Monday, 18 July 2011

Creative Collective and the 'Life of Art'

When the Crew left the country for the Continent in May, they were off to travel...and of course being the Crew, what should they do but find - completely by chance, Patrick Dougherty the renowned Land Artist, in Brittany engaged in one of his European projects? He was looking for people to work on the project - another of his architectural willow constructions - and so the Crew (i.e. Melina and Wayne of the Collective) got involved. Apparently he said that a ball on top of a pillar was the hardest thing to do...and then was so impressed with their ability that he just let them get on with it! It being the centrepiece of the work. He also ended up giving them a free signed copy of his expensive new art book, writing in it that he couldn't have done it without them, and promising them a corking reference should they ever need it... So in addition to studying with Serena de la Hey of M5 Willow Man giant Millennium sculpture and many others fame, they have now worked on a large project in France with Patrick Dougherty. Time surely that Melina Hubbard Design Associates (as 'Whistling Willow' used to be called) was requested to embark on another major project! In fact, just having returned from Cornwall, and having gone to see her project at Longrock again, and seeing the living willow of the tunnels and dens was growing well, I was struck again by how gifted she and they are. The whole structure is like a maze, but one you won't get lost in and really does that have that 'element of surprise and delight so essential to art' to paraphrase Michael Alexander.

   Also in Cornwall, last Saturday was Lafrowda Festival day in St. Just, the most westerly town in Britain, and Liz Tyrrell (of 'MerryMaker') another member of the Cartwheels Collective, was accompanying one of her giant carnival floats in the big parade. The town was packed, a field on the outskirts commandeered as a car park, stewards and closed roads, the whole centre pedestrianized with stalls, food, music and acrobats, and an amazingly colourful carnival parade! Including a red warrior with turning head and menacing sword, lovely peacock (put together by a local school), elephant highly decorated and ejecting water and confetti, and of course Liz's tall dancing figure, like a Brazilian carnival puppet. Deor donned the Widsith and Deor top hat, complete with roses, and helped animate the figure by taking the pole for one of its arms, and off they went, me taking video and trying to do justice to its sheer size and clever dancing movement. Liz has done some amazing things including a beautiful dual carnival float of two playing card queens in 3D, a huge Spanish style flamenco dancer, and was working on the Lafrowda float (plus community workshops) inbetween her work for the Golowan Festival involving record-breaking numbers of folks dressed up as pirates! and making giant pirates, and soon she'll be off to Cardiff, decorating festivities for the Cardiff Carnival.

    The Collective might not always work in the same place at the same time or even on the same projects, but we keep in touch and up to speed with what the others are doing, and it's delightful that they're always so impressive!
   Closer to home, on returning to HQ, there are two artists/musicians living upstairs, and (while not members of the Collective - folks usually join if they're going to after they've left/cemented things) the drummer and toymaker/wood and ceramicist asked us storytellers to dinner! Along with the painter/keyboard player/guitarist also upstairs. And a merry meal was had by all. The former we hadn't talked with a great deal, as he works opposite hours and so we often don't see him. So it was news to me when he said he'd made a huge dog figure with moveable nose and ears for the Phoenix for a Quirk Theatre production! As well as, (in his native Slovakia) having sold his wonderful toys in markets until the ridiculous hike in stall space rental drove him out of business there. Interested in the carnival float footage, we discussed moveable and mechanical art for theatre and carnivals/festivals, and he was even more gifted than we had thought! (As well as gratifyingly appreciative of Wayne's welding and other skills.) But, like the painter, what he really needed was affordable workshop/studio space... It made me very sad, when I think of the many things Liz has made and had to destroy because there's nowhere to keep them, and that the same thing happened to the giant puppet made for Quirk Theatre! And that really talented people are being hamstrung and having to work in low paid jobs not as stop gaps or top-ups (if the employer is honourable and the work decently paid, stacking shelves or cleaning are not beneath folks' dignity) but as a replacement to the arts and skills they should be doing and being paid for! And that IS a crime. Likewise the Crew talking of fruit picking work - after what they've just done? I wish I could wave a magic wand give the amazing artists I know studio and workshop space, and contacts with the those whom I KNOW must be out there who want to commission their fabulous skills! 'A life of art'? to use Burne-Jones and Morris's phrase. It's easier when you've got Kelmscott Manor at your back... Thank God for HQ, but even with it and masks and props everywhere, and earlier in the year Wayne welding in the shed and Mel weaving willow in the garden, and the many folks who have made and mixed music and sound and painted and made things here, there's still only so much it can do... An idea for a website called 'Undiscovered Genius' should perhaps be built on - where one nominates amazing folks in various disciplines who haven't had the recognition they yet deserve? Well, it's an idea anyway...

