Well it's been a while since my last blog post! The images I've just uploaded have come from an artist-in-residence at Pocklington Community Junior School. It's been a long and very enjoyable process involving lots of painting and some fantastic work by the children. The project started with the children's ideas on what 'Our School' meant to them and I've tried to stay as close as possible to what they expressed in images and words. These are fantastically enthusiastic and creative children who were absolutely great to work with and a credit to themselves as well as their school.
There are so many people to thank - not least the children - but also my creative associate Kate Noble who got me involved in the first place and who helped me to organise and run the workshops. She has been brilliant throughout. Also, this project would not have happened without the support of Headteacher Carole Fulstow, who moved onto a new school in February, and her successor Alex Reppold who has overseen the final stages and installation of the outdoor piece. The project was funded by the Friends of PCJS who invest heavily in promoting the creative arts as part of their school ethos. The school is full of great artworks and it's been a privilege - and a big responsibility - to produce something that (I hope) is worthy of their trust. Kate and I both worked hard to give the school value for money.
Well, after almost two years of having a big project to work on, I'm now faced with a 'what next?' moment. I haven't got anything as large lined up yet, but there's a small pile of fresh lino and a stack of new canvases that really ought to be put to good, or even bad, use. I'm about to have fun and indulge my own ideas for a short while to see how that works out.
Where does time as an artist go? I definitely had more spare time (and certainly more disposable income) when I worked as a full time teacher. Yet, I now have the best of both worlds in that I get to paint murals, undertake commissions, do residencies such as this one and still teach visual arts part time in the community. The reality is ... there is no time to do all this! Consequently, it has taken until now to resolve this project to point at which I feel it is okay to stop. So, apologies for adding four galleries at once, but these are the last ones.
I can honestly say that I have enjoyed this project immensely. AA2A provided an opportunity to think through an idea and the motivation to take it forward to a conclusion. As usual for me, the process of recording and developing ideas raised more questions than it answered. What if? Why? How? The list goes on ... but that's what makes art exciting and that's why I'm already thinking about what comes next.
Good luck to all aspiring artists out there. It's not easy, but it's worth it.
Monday was a day of preparation and practical work. It was good to be at High Melton in the morning and I’d like to say thanks to Simon and the third year graphics students for allowing me to share their room. Everyone made me feel welcome. Good luck with the competition entries guys and thanks for showing me your work!!!
I then had a thoroughly enjoyable and productive afternoon in the darkroom at the Hub. Many thanks Laura and Danny for organising this and making sure I knew where everything was … including how to get in and out of the building! All very much appreciated. Today’s mission was photograms – fairly random experiments with shapes and materials to see what happened. Nothing at all spectacular emerged, but there was sufficient to allow me to play around and put together a couple of galleries of images. It also gave me something more to think about in terms of what next, how I can do this, and why.
This afternoon underlined how much I really miss having a darkroom. There’s something more hands-on about the whole process of creating images in a darkroom and, whilst Photoshop is an amazing application, using a computer means I need to stay in one place until the job’s done. I much prefer to be active and physically in contact with the medium. Today was fun and I’m looking forward to the next session.
Whilst I appreciate and enjoy three out of the four seasons in Britain, I do have a bit of an ongoing issue with Winter! Add sub-zero temperatures to a lack of daylight and I feel an overwhelmingly primitive urge to (a) migrate, (b) hibernate. Since migration wasn’t an option this year, I’ve pretty much adopted a squirrel-like lifestyle, i.e., stock the larder, hole up somewhere warm, and only emerge on days when the temperature rises above zero. The unfortunate rider to this is that we need to go to work regardless (if I ruled the world we would only have to work in Spring and Autumn). Consequently, it seems like an age since my last blog … possibly because it has been! However, although I haven’t done another photoshoot, the time hasn’t been entirely wasted. As you can see from the new galleries, I’ve been experimenting with square format, layers, textures, colour and pattern. The initial photographs have now moved through several processes and transformations to end up as abstract patterns which reflect my deep interest in pattern and design.
