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Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Message in a Bottle - Workshopping in a Pandemic

Frances Judge, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

This is a reflection on my work as a freelance artist delivering workshops this year for the adult Learning, Early Years and Health and Wellbeing Programs in Manchester Art Gallery's Learning team  and for people with mental health needs at TLC Art Project The Learning team and TLC are doing incredible work, initiating and running multiple projects under the most difficult circumstances.

At the start of the year my role as a freelance artist looked completely different. In essence my job was to gather people together in gallery and community settings and Sure Start centres. These spaces were a place of exchange; exhibitions, artworks, materials, debate, stories and discovery. They were tactile, messy, busy and vibrant spaces, each one a shared experience of art and a route to togetherness that we will never take for granted again.

These physical spaces disapeared over night in March, the gallery's exhibitions and artworks retreated into it's website, mounds of materials, untouched, behind cuboard doors. And of course, the people were gone, there was such silence.

'Penny the Cat', Jonathan, TLC Art Project

Social isolation is not new, though I work with large numbers of people with very different lives across multiple projects, it is an issue that crops up repeatedly. The reasons for this isolation are many and complex, for example; becoming a parent for the first time when your family live in a different country, being agoraphobic, or waiting years for your new guide dog and having to rely on friends to guide you outside of your home.

Covid brought isolation for everyone, in a way we could never have imagined. How could I reach people now, without the space, artworks, materials, gesture, touch?

Postcard Project, Tony, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

One route was technology, making films, zoom and social media. Like most people, I have dabbled in these this year, however this has not always been the right route. Many of the adults I work with don't use technology for economic reasons, disability or personal preference. And everything the babies and early years children needed was physical; drawing tools, paint, reflective surfaces, textured fabric...We learned early on from our Sure Start partners that some families lacked even the basics such as paper and scissors.

My working method changed to delivering workshops by post, email and over the phone. To supply materials, we formed a production line, filling the gallery's atrium and sending them out in boxes to hundreds of families I may never see, a message in a bottle.

Materials for babies born in lockdown, Manchester Art Gallery in collaboration with Sure Start

My approach to workshops has always been that they should be participant led, a two-way conversation. Ideally each workshop is a space I make which gently nudges people towards their own ideas, making and discovering. I plan a workshop and over the years perhaps come to know how people may respond, but really most of the work happens in the moment, it is about noticing, gesturing and encouraging the people in front of me. This year, without people, I found myself working blind.

I shifted to working by memory, having to place faith in my previous experience. Materials chosen for babies and young children that I know other children responded well to in workshops past, films suggesting how to explore materials or mindfully make marks were 'performed' by imagining people beyond the camera. Positive feedback has come back out of the ether I am delighted to say, but I would have loved to have been there the moment each of those boxes of materials were opened, or when the first marks were made...

Music drawing, Jonathan, TLC Art Project

One place where I have felt able to work with people in a way smilar to the call and response of a 'normal' workshop, is through phone calls. Phone calls were initially simply a necessity, I needed to audio describe artworks and workshop plans to blind and visually impaired people who live alone, or phone people who do not use, or have access to, technology. However, I have come to favour the phone calls as a remote workshop method. A phone call allows for an immediate two -way conversation, less self conscious than zoom, a perfect combination of intimacy and non-visual anonymity.

These conversations can, and do, meander in interesting ways. We begin with artworks I have described or printed out and sent through the post, or an artwork the person I'm speaking with has made and described to me. Inevitably questions, stories, memories, the things and people we miss, all tumble out in response to those initial artworks, taking us further and further away from the start of the conversation where my question "How are you?" is rarely met with a positive response. Art takes us somewhere, sometimes it brings us face to face with our feelings and fears about the pandemic and at others it takes us somewhere funny, tender, beautiful. And I say we, because I am not a machine, these points of contact have been beneficial to me too.

Anonymous, TLC Art project

There are of course disadvantages to working one to one over the phone too, removing the framework of a physical setting and other people, means that lines can become easily crossed, and it can be emotionally draining. Something I always have to keep an eye on. However, for me, the benefits far outweigh this. I am able to reach people who are not only bound to their houses temporarily beacuse of Covid restrictions but long term, because of disability and mental health issues. I am able to tailor workshops to an individual's specific needs and intersts, to go on a significant journey with them in a way you can't when working simultaneously with a group of people. Gaining such detailed understanding of different people's relationships with and responses to art, feels like both a luxury and a place of learning for me.