Patrick Dougherty's artist website;

Sunday, 3 July 2011

'Disabled Art'

Had a conversation recently with a visual artist who doesn't have much time for what he considers 'minorities' and their 'preferential' treatment from time to time. We were talking about disability arts, or the practice and idea of an organization such as Kaleido (which by the way, recently lost all its funding in the Arts Council cuts) putting on an exhibition in association with a mainstream gallery, including visual arts created by disabled/differently-abled artists. All different art mediums and all different challenges, eg; wheelchair users with varying mobility, MS sufferers, deaf people, blind people, etc.. He took issue with the the idea that just because the artists were disabled and created art, that didn't mean that their work should necessarily be shown in galleries because what gives you the right to exhibit is 'being any good'. So I tried to make some distinctions. There is the art that under 'normal circumstances' might not be considered all that great, but what's so impressive in the context, is that say, it was painted by someone who couldn't see. A friend used to send me cards printed from paintings by folks who could only use their mouths or feet to paint with. What struck me first was the fabulous use of colour and the wonderful striking images and bold style. It was only when I read the backs of the cards that I realized also what an achievement they were as well. But they were undoubtedly very fine paintings whoever had done them.
   However, I have been to exhibitions and sometimes seen work that I didn't think was up to much. (But then I could say exactly the same of non-disability arts exhibitions!). It was the idea that no extra effort should be made to accommodate folks with extra obstacles in their way that I wanted to explore with him. So then a gifted artist I used to know sprang to mind. And I said - well, there was this truly wonderful artist who created amazing paintings of trees, and collages of moss in book form, and hundreds of tiny object-based collages, and who, as far as I know, usually exhibited in disability art exhibitions and forums, although they were easily gifted enough to be shown anywhere and everywhere. In that case, he replied, they should get themselves a better agent! Ah but, I pointed out, what can you do when someone gets a commission and then honestly can't be doing with making another huge artwork just then because their doctors have insisted they go in for another three operations in a row? How can you give the time and effort to insisting you should be entered for this or that competition when every day involves wall bars, drugs to take, the sheer grind of getting into your specially adapted vehicle and out again, the making sure you've got someone around to carry the pictures, the... He got my drift. Gifted as they and others like them are, you won't see their art in 'ordinary' exhibitions any time soon. Should it never see the light of day? Aren't we all poorer for it if those works don't get out there? Should we cut all extra provision for disabled artists that makes it possible that the gifted aren't just wasted? Or should we get off our backsides and go to their exhibitions and plays and suchlike to check out the amazing stuff such artists have been doing, and make sure we don't miss out!
   Like every other sector of society and art, 'disability arts' has some chaff...but plenty of wheat in it too.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Nice to be wanted

Strange to think of the events we can't do or have had to turn down this season... the Leamington Peace Festival wanted us to perform, as did Strawberry Fayre in Cambridge (my first ever festival as a student!) and the Acoustic Festival of Great Britain. Exmouth Festival hosted the wondrous Edge of Chaos improvisational/experimental event that I love so much in May, but I couldn't go... the Dumnonni Chronicle's Outlore big LARP Dark Age bash and battle in early May in Okehampton...and typically enough they had the marvellous Daughters of Elvin playing! Groans all round to miss that! And had an army issuing out a tunnel no less...sounded amazing. (Although on the other side of the coin, we were offered the Buddhafield Festival again this year, but after last year sort of swore never again!)

