I’ve lived in so many places; I’m amazed anything important has survived. Drawings, oil paintings, sketch books - lost, stolen, destroyed (by me) or just gone…
A few oil paintings were recently discovered in the form of two and a quarter inch square negatives. I hope to have these digitally rescued soon.
The earliest surviving example of my artistic output is this scribble, from my skooldaze. I was about 12 years old.
The picture (scanned and edited in Photoshop) shows the back and front of the wrapping band of a packet of envelopes, which I expect was bought from the school tuck-shop (because the local shops were out of bounds.)
Fellow post-war baby-boomers may recognise the MainLine branding. Look at the price: 3d three old pence. Today’s 5p is the equivalent of twelve pre-decimalisation pence.
The doodle was done in red, black and green biro, probably one of those fat things that had three or four colours in one. Great, but why did they always break before the ink ran out?
Despite its lack of monetary value, the object sheds light on a number of factors that resonate and still have meaning.
For example, I was unsure about the spelling of ‘boring’. It still doesn’t look right to me. If not for my word processor’s spell checker, I would still be doubtful.
To whom was the message shown? A friend, of course, but who?
The bearded chap was my class and art teacher, Mr Pinner. He looks a lot like Jesus.
The drawing on the right shows his talent for raising one eyebrow. The upwards turn of one side of his mouth suggests he’s annoyed. He used to call out: ‘Gas bags - deflate!’
Apparently I was always talking and giggling in class. My school reports testify to my annoying (for adults) habit of being more interested in having fun than knuckling down to hard work. My parents were furious; double trouble.
Mr Pinner often referred to me as ‘Cackling Witch’ because of my laugh. Was this funny or cruel?
Drawing caricatures was possibly a way of coping with feelings of powerlessness. Mostly it was an escape from soul destroying tedium and a relief from the mind numbing boredom.
About this picture …
The background is a sunny beach. The yellow represents the sand; the blue is the sea and sky.
The wardrobe represents my mother. She had a concern for physical appearance that bordered on obsession. She spent a lot of time on her hair, clothes and make-up, trying to look glamorous; but only when she went out.
The fish represents me.
As a child I was criticised a lot by adults, particularly my mother, especially about the way I looked, but also about what I said, how I said it, what I did and didn’t do. Etc etc.
Growing up, I always felt I was in the wrong place. At home, I felt scared and rejected. At Chailey I felt scared and rejected.
The inspiration for this picture is a black and white photograph taken on the beach at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. I was five years old.
In the photograph I’m struggling to hold myself up. I’m extremely thin, ill with a second bout of TB Spine. I’m smiling, of course.
My mother relaxes in a deck chair, wearing sun glasses. Composed. Posing.
The point about these pictures and this blog is about finding images that speak to a deeper truth.
I’m not sure how healthy this is, or if it is a good use of my time. This is a genuine and lifelong worry.
Is there something else (better) I should be doing?
PS. The fish is made of wood. It's beautiful, I think. I bought a whole shoal of them, twenty odd years ago, from Reading International Solidarity Centre.
This picture is the latest in what I believe will be a long series, the working title of which is ‘Sundays’.
Whereas the first one was hand drawn and painted, Sweet Sunday was created digitally, with a camera and scanner to get the images into the computer. I used a combination of Serif and Adobe software to edit the images and create the picture.
As previously described, Sunday visiting in the institution was special, extraordinary and transient.
Visitors invariably brought sweets. Not all would be eaten on the day. In later years, when I could walk about, I would save some, keeping them in my locker. This gave me a problem because I hated throwing away the wrappers. They were symbols of something rare and precious. Treasure.
The shape of the sweet wrappers reminded of people standing. So I lined them up, like a row of visitors at the bedside. My mother, who was pathologically self centred, occasionally brought aunts, uncles and cousins to see me. This was to show them how much she was suffering because of my illness.
We had proper hot summers in those days, hence the golden yellow background.
For several years I was completely static, strapped to a plaster bed. The wooden artist’s mannequin seemed a good image to convey this inertness, the limited amount of movement I had. The face is a scanned drawing done by my daughter age nine. I came across it recently during a rummage for old snaps (photographs, in post-war parlance).
The building on the left, part of the old school house at Chailey Heritage, substitutes for the dolls house my parents brought for me to play with during their visits.
