Convoy phase 2
I’m working again with a family fragment oral testimony about a nazi roundup to the Mauthausen Camp on 20 August 1940. You can hear my mother recall what she was told by my grandparents here
Now, an invitation to join Dawn Cole and Dan Thompson’s Appletye Paper Trail project, has prompted a whole new response. I’ve been sent a sample of paper from 1940, the year of the Nazi round-up of 927 Spanish republican exiles at Angouleme. This lovely invitation to respond to the paper is what’s got me going again.
Unknowingly, the 927 exiles were bound for the Mauthausen extermination camp. They had been told they were to be transported to ‘la zona libre’, ie unoccupied France. Probably the worst they could’ve imagined at this time would’ve been that the Nazis had more likely organised their repatriation to Fascist Spain. This fear may have been what saved my family that day, but until yesterday I didn’t know about this detail.
You can read about the Paper Trail work on my WordPress site The Other Side, I was thrilled with this creative break through, but left with a sense of mystery surrounding it.
So until yesterday, how my grandparents and great-grandmother knew to hide in a forest while others were taken had seemed shrouded in mystery to me – though I now find it has been documented as (of course) these events affected a much wider community of republican exiles and survivors have been able to bear testimony. Yet the nature of my mother’s anecdote had been both vague and intensely personal. She had held it for probably 60 years and while she may only have received a fragment in the first place, all possible detail had long fallen away. It had also been narrated to her in a political and domestic vacuum, so to speak. This information had travelled nowhere, nor had it met with similar stories from the mouths of others – due to the interruption of such transmissions by many complex socio-political factors including the official suppression of the memory of these events within Spain.
Spurred on by the Paper Trail work I began to dig deeper into the history and I found several new sources. The German occupation of the region had made the Spanish republican exiles’ position even more tenuous than before in France, and there were events leading up to the roundup which had increased the Spaniards’ anxieties. The Nazi’s had already attempted to ‘organise’ the Spaniards in the region, and the net was closing in on the camp of Alliers near Angouleme in which entire families of exiles lived.
An order was issued to exiles living outside the camp in the surrounding area to present themselves at the camp of Alliers with their papers and as many of their belongings as they could carry – but rumours had begun to circulate. In one French source, a description can be found of the advice (from several quarters) to flee and hide for the night (19 August) even though the destination of this roundup was thought to be to ‘la zona libre.’ By this time many of the exiles were not living in the internment camp of Alliers, or if they did they had found work in the surrounding area and were free to come and go as they pleased. My family hid in a forest, many others were hidden by the people they worked for.
The Gestapo were disappointed that day. They had expected to ‘deport’ 2000 Spanish exiles and caught approximately less than half that number.
As I absorb these new details I’m processing the idea this tiny fragment – as it becomes hooked onto a wider history where more facts can accrue – is not just about one lucky escape. Hundreds of exiles disobeyed the order to report in to the camp of Alliers.
I will continue to plan my tribute for the 927 taken (I’m working numerically) but will now consider further works to encompass this new information. On a personal level I feel a curious sense of wonder and some relief. It feels nothing short of miraculous to locate our fragment within a body of information – the itch of curiosity is satisfied on the most basic level, but more importantly it brings me closer to understanding. I can now inhabit my work with greater confidence and I hope with sufficient sensitivity to the victims and survivors.
Photograph of a printer error made in my ‘home studio’ (tracing paper and inkjet)
My last post was called ‘Painting Extinction’, and in this post I’m mulling over giving up my wonderful yet increasingly expensive studio space. Gloomy, moi?
For the past year I have been working on projects which take me away from studio practice. In this time there have been major changes to the environment which surrounds this space. Smart offices have replaced a grungy recording studios on the ground floor, and the taxi firm on the upper floor next door to my studio has vanished. Tragically a once thriving family electrical firm went bust (after 3 generations) and vacated the plot across the way. Not only is this incredibly sad, it also fundamentally alters the relationship with place.
Within the studios major shifts have also taken place in my ‘absence’ (I get in every so often so I put absence in inverted commas). Artist have always come and gone, but when stalwarts move on it sends shock waves. I’m just not good with change, I guess, but when an artist with 10 years of exemplary professional practice relocates to another city, it leaves a crater. We didn’t socialise outside of our studio practices, but he was always there painting. We’d put the increasingly lop-sided world to rights and sometimes squint at each other’s work when asked to. Good humoured and friendly beyond the norm, he and his large scale works (which filled the space) are irreplaceable.
Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi runs on a loop inside my head.
I am now second longest standing artist on my side of the studios, an oddity in itself (as once I was the newcomer), and I’m wrestling with letting go. My life has changed too, and I’m a carer now (part-time in another city).
Through necessity I’ve kept my practice going at home mainly and the work has adapted. I’m working a lot with collecting objects, photography and collage. I’ve lost the thread with painting to be honest. This has happened to me before, and painting came back – so I won’t give up on painting yet. However, I do have to acknowledge a natural break.