   Every season has it's clashes, as the Exeter Respect Festival on the Saturday meant we had to leave the Hay-on-Wye philosophy festival just after the Friday evening gig! And Glastonbury was so hot on the heels of the N.Devon Festival's Summer Science Day, we nearly didn't make the latter... And we've just had confirmations of the Nozstock and Big Chill after the other, and also the Beautiful Days (which always clashes with the Sunrise OffGrid). But this season it's crazy. We were accepted for the Exeter Fringe, but then couldn't do it because it was right over Glastonbury! Argh! For the first time since doing it, we can't make National Play Day at Playplus in Dorchester because it's between Nozstock and the Big Chill, and we'll be in Herefordshire all week... What is going on?

   The only way in the end to choose, is to pick the ones that you can make or move things for, that offers the best commissions and/or for the most money. But still you have to turn down some well paid gigs or gigs on which your heart hangs, and with folks with whom you have built up a mutual loyalty...hard choices. But summer is only three or four months long, and every weekend there are dozens (nationwide hundreds) of events clashing with each other. I guess the only good thing is that more people seem to want us at their event. And more wanting us for performing and not (much as it's wonderful to have and transfer practical skills) craft workshops. So perhaps (despite the being drawn between the pillar and the post, and the heartache of missing things you'd like or disappointing nice organizers - though thank goodness for being part of a Collective which means you can find replacement workshop hosts at least!) we're kind of going in the right direction...?

Glastonbury Festival - there and back again

Last year it took a week to get things and oneself back in order. This time there wasn't the intense heat (although it was pretty hot on Sunday) but lots of now-famous mud. I returned Tuesday afternoon, and still today - Friday - until lunchtime you think you're doing well and all the stiffness (from marquee pitching and unpitching, packing and unloading and then packing and unloading again, a full Transit van of stuff) has gone - until you realize you're practically falling asleep, everything seems soporific, and all you can think of is closing your eyes - the fight to stay awake till nightfall has begun. But it was worth it.
   We did a whole variety of things this time. We did Monster Walks (walkabout performance as the name suggests) where Il Vappo the Ringmaster took out different monsters for a stroll. It raised a smile with almost everyone we passed, many taking photographs and some following us with video. The Il Vappo mask on an old Venetian design is rather wonderful - long beak like nose, and frowning forehead in dark red, originally it was the kind of mask used to scare away plague! And I wore it with top hat and tails. Deor played the monsters, so the green faced Master of the North (from the Finnish Kalevala cycle) or the Hobyer/Hobgoblin all red and copper sparkles, all complemented with a flowing green cloak (an Anne Laverick, the historical costumier). We told plenty of Anglo-Saxon riddles by the large campfire in the Tipi Field, and people were (as always) amazed and delighted to be hearing and being performed poetic puzzles from over a thousand years ago. Deor got me doing Egil Skallagrimsson's (Iceland's greatest warrior-poet) 'Head Ransom' as a rap a few times to different sets of campfire audiences. It was nice that they all joined in the clapping, and many seemed to really get into it, so much so that I could leave off the clapping and just perform the last four verses while they kept the rhythm. Some looked bemused to be told that it was by a poet who lived from 910-990 AD, but most were just astonished and interested. Deor got countless people photographing the masks, bodymasks and sculptures arrayed outside the tipi (whenever it wasn't pouring with rain), asking him how they were made, admiring them, trying on their favourites, and asking whether or when he was holding workshops? It was good to hear the monster clan and Deor's making skills getting so much praise! Sometimes he hardly seemed to come into the tent for a bite of lunch, so many people were asking and talking to him about them. Oh and I did a unicorn dance/mime at one point. Our main scheduled show on the Ancient Futures Stage on Sunday (despite lots of folks who'd said they would come or wanted to, of course being too wasted/asleep/across the other side of the site by then) went really well. The audience wasn't large, but we gave it 'welly' and folks yelled, clapped, laughed and got into the spirit of things - again, amazed passers by who'd come in on the 'roll up roll up!' call, and just weren't expecting...well any of it! We were billed as 'Extreme Storytelling' (I think because of the physicality, energy, bodymasks etc. in our performance style) and I think we lived up to it!

