, where we need to say in its most simplest form, what it is we really mean. Perhaps Gertrude Stein was trying to say, that what you see, is in most cases, what you get. Here is a portrait of Ella Matthews.
The polls for LEADLUU 2021 will stay open until 7pm on Thursday 4 March. To read up on all candidate policies and vote for the six Student Executive Officers and the new Gryphon Editor for 2021/22: https://voting.luu.org.uk/leadluu/