I still don’t know what I’ll do with my space ultimately, but I need a good sort out. I feel instinctively that going though the contents of my studio will help me decide. A self-storage unit feels like a sensible option if needed, and I can certainly carry out my current level of practice at home (with a good sort out at this end too). I’ve been incredibly emotionally attached to my studio and have always felt I would regret giving it up too much to even contemplate it for too long. The difference now is that I can hold the thought in my mind, talk about it (even write about it) and make tentative plans. I never thought this time would come, but it seems it has.
Embracing change and moving forward is actually quite in keeping with my worry about working in acrylics due to environmental impact. Perhaps painting extinction wouldn’t be the wrench I’ve thought it would be.
Watch this space.
God this is a hard post to write, but I can’t put this off any more. Like so many people, I’m waking up to the vital task of being as rigorously plastic free as I can. I’ve been changing as many habits as I could at home – rejecting all the packaging possible, and reading all recycling information on packaging I can’t yet avoid. I’m gradually decommissioning all the more toxic household products we’ve sometimes resorted to, and I’m swapping over to ecological alternatives.
Bad habits had crept in. When the kids were small I was a purist, and hyper vigilant about plastics, and using organic products where I could. But packaging got ridiculous over the years without me noticing, and slowly but surely my confidence in organic produce was eroded by campaigns which said it wasn’t better, just more costly for no good reason. Well, it is expensive. Today I’m cross that being ecologically friendly is often significantly more costly than the alternatives – it shouldn’t be harder (or a privilege) to do the right thing.
It’s a process of unlearning bad habits, and also of beginning to think about my practice too. It’s dawned on me gradually, because been away from my brushes, that my chosen painting medium is basically plastic, and that latterly I’ve even been experimenting with latex to make small installation pieces.
Project management and the multiform nature of my practice have taken me away from painting recently. I’m also caring part time for my mum, which cuts studio time quite significantly. But I still have a largish stash of acrylic paints, and I’ve been painting with acrylics for at least 30 years. I use all manner of not so eco-friendly artist mediums too. I’m painting less, but am I facing painting extinction? God, I hope not.
Even as I write this I’m surprised at how painful that would feel. I’ve taken my painting practice for granted I think. I often neglect it, and I even play favourites with other forms (photography is tops at the moment). Yet, painting is where I began – and I remember clearly first finding, and then falling in love with acrylics. Painting is where I return when I need inspiration, when I need to reconnect to my creative core.
In a parallel journey of thought, I realise that if I’m serious about being as plastic free as possible, I must stop buying acrylic paints in their current form (even though this sentence makes me howl inside). That I must only use the ones I have now, and definitely cease washing out my brushes into the water system. This is toxic and appallingly harmful to the planet.
It had never occurred to me that I could isolate the plastic by cleaning my brushes in other ways. I now feel foolish and I’m glad I did the research.
It sounds dramatic but I wonder if these will be my last paintings (until my paints run out) in this medium, and how I will adapt to ecologically friendly alternatives such as a range by Colourcraft, I happened on in my reseach.
Golden Paints are my favourite paints, and thank goodness they have a socially responsible company ethic, using a Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtering system. Seymour Wallace are another company I use a lot, but beyond using quality natural materials (info on their website) I haven’t found out more.
For me to paint in the same way, whatever takes the place of my beloved acrylics must perform in equally forgiving and exciting ways. My painterly process is quite experimental (at it’s best) and I need flexible paints I can push round and which dry quickly so I can add to the multiple layers which so often make up one of my finished works.
Meanwhile, it’s up to me in the studio to be responsible in my use of the paints I have. If anyone has already done the thinking on this can you let me know?
Gracias in advance, and thank you for reading xx
I often want to borrow from my friend and object art colleague the brilliant artist and a.n blogger, Kate Murdoch. I’d very much like to call my blog keeping it going too at the minute! I think it’s a genius title as it is so difficult to keep up a professional creative practice. There are often so many pressures in our lives that work against us.
Though on second thought I realise that this post fits perfectly here on Barcelona in a Bag, however hard it is to keep things going right now creatively speaking. Writing here helps me anchor current creative developments to the overarching vision I have for my work. I’ve been building a body of work which responds to the Spanish Civil War since 2013, and my subject remains constant.
But life can take a turn, it frequently does, and some turns are sharper than others. I sometimes compare the sudden need to care part time for my 93 year old mum with early motherhood, and there are some obvious parallels. Broken nights, the plethora of new equipment cluttering the home, a necessary focus on bodily functions and ‘feeds’, the cycle of medical appointments, and the growing sense that you’ve dipped out of the ‘mainstream’ of life and become a bit invisible.
The walls shrink in and your perspective changes. It takes time to establish a routine or to feel ‘in control’. I think that’s where I am right now, though I am definitely not complaining. I do this gladly and, like early motherhood, a little besottedly, to be honest.