   It was of course all hard work, not because we did a fair bit of performing, but in the trench-like conditions of a mud-filled Glastonbury, the vast site (the size of the city of Bath), the 175,000 people creating people-jams at major junctions, the reeking (if excellent, well-managed and miles better than they used to be) loos, the sinking into the mud twice in the dark and having to be rescued by strangers! the pitching the tipi the Friday before (left at 9, on site by 11, didn't leave till wind and occasional rain, if still lucky we got it up in a dry spell). The carting the stuff (a full van load) of masks, carnival heads, carnival poles, fabric, rope, canvas, camping gear like chairs, big iron pots and pans, the new brazier (made by Wayne of the Collective) gas cannisters, petrol and petrol cooker, book stall stock, signs, props, costumes, ladder (you need one to put up the door etc. in a tipi) the pitch, off the pitch, and taking the whole structure down again on Tuesday between being smoked out of the tipi (twice) by reeking charcoal, having to crawl in and out of the tipi for days on end (too damp to let the door be wide open most of the time), and just the sheer physical challenge of it that justify the 'I survived Glastonbury 2011' t-shirts folks were buying.

   We were however, lucky - lucky that Sunday was scorching (27 degrees C?) and windy enough to dry out most of the site, lucky that we met an amazing guy just as we'd were starting to despair of getting the Transit van out of the muddy hole in the Dragon Field Crew Camping we were parked in, as the wheels whizzed round to dig further mud marks. He looked at the route we were thinking of taking, saw the problem, insisted we take away the planks we'd thought of putting under the wheels, told us he thought it was possible to get out without the aid of a tractor or similar, and that he'd been doing this for thirty years! He had the missing teeth and accent of a Clash fan, it seemed to me, and the friendly street-wise smile and spiky hair, and we warmed to him. 'But,' he said, 'D'you mind if I drive?' 'Be our guest!' we said, and off he went, driving the van like a slalom, zig zagging over the mud, and around the ditches and trenches, until, to my amazed and delight, there stood the van on the hard road. We shook his hand and thanked him mightily - and despite him 'not being on the internet', I would like to thank Bertie, the trumpeter from the Powersteppers with green painted nails, publicly and with all my heart! A man who would have made a wonderful rally driver! I wish we'd caught one of his sets. What a hero.

   Other folks that need thanking are Mike the face/body painter from Cambridge who made us tea when we were at the end of our tether on the previous Friday pitching the tipi! And who was pitched opposite us and a charming neighbour, Clive Pig the Storyfella for coming to the Tipi Field to be our guest star for a short show - and who was as amazing as ever! A superb tale brilliantly told, with wit, wisdom and wonderful balletic movements for the character of the Wind! And Tara of Hearthworks for having us once again.

   Also to all those engineers, technicians, artists, performers, lavatory builders and emptiers, mud shifters and builders who make the whole thing possible! Especially to the Arcadia team for another night of bliss, and AnugreenDesigns of Cork for their exquisite 'Portach' metal and LED bog garden / cave sculpture chill out zone... Also to the folks from the church in Bristol who design and staff the Elemental tent for the best sofas and most welcoming chill space on site, and to The People's Front Room for the best open mike idea and one of the best 'surprises'. Lastly to the coolest walkabouts, the black Star Wars-style robotic stilt walker, the Anubis effigy stiltwalker and the Magritte Men! And the company who staged the divine 1920's Pimms' Party by the central campfire... And of course the Eavises for going through all the headache of permissions, legal requirements, pollution issues and the stupidly huge clear up operation just so that everyone can hold a massive art party on their lovely fields once a year! We love you all.