Anne Teahan documents the artistic process of three artists making Art from the memories of an institution. On the one hand the work speaks for itself. On the other Anne provides an honest and sensitive account of an artist grappling with the frustrations and joys of being a disabled artist making disability art.
I recently participated in a residency as one of a team of three artists. Initially called the Disability History Project and subsequently renamed Tales from the Boarders, it is now a touring exhibition, documenting and exploring the memories of children in care spread over the last century. The project touches Disability in two main areas.
Firstly, as subject matter, it recounts the history of Great Stoney School in Ongar, which started as a reforming alternative to the workhouse, evolved into a special needs school and closed down in the 1980s with the abolition of the GLC. It might be seen as the history of a century of attitudes to education and children, but through the lens of children dealing with multiple problems and challenges, ranging from extreme poverty to disability.
Secondly, the Disability in the initial title merged artists and the subject matter they explored. Two of the artists underwent a selection process which invited applications from disabled artists only. So I will look at the residency from both the artistic and the disability project angle.
The Disability History Project involved many participants including: Epping Forest Museum, the long-serving former headmaster of the school and the arts charity Theatre Resource, serving children with special needs and currently occupying the old school building. A diverse array of funding logos included The Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance East. At the core, were the former children and staff of Great Stoney School. The aim of the project was to untap and document their memories, as source material and inspiration for three bodies of art.
The project was kicked off by a reunion day in the old school building. People connected to Great Stoney School's past, were invited to share memorabilia and start the process of being interviewed and recorded. They included: the reforming headmaster, cooks, cleaners, house parents and most importantly, adults who had spent part or all of their childhoods in care. The oldest, now in her 80s, came to the school in the 1930s; the youngest left in the 1980s when the residential cottages were sold off to developers.
We (the artists), met for the first time at the reunion, met former residents, saw diverse school photos of line-ups, sports days, outings etc and got the feel of the school building itself.
Over the following weeks and months, Carien Kremer, Epping Forest Museum's social historian, sent the artists a fascinating range of documentation based on childhood and adult memories in the form of audio and text interviews and photos. We received the same source material, but worked on it separately in our studios.
I also drew a couple of mute objects from the school's past: a dinner knife, an unidentifiable container (was it a flour or dry bleach shaker?) containing fragments of 1960s newspaper. And I spent three days at Great Stoney School paper-casting then hatching the skin of the old school bell. Both Damien and myself took photographs of the school building and Jon recorded voices at the reunion.
Our task as artists was to turn the varied, fragmented and ephemeral research, into art work durable enough to tour for three years: to be packed, unpacked and displayed at many venues.
The Residency as a Disability Project
Damien and myself were commissioned to do the project as disabled artists. Our experiences of this territory are different.
My disability (Laryngeal Dystonia) struck 8 years ago, but took so long to diagnose and manage, that the concept of disability is a relatively recent one for me. I have mixed feelings about being labelled a disabled artist: my life as an artist preceded my disability by many years. Nevertheless, it was a great relief to be able to declare my disability and feel free to ask for help with practical difficulties rather than trying to underplay them for fear of losing work.
Damien has dealt with disability issues since she was a teenager. Our first conversation made me realise that although I am older than her, she is much more experienced at dealing with the challenges and frustrations of the territory. I am still a novice.
There were two main aspects of the project which made me think about the potential pitfalls of a Disability Project.
Firstly, timing and planning. The project started about a month later than scheduled. A period of intensive research and work was therefore compressed into a narrower band of time. For different reasons both Damien and myself have to work in a paced and measured way to avoid aggravating our conditions and intensifying the fatigue of managing a disability.
Damien is Deaf and has to solve practical problems, including finding interpreters, (and sorting the consequent Access to Work paperwork) and dealing with a Repetitive strain Injury condition.
I rely on p/time art teaching; my condition and art must fit round the timing of regular voice operations and side effects. I live in fear of voice and health crashing in the middle of a term (this happened during the project).