The teddy bear came from Ikea a couple of years ago. He is naturally shy but enjoys being in my pictures. I didn’t have a bear as a child. I had a pink rabbit. It was thrown onto the roof of the ward by bad boy David Fox.
It’s a huge though somewhat time-consuming relief finally to give visual expression to these childhood events. I realise now that this is more than mere self-indulgence, but necessary coming-to-terms story-telling. It isn’t just my story.
It is an equally huge blessing that DAO has given me this blog space, to share and get feedback on my words and pictures, which is always pleasing.
I have an excellent week ahead, gorging on art, including theatre, music and painting. It surely doesn't get better than this. I just hope I find time for meals.
South Street holds a few memories for me; this one’s the best:
In 1996, as a keen and fearless community development worker, I organised a strangely controversial disability arts cabaret here.
The line-up was impressive for our little show. The late, great and supremely wonderful Ian Stanton headlined, superbly supported by Genie Cosmos with Fish Out of Water, and the gently challenging and truthful poet Peter Street.
100 people, nearly all disabled, crammed into the main hall. We had two BSL interpreters, and free food was provided.
Free transport brought people from all four corners of Berkshire, not without a few hiccups, including mislaid passengers and a few disgruntled late arrivals.
Incredibly, the cabaret almost didn’t happen.
My steering group, a majority of disabled people, was very nervous. It was art, see. And fun.
A strong case against the event was mounted. Questions were raised.
Was it a good use of public money?
How would it impact on the design, planning and delivery of health and social care services?
Was this an appropriate or effective deployment of a user development worker? I certainly thought so!
I argued at the time that this was a good way to bring disabled people together, to empower them, to raise consciousness and expectations, and to help build a movement.
Fortunately, I had an enlightened CEO and the cabaret went ahead. Thanks Madeleine, wherever you are.
So the event wasn’t just accessible, it was subversive. It was social model without theory. It was empowerment without flipchart.
Don’t get me wrong. Although I love Disability Equality Training, both delivering and participating, nothing hits the spot, or does the job, like having a good time together.
Of all the events I've organised since, I never quite managed to top this one.
No more prevarication! I'm definitely going for it.
Shape is currently inviting applications for the Shape Open Exhibition to be held at the Portobello Gallery, Notting Hill, London, 23rd April to 5th May 2012.
The Shape Open Prize of £500 will be given to the artist with the best works in show as selected by the selection committee. The People’s Choice Award of £250 will go to the artist whose work has been most voted for by visitors to the exhibition.
The theme is disability, but this is it not about showcasing the work of disabled artists. All works will be considered, from both disabled and non-disabled artists.
Tony Heaton, Shape CEO explained:
This call for submissions is open in every sense. The word, disability, is open to interpretation.
Ben Fredericks, curator at Shape added:
Disabled people have reclaimed the word disability; we don’t need to hang on to it. The focus is on the art, not the artist, disabled or otherwise.
It will be interesting to see what happens.
Might this be an open invitation for non disabled artists to express what we already know: that disability remains, to a large extent, something to be feared or dreaded, ignored or deplored?
And yet, to the extent that artists represent the masses, what a brilliant opportunity to test the mood of the nation.
In these days of cuts to services, the persistence of the right-to-die brigade, and the real threat of disabled people disappearing back behind the gates of institutions, I often wonder quite what people actually think; if they think at all, that is.
This will be only the second time I've submitted to an exhibition in over thirty years.
Moreover, I have never made a picture about disability. I've been doodling but as yet, no big ideas have emerged, although I'm working on it. Really I am.
This is a version of an article I wrote for Disability Horizons.
The critics loved Reasons To Be Cheerful first time around. The Guardian said: 'The stage gives off a million volts.' Time Out opined: 'Rough, ready and bl**dy brilliant.' Even The Daily Mail managed a compliment: 'It's got a heart of gold.'
Aah, ain't that nice?
So, the Chailey kid came good. Well, nothing unusual in that. I won't mention any names (they might not thank me) but there are quite few of us Chailey kids in and about the (disability) movement.
Ian Dury wasn't an activist. He was an artist, hedonist, hard nut and a rock star. Talented too, but a nightmare to live and work with, if the film Sex & Drugs & Rock &Roll is to be believed. And why shouldn't we believe it?