The thing I really love about studio practice is the variety of opportunity and experience it brings. When I looked at the initial photographs from this shoot, I certainly didn’t have this particular outcome in mind. The patterns are by no means the finished article, but now I have some idea of how the project might progress from here.
Knee-deep snow has meant that I’ve been able to get on with preparing a third album of images based on my experiences of going home. This time I’ve experimented with creating a record of my route around the town that is based on an Australian Aboriginal approach where maps are created without any written reference points such as street names or grid references. The idea is to create a pictorial record of familiar childhood places merged with my present day experiences of the town. This is a small part of the story behind the image …
Although I’d regularly gone home until the late 1990s, I hadn’t been in the town centre itself for around 20 years. I knew the town had benefitted from recent investment via Channel 4’s Kevin McCloud and the Big Town Plan – a project intended to set the Arts at the centre of regeneration - and so I was curious to see the results of this. So, I parked the car and decided to head off towards the river using a route I’d walked hundreds of times as a child. Well, that was the plan! A quick glance to the left and I was immediately disorientated. The old railway underpass (dark, damp, perpetually smelling of urine, yet capable of generating a deep, reverberating thunder as trains rolled over) has been replaced by a contemporary red and white structure proudly sporting a plaque bearing the name ‘Tickle Cock Bridge’. Yes, you did read that correctly. And no, this isn’t a reference to poultry! Apparently this was a well-established local nickname for this underpass indicative of its somewhat dodgy Victorian past. What? How come I missed this? You’d expect that at least one of my peers would have homed in on this epithet as something risqué for use to snigger at amongst ourselves (in private of course, lest we incur the wrath of puritanical parents). Is this a joke adults kept firmly to themselves? If so, I feel cheated out of a childhood coup! Yet, there’s also a part of me that wonders if the locals have actually pulled one over on the developers here. Anyway, whatever the reasoning behind the name, it appealed to my sense of the ridiculous and so I moved on with a smile … only to encounter a dead end. Hmm … my usual path to the town centre is now a large shopping centre! It’s going to be one of those days.
On finding a route through to the town centre, I entered a precinct that was familiar and yet different. It’s interesting to see how places evolve over time; what’s gone, what’s been relocated, what’s new. Although many shops are still as I remember, I was quite stunned to discover that the old indoor market is now just a façade concealing a gutted shell. The indoor market had been central to every shopping trip as a child. It used to be a bustling place, alive with activity, noise and colour. My uncle had been trader there for years and I clearly remember his name above the stall and the distinctive smell of the leather goods he made and sold. Yet, now there is absolutely nothing left to mark its existence. Today the building is just empty space; its life force relocated to a new position beside the shopping centre. A closer look revealed two large murals attached to the white, ceramic tiled walls, so I guess this might be part of the town’s heritage trail. If so, the space is probably still used in some capacity during the week. Yet, this morning the building just seemed dark and abandoned. I was itching to get inside with the camera, but the entrance was locked and I didn’t fancy playing Russian roulette with the alarm system. So, instead, I walked down the adjacent ginnel (not used that term in years) to see if I might get a better view from behind. Careful what you wish for! The whole of the back of the market has gone and the area which used to be filled with rows of outdoor stalls is now tarmac and fresh air. The result is a clear view of Queen’s Mill and the new footbridge across the river. Not quite the view I anticipated, but technically it is a better one!
I decided to give up on the market and homed in on the new footbridge. I stayed there for most of the morning taking photographs and chatting to passers by, before eventually moving off towards the Parish Church. I wanted to see if what had once been Great Aunt Liza’s bijou sweet shop was still there. En route, I crossed the site of the Roman fort. This is one of Castleford’s big claims to fame. Yet, there’s little evidence of its existence above ground. Archaeologists are given small windows of time to get in, record what they can, and get out again before developers sink the evidence beneath concrete, brick and tarmac. I find it hugely ironic that the Romans taught us how to build the roads that we now build over them. Perhaps our latent Brigantine genes just can’t resist an opportunity for revenge! However, match this approach against ways in which other historic sites are managed, and I think someone’s buried a potential a goldmine here. Ah well, the fort isn’t going anywhere so perhaps future generations will see things differently. I digress! Aunt Liza’s sweet shop is now a cab firm. What? Arghhh! There’s nothing mouth-wateringly delicious about a taxi! (On the other hand, you can’t rely on a Pontefract Cake to get you home at midnight!) It’s strange how events play out over time. As a child I heard tales of ruthless competition surrounding these premises; veiled allusion to family skulduggery as unscrupulous siblings parcelled off Aunt Liza to an asylum so they could get their hands on the shop (or at least the takings) and then rumours of her death from a broken heart. I’m not sure how true this is. It all happened (allegedly) a very long time ago. Yet, I do remember seeing her name above the shop window and, if she was dispossessed of the family silver, then I’m really sorry that this final vestige of everything she worked for has now been erased from the town.