The project was run by sensitive and responsive people so it was possible to discuss these problems (whereas I still find myself reluctant to explain the full extent of my difficulties to my regular place of work).
Nevertheless, practicalities are central to management of health, disability and art. When timing doesn't work, the consequences can be severe, so perhaps the perfect disability project, were it to exist, would place efficiency and time management at the top of the priority list.
All three artists shared the same frustrations about the publicising of the exhibition. There is a fascinating touring show called Tales from the Boarders, comprising historical documents, memorabilia and three thoroughly researched and realised works of art. But initially, we were not named in any of the publicity. Our potential contacts, networks and audiences were therefore cut out of the process at the beginning. Artistically the work covers areas of music, sound, drawing, digital art, paper-casting and much more. The universal application of a show exploring themes of childhood development, political, social and educational history, the changing treatment, attitudes and definitions of disadvantage and disability… and much more, was missed. It was disappointing to be invisible in the middle of so much potential interest.
After feedback we were eventually named on the fliers as contributors (which evoked ideas of garden fêtes) and had to push a little harder to be mentioned in the publicity as artists. Again, we were able to feedback and have things changed, but timing is key to publicising a show; the later you do it the less effective it becomes. Again, with the added baggage of disability, sorting publicity and press releases in a rush, means the risk of further exhaustion - especially if you have to first make the case that it needs to be done at all.
My own feeling is that having done our jobs and delivered the artwork, and enabled the ticking of the disability funding box, our professional expectations as artists were not fully understood. I find myself wondering whether tick boxes and funding applications create an administrative framework where the point and value of art in itself, and the passion artists feel to communicate, may be missed.
Both these criticisms are made with the proviso that all three artists were happy to have worked with people who were sensitive to requests and invited and responded to feedback. The criticisms are an attempt to consider the experience in the context of a Disability Project. I would be interested to know (as a novice) whether these criticisms may be common to other such projects.
I loved the residency, with its themes of voice, memory and retrieval - I pushed my work and ideas further thanks to the opportunity it offered. I would happily work again in this territory, but with a little more wisdom about the potential plusses and pitfalls of Disability as a category applied to Art and artists.
For me the process was a kind of detective story - I was looking at fragments of images from the dim and distant past, but also from my contemporaries. And of course my own experience is part of the process: I have been a pupil, a parent, an art teacher in an inner-city school (pre-disability). I found myself comparing recent urban deprivation with stories of hardship stretched over a long period of time, from various viewpoints, interpreted and filtered by individual temperaments. Throughout this process the same questions kept arising. Why would one individual experience their childhood in care as crushing and miserable, and another (their contemporary) as offering a life-saving structure? So the question in my mind was “What do children really need?” After many weeks of sifting, my response came as both a piece of writing and as visual art.
Through writing, it seemed to me that the history of children's education, whether mainstream or residential, was the story of sticks and carrots. The further back in time you go, the tougher and more crushing life was for children in institutions. And the lower you were in the pecking order, the more harshly you were treated. So at the post Victorian start of the story, school life was all stick and very little carrot. As the story gets closer to the present, education becomes more child-centred and focuses on rewards and the realising of potential rather than accepting limitations. So carrots took the form of praise, acknowledgment, treats and improving activities, (walks in the countryside, participation in pantomimes, entertainments, Father Christmases etc). And this trend was more intensely evident with children in residential schools.
My visual response echoed these thoughts in the form of a timeline. I made a series of fragile paper shoes from fragmented drawings, reformed in thin paper around children's shoes chosen because the very least a child needs for survival is footwear. The first story I heard - from a lady now in her eighties, was of her arrival at school aged ten, wearing cardboard shoes - which she unwillingly gave up for more sensible institutional footwear. My paper shoe timeline started with Dickensian footwear and finished with the branded trainers of the eighties. In between were: Sunday best shoes, sensible shoes, wellies for excursions, gardening and pantomime shoes. Branded trainers, to me, represent the external tyranny that dominates children's lives more subtly than the institutional punishments of earlier times.