Every call has to end and more often than not it ends with "when will we be back at the gallery", "When will Grovsner Street be open again?", "I really miss everyone, how long do you think it will be"?

Each workshop is a community, one person on the end of the phone can do a lot but can never replace that.

Almost a year and so many people have been reached by our work in the learning team at Manchester Art Gallery and the TLC Art Project, technology, post, phone calls and boxes of materials. The strangest, hardest and most revealing of times to be doing this, I wonder what we will take from it when we have had the time to take it all in, reflect, and see what we have achieved?

Thank you to the following for initiating and running these projects, for the work, for the support and for what we have been able to give, in spite of it all! Katy McCall Early Years Manager, Kate Day/Nicola Colclough Adult Learning Managers and Louise Thompson Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery and Alison Kershaw and Rae Story at the TLC Art project.

Annonymous, Making Conversation, Manchester Art Gallery

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Drawing Beyond Itself Exhibition - Q&A

Drawing made under hypnosis, charcoal on paper 2m x 1m aprox 

I recently exhibited some work as part of the physical and virtual group exhibition.'Drawing Beyond Itself' at Air Gallery in Manchester 'Drawing has always been used as a tool to slow down and observe the world around us: its material form leaving a record of this experience. But what is the nature of drawing today?
This exhibition intends to challenge pre-conceptions of what drawing is and reflect the diverse range and expanded nature of contemporary drawing in the UK.' Air Gallery

Air Gallery Drawing Beyond Itself

North West Drawing Collective

As part of the exhibition I was asked a few questions about my drawing practice by Jay Ottewell, it was great to respond to these in a year where there have been so many distractions from my practice, so much happening that you start to question the point of thinking about drawing. A few questions in and I realised in a way this is exactly the thing to think about, to hold on to what's important to you, whilst enduring the whirlwind that surrounds us.

In your blog “20,000 thoughts” I found it fascinating in which you said “A friend once told me that we have an estimated 20'000 thoughts a day. A search online and you will discover there is much debate around the exact number, it ranges from 12'000 to 80'000.” and this idea of rhythm and subtle act within your work is apparent. Almost like a reflection of the mind in some way. Do you feel your work tries to capture these thoughts? And do you feel there is a mindfulness to drawing? 

I am trying to make visual the inner world we all inhabit, I am fascinated by that, it is an intangible place but for me it has shape, it shifts and holds its own rhythms. It is those rhythms, and sensations that are at the centre of my work, rather than trying to capture a sequence of individual thoughts.

I am also very interested in the psychological state our mind enters while drawing, and how the process of drawing itself can influence this. For my recent work I have been using very fine ink lines onto fragile paper, this has meant that these drawings take longer, my previous work with sound, and hypnosis were usually made at speed, for example with music drawings the mark lasted as long as a note. While making the drawings I am often reminded of other types of work, such as embroidery, tapestry, quilting, where time, lots of time, are woven in to them and with that, of course, thoughts, memories, daydreams. Often when I draw, no matter what time of day, I will find fragments of a dream from the previous night, appearing in my thoughts

Yes, I think there is definitely a mindfulness to the act of drawing, it is an activity which can place you in a state of flow which is essentially being totally absorbed in the act and the moment. I think your mind wanders when you draw, but the drawing also brings you back from that wandering, to a mark, to what you are trying to achieve. 

'Red Thread', pen, pencil, ink and thread on rice paper

You've also described your “current work consists of thousands of tiny, time consuming, delicate ink lines, drawn on to fragile tissue or rice paper or discarded packaging paper, some have taken years to complete.” Why is using ink on rice/tissue paper as a support important to the work? 

I am more and more interested in the sculptural potential of paper, the stuff of it, how it can be shaped, moved in space and manipulated by touch either by my own hand or through the drawing applied to it. The surface and the marks make up the drawing, rather than the surface just being a support. The fragility of the paper is important because for me that inner landscape, our mental state, holds this constant tension between strength and vulnerability, something I’ve been exploring a lot in my recent drawings. The word ‘Brink’ often comes to mind, and a couple of my drawings are titled this. In my work there is often a battle between something vulnerable or fragile and a weight, a sense of something descending, rising or closing in. In work where there is no obvious mass invading, there remains a tension between the fragility of the surface paper and the multiple wet marks applied to it, the surface could drown in marks, or tear at any moment. But in the delicacy of those marks there is also a sense of healing, almost a celebration of that fragility. In this way the drawings relate to the Japanese art of Kintsugi. 