The rest of the walk will be documented in more detail elsewhere as part of the project. So, I’ll only make one other observation before summing up my thoughts on today’s experiences. This relates to the seemingly timeless nature of Castleford’s signature rows of terraced houses. These streets remain relatively unchanged except for a noticeable increase in UPVC and hardwood uniformity. Prior to this, the colour of exterior paintwork offered some insight into the personality of the occupants, and sprucing up the paintwork was a community event in that the choice of colour inevitably attracted interest and critical review from all who passed. Conformists chose shades which complemented neighbouring properties. Nonconformists did their own thing and ignored the gossip. I remember the appearance of Shocking Pink in a nearby street which scandalised the neighbourhood. Now that was rebellion writ large! Sadly, this property, like many of its neighbours, is now unequivocally white. These terraces are far better insulated, and probably more secure, but definitely less colourful. Yet, whilst in other towns much of the terraced housing has been demolished, I found it reassuring to find continuity within these very familiar streets. So much so that I had to suppress a ridiculous urge to sprint up the street to my parents’ door like I'd always done as a child.
As I reflect on my visits, two things really strike me: Firstly, the clear evidence of the town’s economic decline over the past 20 years. The town centre seems to have been pared down to its bones and I find it hard to accept that those who drive change refuse to acknowledge, or take responsibility for, its negative effects on communities. I’m not saying that progress is a bad thing, I just think that the raison d’être for change ought to be as much people-centred as economic and political. However, on a more positive note, the town’s regeneration partnership is clearly working to turn things round and, if future investment in the town centre matches the vision and standard of the new footbridge, then things could become very different. Could an Arts-centred approach to regeneration prove successful here? I guess only time will tell.
Secondly, I really noticed that the specific places that had once signified home and connected me to my father’s side of the family, are now either gone, or occupied by strangers. This is largely indicative of time and the fact that fewer people choose to live their whole lives in the same place. Yet, despite living within this community as a child and retaining a connection long into adulthood, it is no longer possible for me to go home or visit relatives here. Thus, my relationship with this town has evolved into something more distant and transient. I have now become an observer rather than a participant.
It is this changing nature of places, and the effects of change on personal connections to place, that I want to explore further. How do my experiences and perceptions compare with those of others? I also want to experiment with a more cross-cultural approach to image making. I’m not entirely sure how all this might unfold yet, so I’ll keep you posted.
Many experiences in and around my home town of Castleford in West Yorkshire have contributed to making me the person I am today. So, I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring this place-based connection through three sets of images which will inform my first trip to the darkroom to produce some photograms. The countryside surrounding the Aire and Calder Navigation was my favourite childhood playground and one landmark en route that has always fascinated me is the weir next to the flour mill. The River Calder joins the River Aire just to the North of Castleford and since the early 12th Century there have been references to mills downstream of this confluence. Queen’s Mill dates from around 1822 and was the largest flour mill of its type - originally powered by a 20ft waterwheel. The adjacent weir pool is huge since the river at this point is somewhere in the region of 130 metres across.