These were exhibited in perspex cubes with digital images derived from the school building. I worked from a mixture of real people (my daughter's abandoned trainers) and found or bought shoes which fit the bill in terms of the style of a decade.
Jon is a musician and sound artist. His 20 minute piece may be heard on this website and comprises sounds, music and the human voice. He has interviewed, recorded and layered the voices of grown up children recalling school stories spanning a period which included outbreaks of diphtheria and the Billy Cotton Band Show. Adult voices intertwine and overlap; their memories create images of sweet and sour childhood experiences - some heartbreaking, but recalled in voices without apparent bitterness.
In conversation he has been sensitive to the problem of how people may be represented in sound, and the medium's potential to release or distort their real feelings and statements. Hearing his piece creates feelings of empathy and identification with the childhood voices of the participants. The editing pulls together references and allusions to external events as well as individual experiences. There is a texture to the piece and rich visual imagery is evoked through sound and spoken phrases.
Rhythm, repetition and variation draw the listener into the life of an ordered institution. You can download the sample Jon made with the voices of residents from the institution or listen now in your media player.
TR3-launch_350.jpg alt="Photograph of installation" description="Panel from installation shows a collage of images, framed by a polished wooden veneer. In the centre is a blackboard with a series of memories written in italic script. Around the blackboard are a series of kettles, pots and pans, toothbrushes and toothpaste, arranged symetrically. At the bottom of the panel is a row of chidren's legs, hands placed in laps. The children sit on a white stool. On their feet are brightly coloured sandals" title="Tales from the Boarders installation by Damien Robinson"
Damien is a digital and sound artist. She describes her response to the adults' childhood stories:
“…I was constantly struck by the range and diversity of individual experiences in contrast to the elements of uniformity, repetition (and in the first half of the 20th century) regimentation”
Her piece employs a wide range of digital and physical processes. She creates old-style school desks which respond to vision and touch using magnetic and smart materials, unimaginable in the days of residential rote learning. She breaks the uniformity of black and white institutional photos of school shoes, socks and ties, using colour and text to retrieve the children's individuality. (see gallery)
She quotes memories in copperplate text, and makes a telling reference to a classic nursery rhyme:
“Girls And Boys Come Out To Play draws on the apparent origins of that eighteenth century rhyme, a time when most children had to work, and play could only happen after dark. The school's origins, with the emphasis on taking children from deprived backgrounds and making them into a viable workforce, is contrasted with walls and barriers of expectation and limited horizons, subverted by those (staff and children) who looked beyond, for themselves and for others.”
We met occasionally at different stages in the process. So it was interesting to hear fragments of each other's ideas followed by the eventual surprise of seeing and hearing the finished work for the first time at the exhibition, which opened in the old school building. Because we use very different artistic processes, and worked separately it was fascinating to discover overlapping ideas and parallel forms.
Voices and Sound weave through the whole project either physically or metaphorically. The notion of the child's voice being just about heard, either through quotations from letters home - (where the real meaning may have fallen between the lines) (Damien); through the actual sound of their adult voices recalling childhood feelings (Jon) or in response to statements about what they valued or resented (Anne). Also, ideas about the lost or missing words in the many gaps in the documentation.
Repetition and Rhythm run throughout, in the formal structures and imagery, echoing the tension between the individual child and the ordering of many lives through school uniforms and institutional routines. Clothing and the motif of footwear in particular emerged in all our work.
Memory and Touch and their associations: my work looks very tactile, but my paper sculptures are too fragile to touch. (examples) Damien's desks invite touch, with their movable pieces which change colour in response to tactile temperature and with raised surfaces responding to fingertip investigation.
Collage and Fragmentation run through all three artworks. Damien uses digital processes to combine images from different times and settings. Jon's sound piece brings fragments of past and present together. My paper shoes tear and reconnect fragmented drawings. Collage implies disconnection and reassembly of things once whole. So the act of sifting created parallel structures within the art.