Can you expand on your relationship between these sculptural, creased forms and that of nature? i.e. you describe familiar patterns to the crumples and folds, like arteries, winter branches, veins in rock that take on this interpretation. 

I think there is an obvious visual connection between nature and ourselves, when you look at medical images, glance down at the formation of veins in your wrists and compare these to a winter tree or a river from above But beyond this, the rhythms, adaptations, fragility and resilience in nature, the movements within it are other but also familiar. Perhaps that is why we are turning to it so much right now, there is comfort in seeing this stuff around us continue, despite it all.

There seems to be this rhythm and bodily movement within your work, is it more about the process and the act of drawing in your work that's important, the outcome or even both? 

All of it, drawing for me is all of these things coming together that make the drawing. From very physical performance work with music, to the quiet, still, medatitive process of my current work. I use the process, my body, sound, hypnosis, and other mental states in the same way as I also choose to use charcoal or ink, tissue paper or a giant roll of cartridge.

Your piece “Drawing Under Hypnosis (free from constraints)',Charcoal on paper” featured in the VR exhibit of Drawing Beyond Itself. How did the interest in hypnosis become part of your practice? 

I had been drawing in response to music, working in collaboration with musicans David Birchall and Dan Bridgwood Hill dbh and knew how powerful sound was in altering my state of mind, shifting it from one unexpected moment to the next (the musicians I worked with were always improvising) I knew of artists such as Henri Michaux who had experimented with mescaline to place them in a particular state and made drawings whilst ‘there’. I wanted to try hypnosis to see how this could work as another space to draw within, and so I began a collaboration with Psychologist Devin Terhune at Goldsmiths University.

Imagery, metaphor, poetry and visual forms shape most artistic and creative practices. Its how we navigate and make our own understanding of the world, and reflect it to others through sight. This sight, pushes our imagination to see new things. In your performances, is there a sensory input to the work? How does the music and the act of drawing change how we perceive drawing?  

Yes there is definitely a sensory imput to the work. Though images dominate our lives, we percieve the world as a whole, with all of our senses, I have always felt that the making and experiencing of art could reflect this more. Drawing has always been a constant but I have also made sculpture, installations, participatory work and performance. The materials used and being hands on for this work is important to me. I want the audience to know this too, to be able to handle the work, carry out the processes themselves, hera it, feel it...

When drawing my physical contact with the paper and the materials is an important part of it. I like the least removed way of making a mark, which is why dust (charcoal and pastels) appear often in my work, applied with the edge of my little finger, a fist, or in the performances, most of my body.

Drawing in response to music charcoal on paper 1.5m x 1.5m aprox

Can you tell us more about your two year Arts Council England funded Research and Development Project 'Drawing as Experience'. As you collaborated in response to someone elses writing. Can you tell us more about this project and how do you think drawing can collaborate other contexts and mediums?

For Drawing as Experience I was trying to take my explorations of drawing as far as I could, capturing and evaluating that. I collaborated with musicians, other artists, a psychologist and workshop participants as part of this exploration. I really enjoy collaborating, I’ve always been slightly envious of the little community that is a band, visual art can be a solitary thing sometimes. I also run workshops and for me art is a jumping off point, a place of sharing and discovering through others, as much as it is a personal act of expression.

Nicola Schofield and I came together firstly through motherhood, I had written a blog post, which she had seen, describing the challenges of adjusting to life as a new parent and financially and mentally justifying making art work. Nicola, as a writer, felt the same, that there was so much we had not been told. We met and both said we wanted to talk about this honestly through our work, we were a bit afraid of doing that, but also knew it was the right thing. We ended up, along with musician Jennifer Hardy, working together to create drawings, music and writing alongside each other and also by responding to one another’s work. This all came together as a play, exhibition and soundscape at The Royal Exchange

I like the idea of ‘responding to’ rather than attempting to translate or illustrate another artform, its then a form of conversation rather than a repetition.

Finally, what are your artistic influences, things that inspire you and help create your work? 

Psychology, Nature, Henri Michaux, Maria Lassnig, Phylida Barlow, Frank Auerbach, Cave art, Anselm Kiefer, Peter Lanyon, Robert Morris, Anthropology, Waqas Khan, Georgia O’Keefe, Joseph Beuys, Janet Cardiff, Simon Woolham, Lygia Clarke, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, William Kentridge, Georgiana Houghton and many more Ive probably forgotten!

Untitled pencil and pastel on paper

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Things to look forward to...