That said, there is a definite sense of needing to recalibrate – I have to find ways through the radical change that splitting my week between working and caring brings. My ‘productive time’ has been halved and I find myself living in two locations, which can be disorientating. It’s early days in this arrangement, and I’m still trying to work out what works in terms of keeping my creative practice going.
So this is where my budding photography and collage practices come in. I find I have a transportable studio! My break-through this week came in finding spaces between caring (mum’s naps primarily) to play around with ephemera, and take some photographs. This is a sign that she’s more settled and having better days. Win, win.
I can remain close at hand with my gentle desktop pursuits, and the care setting in this instance was our family home – the site of our exile during the last 20 years of my father’s life. It’s rife with possibility as subject.
My growing Etsy obsession (where I pick up a lot of my Spanish ephemera for collage) has suddenly paid off. I have folders of images to work with and a rationale for what I’m doing. I’m equally obsessed with the minutiae of the domestic spaces we shared as a family in exile – and any remaining traces thereof. My re-immersion in my childhood home could actually provide an opportunity. Mum, if she’s feeling up to it, can join in.
There are been days when all I can manage in the gaps is to trawl online for resources, and to research. It’s an essential part of my practice but it has it’s limits. At some point you’ve got to get making.
So it’s been lovely to find that space and time this week, and to emerge with a new idea. As I played with the ephemera and a found upholstery button I caught myself muttering, small, improvised, subversive…over and over.
Again, it’s early days but I feel a series of small paper based works coming on as I adapt to my new circumstances.
Thank you for reading!
I’m a little in love with this picture. It features one element of my new installation, which I’m about to show as part of a large group exhibition called Neither Use Nor Ornament or NUNO for short.
My work is called Conversation and it features an audio piece with an excerpt from my play Playa y Toro, (2014)
A bit like a Russian doll, my play contains a play, and it also combines characters and action from my father’s play Tierra Cautiva, which was written in about 1951, with characters from my art blog Barcelona in a Bag. The typewriter you see in the picture is the exact model he used to write his play. Those who follow my work will know that my father was exiled from Spain in 1939 when Franco’s Fascist forces defeated the democratically elected government. 2019 sees the 80th anniversary of the tragic events in which nearly half a million Spaniards fled for their lives across the border to France. My father’s early plays were a response to the continuing dictatorship and the beginnings of the tourist boom.
Since 2013 I’ve been working with my family’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War as a postmemory project. Postmemory in my case meaning that I grew up with an unspoken, yet inherited trauma. The Spanish Civil War was not my own first hand experience, but I lived with all the consequences of it, and it’s effects on my family, which were significant.
I’ve been aware that on a professional level I should be producing work in this year to mark the terrible events of 1939, and yet I’ve fallen largely silent, just when I might be expected to be most vocal. In part NUNO has taken a great deal of my time, but more truthfully I’ve felt emotionally overwhelmed.
For many of my 5-6 years of professional practice dedicated to this work, I’ve attempted to address the silencing of this history in some quarters, and the lack of awareness in others. This year I can’t complain of that. There is a tidal wave of material which is at last coming to light, and I predict swathes of responses to it in years to come. I’m delighted, but I’m also rendered mute.
I’ve had to think through why my response is one of flight.
Working with traumatic memory has consequences, and I’ve often been aware of the need to pace myself over the years. You can’t work close up with this material and not be affected. What I’ve learned in this anniversary year is that it’s incredibly hard when such a tidal wave hits your online networks. I finally realised this when a friend sent me a video the other day which I just couldn’t open. Earlier in February I wept at 6am, as I logged onto FaceBook with my morning coffee and viewed footage of countless Republican Spaniards streaming towards the border. That was my family, my dearest ones. I can’t help myself, I scan the screen searching for them. It’s quite terrible. Any such footage, photographs or mentions have this effect. I relive this moment of flight in my mind, and the deeply painful truths that were hedged as my family gave my sister and I golden summers on the beaches of Barcelona.
I think it’s the type and volume of information which appears randomly at any time of the day which makes me recoil. I spend a lot of time online. Exposure can happen when least expected. When I’m on a specific Spanish Civil War project and researching I’m in control of the flow, probably that’s the difference.
So I’ve been working quietly, and am so very grateful to my NUNO group – there’s a sense of safety in numbers and my work nestles within the collective showing to the public. My piece is gentle, but it does probe at the trauma site.
I’ve called this blog Back where I belong, because in the last 24 hours I’ve reconnected with a font of inspiration for my play – a series of recordings made by Federico García Lorca of Canciones Populares Antiguas. They recall a period of intense studio practice in which I was truly connected to this unspoken family history and surround by ghosts. Project management has in many ways disconnected me from this, but on hearing the music on my iPod I’m transported back there.
I’m also back where I belong in terms of my identity, in at last regaining my Spanish nationality. This feels like a pretty spectacular year to have done so.
Once more thank you so much Arts Council England, your funding of my work for NUNO has been a profound award in so many ways.