A first in Devon for WI cup winner

By Amy Hetherington   |   Reporter   |
Wednesday 15th June 2022 3:57 pm
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Jan Gray with her award-winning entry.
Jan Gray with her award-winning entry. (Photo: Alan Quick )

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North Tawton WI member Jan Gray has become the first Devon member to win the Lady Denman Cup, a national writing competition for WI members.

Jan described her surprise at hearing news of her success, which was announced earlier this year, that she had won the 2021 competition for her short piece about a 17th-century female artist.

She said: ‘I was amazed because I’ve never written anything before. So I entered and didn’t expect to win. I couldn’t believe it, but it was lovely because I wrote from the heart.’

In last year’s competition which was organised with National Gallery, WI members were asked to write a maximum of 500 words in any genre about the female artist Artemisia Gentileschi who was one of the very few woman who dared to accuse a man of rape publicly and bring him to court.

In keeping with Gentileschi’s unconventional attitude, Jan said she decided to write her piece from a unique perspective and used the portrait itself as the protagonist, imagining what the subject of the portrait might think as art gallery visitors passed by.

Judges described her choice as ‘unusual’ and ‘ingenious.’

One judge commented: ‘I think it ingenious that the author chose to write a piece of prose from the point of view of Artemisia inside the self-portrait, as if the painting were a living thing.

‘She conveys the ambiguities of Artemisia’s stance and expression, acknowledging that every one of us has a very different, personal response to Artemisia’s story and to her work.’

Jan only discovered her love of writing recently when she was given a one-off two-hour creative writing workshop course as a Christmas present from a friend.

She said: ‘It was like my friend had unleashed a tiger because it was only then that I discovered that I love writing.’

Since the revelation, Jan has continued to show her talent, also winning a Great Western Railway competition, which challenged entrants to write a 100-word piece on a romantic train journey. She won a train ride to London and a two-night stay in Cornwall.

Jan has even found herself on BBC Radio 4 which she said was very ‘bizarre.’

‘The producer phoned me up and said: “Can I do a Zoom call?” I said yes and we did the meeting, though I didn’t see her — it was just to get the recording for the radio,’ she said.

‘Unfortunately, we were away at the time so we didn’t get to hear it as it was broadcast, but I had really told many people I was doing it so I got a lot of messages from people asking if it was me.’

Jan has now gone one step further and signed up for another creative writing course organised by Cardiff University.

‘Subsequently, I enrolled to do an online thing with Cardiff University — it’s a once-a-week creative writing unit. So I’ve got this character, this alter ego, which I’ve been writing about — Amanda Small. She’s the sort of person who gets everything wrong,’ said Jan.

‘I wish I’d done it when I was younger. I’m in my mid-60s now, so the likelihood of me becoming a published author is pretty slim, but I’m not sure I’m doing it for that.’

Jan has been an active member of the WI community for many years after she joined the organisation when she was invited to give a talk at her local branch’s meeting.

She said: ‘Before we moved to Devon, I was used to give a talk to the WI because I used to work in weight management in the Welsh Valleys. They asked how much I wanted to be paid and I said: “Don’t pay me, let me join the WI.”

She has not regretted her decision and immediately chose to join North Tawton’s group when she and her family moved to Devon six years ago.

‘When we moved to Devon, we didn’t know anybody but I knew there was a WI so I went and joined. They’re the best bunch of women - it’s such a welcoming, non-judgemental, friendly group,’ she said.

The National Federations of Women’s Institutes, known as the WI, was founded in Britain over one hundred years ago in 1915 following the outbreak of the First World War to encourage more women to get involved in the war effort. Members have continued to grow since its establishment and it is now the largest women’s organisation in the UK.

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