The luxury of time spent drawing has been on hold recently with home schooling, learning how to engage with people remotely rather than in physical workshops and general survival taking centre stage! Here are a few stolen moments with a new drawing in progress (ink on tissue paper), and some exhibitions Im looking forward to participating in when the venues are able to put them on...

Expanded Drawing Air Gallery Manchester

Arts for Health Milton Keynes, Milton Keynes University Hospital

Monday, 8 July 2019

Exhibition News - New Mills Festival Art Trail

I am really pleased to have been selected to show new work at the New Mills Festival Art Trail this September, more details soon!

Here are some images of my recent work, Red Thread and Untitled (black ink on large tissue paper)

Red Thread 2018

Untitled (black ink on large tissue paper) 2018-2019

images by Andrew Brooks

Thursday, 28 February 2019

20'000 Thoughts

A friend once told me that we have an estimated 20'000 thoughts a day. A search online and you will discover there is much debate around the exact number, it ranges from 12'000 to 80'000. What amazes me about this is not the scale of the number itself, but the idea that thoughts can be captured, measured and neatly summed up like this, in a series of numbers.

In my own way I too am attempting to capture events in our minds, my method though is drawing. I see the mind as an almost palpable landscape that is complex, shifting with its own forms, rhythms, texture, lines. I have previously used music and hypnosis to evoke and draw different mental states, or simply tuning in to and noticing the shape of my mind as it changes in response to the ebb and flow of life. I'm trying to make visible sensations, patterns of thought and feeling, from the darkest times to the euphoric.

The concept of 20'000 thoughts keeps returning to me as I continue to work on two new large scale drawings made up of thousands of tiny, time consuming, delicate ink lines, I ponder the amount of thoughts woven into them as I have drawn, the memories, ideas, worries, day dreams...

The largest of the two drawings in progress is black ink on tissue paper, the smaller drawing is paint, pastel and gold ink on found packaging paper. Both surfaces are crumpled, creased and fragile. The ink lines I make trace and reveal these very points of fragility, the parts that disrupt the smooth skin of paper, they could break or the surface could become swallowed by these marks. While making these drawings  I have felt at times like I am healing the creases, taking care of the parts on the verge of breaking with a steady hand, tiny brush and delicate ink, like a mother applying cream to a cut knee. But in doing so my intention is not to erase but to highlight them, telling their story and making them permanent.

The surface of paper captivates me, it's like a living thing, breathing in the breeze, absorbing,  changing, sculptural, there are familiar patterns to the crumples and folds, like arteries, winter branches, veins in rock. There is an undeniable visual connectedness to things bodily and the natural world we inhabit, from a microscopic cell to an image of land from space, they mirror one another. Surely our minds, not the 'stuff' of neurones and brain matter, but the thoughts and feelings, sadness, joy, clusters of tension, moments of release, bursts of determination, and of falling, if given a shape would reflect these outer, natural forms too? Or perhaps this imagery is a form we recognise and can read, full of metaphor and poetry and that is why I am drawn to it as a way of articulating the inner?

There is another way in which these drawings connect to the outer for me. If we were to give our times, our collective consciousness, a form, it would be a fragile one, an unsteady surface with periodic surges of darkness. And yet there would be millions of lines forged across this plane, that continue, as we continue. Our instinct to survive is obvious, even if our actions contradict this. Another prevailing instinct (or perhaps it is the same one?) from cave to five year old with crayons at the kitchen table, is to make a mark, to say I am here, perhaps now more loudly than ever?

Work in progress, gold ink, acrylic paint and pastel on found paper.

I have been experimenting with the drawing above, candle light and film, watch the film clip here

Work in progress, black ink on approximately 3 metres of acid free tissue paper

More images of these drawings can be seen here

Friday, 28 September 2018

My drawings in the After Birth Installation at The Royal Exchange Theatre as part of Co:Lab Festival 2018

After Birth was a multi media installation and performance shown in July at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, that aimed to put the hidden issue of maternal mental health in public. People were encouraged to come 'with a babe in arms, alone or with a group to a safe space where the unspoken is expressed visually, musically and through performed monologues. Engage with the installation on your own terms or attend a performance' Health visitors where present after each performance should anyone have needed support.

