Saturday, 8 May 2021

Do you do any jolly art?


I did not do this.

 My friend Deb asked me this last night, after dinner.  If you had to create an exhibition about something jolly, she asked, what would it be? 

In the warmth of the fading evening sunlight, sitting at my kitchen table next to all the flowers in colourful jugs and containers next to the spotty salt and pepper pots, with all my bright and motley collections of mugs, plates, saucers and bowls stacked up on shelves around the kitchen, I was stumped for an answer.  Deb looked at me, and I raised my eyes to the ceiling in order to think.

"HIV?" I said.  

"That's not very jolly," said Deb and a thoughtful silence filled the room. 

"Your house is jolly," Deb said next, "and you're jolly. Think again.  You can do it.  If you had to do a jolly exhibition, what would you do it on?"

But I could not think of a whole exhibition of jolly art.  I can do one off happy, light hearted paintings, I love a bit of colour and fun, I have done fairies and angels but as Deb tried to get me to a point where I could say Yes!  I can paint funny kittens! it became obvious that I did not have it in me. 

I have tackled death and dying (The A Graceful Death exhibition ) and am currently working on an exhibition on addiction (Addicts And Those Who Love Them) and so I see why Deb was thinking about something lighter.  She herself was talking about birth for a project she'd like to work on, and though it is true that I am jolly, upbeat, optimistic and extrovert, all I could see were still births, unwanted babies, sick babies and post natal depression.  It was then that Deb asked the jolly art question.  "Could you do it?" she asked, and I found myself saying, "No." I did not feel too comfortable admitting it, and of course it made us both laugh, because what have I become that my idea of light and uplifting art is a project on HIV?    

I will unpick this now.  I cannot leave you all thinking I take HIV lightly, or that Deb and I laugh at it.  

From A Graceful Death

I am drawn to difficult things.  Not all difficult things, it seems I have to have had some experience within the subject to want to take it further through art.  Though I have had no experience of HIV, I am moved by accounts from friends who went through it when it was new, and very dark. There is something about the way fear and the not-knowing created untold cruelty and suffering back in the 1980s when AIDS first appeared, that makes me want to know more about the people who died in isolation and in total pain.  Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement, came up with this description of pain for her patients facing the end of life.  Total pain includes a whole experience of pain - physical, emotional, social and spiritual.  It describes the power of pain itself, and for all those people who died alone and rejected, total pain seems to me to sum up their experience. If I were to create a project on HIV and AIDS, perhaps I hope for something to be redeemed by remembering people I have never met, through paint and words, though they are, possibly, in a much better place of light now, if that is what one believes.  Which I do. 
From the Addiction exhibition

Perhaps I explore these subjects because I want to find a space in them for healing.  Art can find a way into our minds, start us thinking, and sometimes there is a divine whispering, a new insight coming up that may include compassion, or understanding, or connection.  All the work I do is intended to unlock some self knowledge, at whatever level it happens.  Because I have no answers, I am very drawn to ask the people I work with on these projects, to explain themselves to me.  I remember saying to the people I painted and interviewed for the A Graceful Death exhibition, "Who are you? What do you want to say?" From those questions all manner of stories, accounts and wonderful things emerged.  I use those questions in all the projects I do now.

Of course, I really explore these subjects for myself.  I want to understand something of the humanity of the people involved.  How can we understand another person's humanity?  I don't really know, but we have to have a go.   The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as an ancient Chinese proverb says.  I am drawn to this work, these subjects, this exploration, this journey.  Everyone on the journey teaches me something.  It all comes down to me, then.  What do I learn?  What can I do?  How can I use this knowledge?  Much of the knowledge is perhaps "total knowledge", as in Dame Cicely Saunders using the phrase "total pain".  It is physical, mental, social and spiritual.  That kind of knowledge rubs off on people that are around it, and gathering the stories of people who have experienced, and are still experiencing, difficult stuff, can be very powerful.  I have found that we all benefit.  In the telling of the story, the listening to the story and the showing of the story.          

And so, now, back to painting jolly things.  Why am I not interested in doing any?  Perhaps because my life is quite jolly, and I need a bit of an internal push to paint.  My life outside the studio is like this. 

  1. No one lives with me.  Done the Mum thing. 
  2. My house is full of all my favourite stuff. My daughter says it is like my creative brain has exploded onto the walls.
  3. Living alone, I can eat what I want, when I want, and experiment with all manner of nice treats.  Like seeing what peanut butter and jam sandwiches are like in the bath at 3am.  
  4. My garden is filling itself with new buds, flowers, lush new growths of young strong green foliage and it makes me feel delighted with life. (I may have love fits about the garden but it is actually my friend Chris who works hard in it, he makes it thrive.  I just coo about it and commune with nature as if I had done it all)
  5. I have my fourth grand child, born last week, to adore.  Still doing the Grandma thing.
  6. I have lots of ideas for lots of projects, so there is never a dull moment.  A wonderful gift in getting older is that I don't actually have to do them.  It is enough to sit on my soft red sofa and simply think about them. I can then chose the easiest.

 I wonder if I am taking all the jolly things for granted, and simply enjoying them.  But perhaps, thinking about it even more, I respond to the tightrope balance between harmony in my private life and a wish to explore the darkness beyond it.  I have only arrived at a modicum of harmony in my own life by knowing and experiencing huge disharmony.  My life has not been easy, but it has been amazing. There is something very real, very true, about people when the chips are down.  That is where the truth is.  That is where the insights are.  That is where the hard work is.  That is where I want to discover more about life itself.  I have been there so often myself, and may still return - life is unpredictable.  But at the moment, there is enough jolly in my home and life that I do not want to explore it through art.  I simply want to have it, and gain courage from it and carry on exploring.

A jolly painting, "Jesus on the Tube" has been a firm favourite for many years. See, I can do it.

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