There's a scene in the film where he goes back to Chailey, around the time he wrote Spasticus Autisticus for the International Year of Disabled People, 1981. I'd left years before, but I'm reliably informed that this visit never actually happened.
Hello to you out there in Normal Land/You may not comprehend my tale or understand.
I don't remember much violence in the film, whereas crip (and crip-on-crip) bashing did happen at Chailey in those days. Dury talked about it and we can assume it affected him, probably not in a pleasant way.
Oi! Cunt face! Who are you looking at?/I'll kick your fucking head off with shit on me boots!
Put that boy in detention!
When I went to see the film, in 2010, I think I secretly hoped I would recognise Chailey Heritage. Of course, it wasn't actually filmed there. The dormitory scenes couldn't possibly have been shot at St Georges because the place was turned into luxury flats more than a decade ago.
I always thought the Blockheads had a great sound, especially Chaz Jankel's piano, but some of Dury's lyrics are pure sexist rubbish:
I offer thee this band of gold/Now do exactly what you are told.
I guess he hated women. Or maybe he was just unconfident.
If I was with a woman I'd make believe I loved her/All the time I would not like her much.
So I prefer the instrumental version of Duff 'em up and Do 'em Over. Not that he didn't manage the occasional insightful social comment:
There ain't half been some clever bastards/lucky bleeders, lucky bleeders.
One thing you can say about Dury is that he was ace at alliteration:
Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Plaistow Patricia, Plaistow Patricia/Go on girl.
Chailey was a grim yet brief chapter in Dury's life; he spent a mere three years there in the early fifties. I was there for eleven years, 1955 - 1966, a big chunk of my childhood. He wrote and talked about it in less than glowing terms. I have yet to find words to adequately describe my loathing for the place.
An Instinct for Kindness. A play about assisted suicide.
A Bigger Picture. David Hockney at The Royal Academy.
Resistance; Which Way the Future. Liz Crow's important installation.
Cheltenham Science Festival 2011. Exploring the Autistic Mind & 3D Thinkers in a 2D World.
Access All Areas 2011. Live Art Extravanganza
Longcare Survivors; Biography of a Care Scandal. Review of John Pring's outstanding book.
Once upon a time block-buster art shows were sweaty occasions where we crawled around the galleries in rugby scrums, catching brief glimpses of the exhibits if we were lucky. Most unpleasant.
Happily, the modern art of crowd control as practiced by the Royal Academy last week, meant that Hockney’s A Bigger Picture was, for the most part, a cool and comfortable experience. Entrance was staggered and numbers limited. There was space to move, with ease. I could stare and study the pictures for as long as I liked.
Except for the culture coach trippers.
I was sitting on the bench resting my bones, taking a longer look at the art, when along came a trio of ladies in lemon up from Leatherhead, complete with holiday hair and matching handbags. They stationed themselves between me and my hero, their bums in my face, nattering non-stop about some nonsense to do with one of their number who was not attending.
Eventually my amazed gaze got to them, and they sidled off to join the rest of their party. In the tea rooms, probably.
It’s a day’s work, going to an art exhibition. And a day’s work writing the review. So I’ll stop here
and get on with it.
These days I draw without passion or compulsion. I do it with complete acceptance and absolute commitment. I don’t have to do it. It’s not a problem.
Drawing is a conversation between me and the world. Everything I see is a potential picture. When I’m drawing (I sometimes use water colour and coloured pencil) I feel I’m connecting with the subject, and with the space around and between us.
These are moments of being.
Drawing is handy when not much is happening. There are always interesting shapes to look at and do something with. Station platforms and hospital waiting rooms are excellent places to see people shapes. Parks are good for trees and dogs. Gardens give me cats and birds. The view from my window is all roof tops and cars.
Occasionally I draw from imagination, old photographs and memories. But the marks in these pictures always seem to lack the vitality and variety of my ‘seen’ work. I’d like to make pictures that say something about disability, but it’s a struggle.
Writing is different. Words are like the cartilage in my joints, the oxygen in my blood, and the pigment in my skin.
Words give me direct lines to people I love and need.
Words come from a different place in my head. It’s a word-eat-word world in there, a jungle of thoughts running and jumping around. Like wild beasts who have been caged for too long, they’re ambivalent about freedom. I won’t throw away the key yet though, just in case.