The After Birth Team: Nicola Schofield - Writer, Jennifer Hardy - Musician, Naomi Kendrick - Artwork, David Haworth - Set Design, Sara Abanur - Actress, Amy Hailwood - Director, Grace Ng - Ralph - Producer

Nicola, Jennifer and I collaborated by producing new work (in our respective disciplines of writing, sound and drawing) drawing on our own experiences and working in response to each others work on maternal mental health. I then collaborated with David Haworth who built a set to house my drawings, Jenny's sound and the performance.

film clip of the installation available here courtesy of Andrew Brooks

Visitor feedback:
'Very moving, Brought back some memories. Brilliant'
'The use of different art mediums worked well, very moving and resonated with me despite not being a mother myself. Excellent well written and much needed.'
'An honest and powerful reality. This is surely a conversation that needs to happen and the right support to be given'
'An amazing performance - Heart felt thoughts'
'WOW - what a performance! A very honest portrayal of motherhood, thank you!
'Really poignant and thought provoking installation, has stimulated a lot of discussion'
'It touched me and made me feel empathy for all mums, Great exhibition'
'Brilliant. So much great work and fantastic collaborations. This kind of thing is really Worth investing in.'
'Gorgeous Installation. So Gentle. Id like to see more work like this! well done all involved'
'Incredible performance! As a supporter of new mums, I really felt I was watching real thoughts by one of our mums. Well done to everyone involved. Very candid and truthful'

More images here photography and film by Andrew Brooks.
Jennifer's soundscapes can be heard here

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Nicola and I

Work in Progress - In response to writing by Nicola Schofield

Last Summer I wrote a post as an alternative evaluation of my my two year Arts Council England Funded Research and Development project 'Drawing as Experience'. In it I talked about the realities of being a practicing artist and a parent, and how this had impacted on my mental health. The post  resonated with other working parents, most of them mothers, one of them was the writer Nicola Schofieldwho got in touch and we agreed to meet.

What struck us both, particularly in an age in which so much is shared, is the continued secretiveness around maternal mental health, we both had close friends who had never revealed they were struggling until we hinted that we were, and then as if given permission, they would tell all in a flood. Hushed confessions while the children play at our feet. Why is this happening? Fear? Shame? Societal Pressures? Nicola and I both felt strongly that we wanted to make work that honestly reflected our own experiences and to use this as a catalyst, working with other mothers to try and normalise these conversations and show people that they are not alone.

We have been talking to many people about our project, and our contact with health professionals has confirmed the scale of the problem, poor maternal mental health is a massive issue today, for many different women in society, and it is growing.

Nicola and I are busy making work at the moment, I draw directly in response to Nicola's words, or carefully curate existing drawings to work together with Nicola's writing. Nicola also writes in response to my drawings.

Here is an example of our work in which we brought together a piece Nicola has written called 'Fear' with a selection of my drawings...


The terror

Are the endless tasks to keep the dark thoughts at bay?

The terror of what might happen to you.

The physicality of your presence.

At bath time you are at your most vulnerable, my mind thinks of children more vulnerable than you. 

I think of cruelty, neglect as I bathe you, wash your hair

This precious bath time sees my mind swim in muck – in the darkness

I smile at your father, your grandparents when the ritual is shared

What would they think if they knew?

They see your light so why can I only see the darkness that surrounds you, us?

All that may befall you and I am your security blanket against all of this, I am the one to shield you

The one who’s head is getting lost to darkness, and so I smile at your dad, your grandparents because how can I give them this weight that I carry?

Every day I see stories of cruelty, parents in mug shots, I have brought you into a world of ugliness and I am to protect you from it

What must you think of me?  What will you think of me?

When you find me out.   When you see who I am. 

I fear your rejection.  Your rejection of my weakness, I want to be strong for you.  I want for you there to be only light and joy. 

When you were born I felt such awe.  Such strength. 

I had climbed the mountain and I had conquered it.  And there you were – my euphoria. 

I thought I could never feel fear again such was the hope of that moment.  The sheer joy.

Yet now I am afraid.  Afraid I will fail at being your mother.  That I will not be good enough.

Yet sad for all the children who are not as loved and wanted as you.

The contradiction in that.

I thought how one day you will be old.  Will you be alone and I won’t be there to protect you?  I wept.

And others laughed at me for crying at the advert for a bank.  The familiar used montage. 


Is it?

I watch the news in terror and on alert.  Imagine black boots walking past our house.  Bombs which blind us with their light.  Water rising through our house. 

All this as I feed you.  Clean you. 

I think new babies are so busy as a way to try and block these terrors out but mine are creeping in. 

Because what if something happens to you? 

What if I can’t save you?  Help you?

Protect you?

What kind of mother am I if I can’t do that? 

How do you love without fear?