My childhood memory of this section of river is of a bizarre, gigantic bubble bath … but not one you’d be eager to pamper yourself in! The water was heavily polluted by industrial effluent and gave off a distinctive, astringent smell as scouring agents from upstream textile manufacturing were churned into monstrous soapsuds by the weir. These suds regularly spilled over to carpet the lower reaches of the town in ‘snow’ and, when the wind was in the right direction, they would even appear in the garden of our home on the other side of town! The water today still carries undertones of that characteristic smell, yet much has been done in recent years to clean the river up and restore its former wildlife. Also, thanks to Kevin McCloud’s Big Town Plan, the river is now spanned by Renato Benedetti’s spectacular footbridge which opened to the public in July 2008. The contemporary design of the bridge follows the S-shaped contours of the weir and the resulting structure is a fine addition to the landscape. Judging by the number of locals who stopped to talk to me, the residents are proud of their footbridge and what it means to them in terms of investment and regeneration.
The footbridge allowed me my first ever opportunity to get up really close and personal with the river as it crosses the weir. It’s one thing to view it from the banks. It’s an entirely different experience to stand over the top of this torrent and watch/hear/feel it flow beneath your feet. There are many photographs of the bridge already out there and so I didn’t want to create more of the same. Instead, I have chosen to characterise the many experiences of the day through a series of multiple-image, multi-layered montages. After experiments with colour and monochrome effects, I have mainly used black and white images as these best convey the linear qualities of the bridge contrasted against the textural qualities of immediate landscape. The river rises fairly rapidly in response to rainfall in its upper catchment and water crossing the weir at the time of the photoshoot was relatively deep and fast-flowing. What these images cannot convey is the sheer speed and power of this river and its relentless, deep roar as it flows downstream. This is perhaps something I need to think about as a possible further development of ideas.
I spent my first session at HM yesterday and had a great time outdoors exploring the grounds with camera and sketchbook. However, the most interesting part of the day was down to a random meeting of strangers. I’d like to thank David and Gareth for inviting me to share their table at the Boat, and providing me with an unexpected, yet highly entertaining and enjoyable lunch break. These guys are a real double-act!
Why is this relevant? Well, David spontaneously introduced himself as a Yorkshireman (never a two-word description) and Gareth, although technically English, declared himself to be unequivocally Welsh! Me? Oh, well, I’m an English-North-South-industrial-rural hybrid. Match this information with the job description of ‘artist’ and at this point most people make excuses and leave. Taxi! These guys didn’t, but perhaps this had more to do with the fact that I was sitting at their table.
Where’s all this going? Ah well, I sometimes wonder if we humans are innately tribal and if the concept of place and belonging is so ingrained in our psyche that it’s still used as information to suss someone out when we first meet. Personally, I’m glad that we’ve evolved beyond the urge to sniff each other! However, wouldn’t this initial perception of someone be a bit of a red herring if our birth place/citizenship is not actually the place we feel most connected to? For Gareth, being a Celt is something far more central to his being than the fact that he was born in England. Does anyone else out there feel a similar kind of ancestral connection to place? Or do you think we simply absorb our parents’ culture and then just feel connected to places where we’ve had a good time?
And so it begins…. but, before I get on with Pushing Boundaries it’s necessary to identify and explore them first! So, the boundaries identified for this project are cultural in nature and relate to place, identity and visual expression. To explain… being born in a particular place and into a particular culture certainly makes a difference to the types of life experiences and opportunities you might potentially encounter. Yet, it doesn’t guarantee the development of a full awareness and understanding of all elements of that culture. For example, as a woman born in England in the second half of the 20th Century, I know that I’ve had opportunities that women in other times and other places just haven’t had and still don’t get. Yet paradoxically, I’m far more at ease with my perceptions of what it is to be British and European than I am with what it is to be English. What is Englishness? I find answers to this question really difficult to pin down. Is this simply a gap in my learning, or have my life experiences somehow separated me from a more ancient and profound ancestral connection to lands and ways of being? I certainly don’t feel rooted in English heritage in the same way that I perceive the Scots, Welsh and Irish are rooted in theirs. As such, the questions I want to raise about my own cultural connections to place provide a starting point for this AA2A project. My opening task will be to find out more about indigenous cultures and explore cultural connections between place and identity. I’m curious to find out what characterises an indigenous culture and what makes connections between place, identity and visual expression unique and enduring. I’ll let you know how I get on….