Today is a bit momentous – my first day as a 100 % fully self- employed artist.
A couple of weeks ago I heard that I had been successful in gaining funding from Bradford organisation Two28 to run a participatory art project in Bradford. This has given me the opportunity to take the leap and give up my part-time catering job of 11 years to be fully freelance. Saturday was my last day of paid employment – and I have to say, it feels GREAT.
For many years I have been relatively happy with the balance between my employed and freelance status – having a regular part time income has meant that I have been able to take time to develop my practice, pick and choose what freelance projects I go for, and not have to worry about how I’m going to pay the bills. My job was very close to home -a 5 minute walk – and there were other benefits too – my other half also works there and many of the staff are friends – so although pay was not good, and the work routine, it felt until fairly recently that it ‘worked’
In recent months however, low pay and poor working conditions has made the job a lot more stressful, frustrating and demoralising – basically no longer do-able – so I’ve been looking for an ‘out’. Ultimately this situation has been good (though I didn’t actually believe this until this morning!) as I’ve been catalysed into being more proactive in seeking funding/other sources of income: and as a result, the funding from Two28 has come through.
I’ve been funded to deliver a participatory art project called Wur Bradford, which will explore themes of exchange, kindness and reciprocity with people in Bradford through creative dialogue, play and community building.
The project has developed from a two week residency I did in a stall at Bradford’s Oastler Market last July. The project, called ‘Wur at Oastler Market‘, (‘ Wur’ in my native Scotland means ‘we are’ and ‘our’) asked market visitors to collaborate with me to explore the questions
What is the relationship between I and we?
How can creativity connect and empower us?
From this residency I realised the value of a neutral, welcoming public space where people could make, share ideas, and connect with others to make positive change; and I wanted to develop this model further and to build a more sustained project. Wur Bradford will be responsive and process- based – dependent on the ideas people bring to it, but activities will include workshops, skills shares, and space for discussions and collaborations with individuals, groups and organisations. My aim is for the space to be a haven for people to talk, imagine, create, connect.
At the moment I’m in the process of sorting out a public space for the project to take place in – I am hopeful I’ll be able to secure another market stall with the support of Bradford Council, who supported my residency last year- and then the project begins in May. I have to pinch myself regularly to remind myself I am finally ‘HERE’ – the place I wanted to be – fully freelance.
I’m already thinking about the future – I plan to apply for further funding and support from other sources and organisations so that Wur Bradford can continue longer term. I’m aware I will need to use my time strategically in order to stay afloat, and refine my focus. At this point, on this sunny Monday morning in Yorkshire, I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m feeling so energised and excited about the possibilities – giving up my job feels like the best thing I’ve done in years.
A while back, I made myself a game to play.
After chancing upon an slide projector in a charity shop, I started to collect old slides, asking for donations from friends, and buying any I came across in second hand shops, markets and online. I soon developed an addiction, spending hours in a darkened room, pressing click. Around this time, a friend gave me a slide scanner and I accidentally discovered that you could put two slides in the tray at the same time, which gave a double image. After trying this a few times, I discovered some beautiful combinations. Many of the slides, which by themselves might be seen to be quite mundane – photographs of landscapes, family birthdays and holidays – developed a new life when combined randomly with another slide, and the two images together said something new. Sometimes this thing was funny, weird, or sad, often it was just an indefinable feeling of surprise and strangeness.
I developed a game and set myself some rules. I could pick six images from my (now huge) box of slides – no looking at them before I put them in the slide tray, or even seeing if they were the right way up. Often the combinations weren’t very interesting, or were too dark to be seen. – then I wouldn’t scan them, but just put them back into the box, and keep trying. But now and again, something magical happened, and a combined image would happen that made me stop breathing for a second. Then I would press ‘scan’.
I’ve been keeping and adding to these scanned images for months, not quite knowing what I wanted to do with them. This week, after getting a new batch of slides from The Shop, Nelson, a fantastic new creative shop space in Nelson, Lancashire – I started to play the game again. Today, for some reason, feels like a good day to share them.
It feels like all my time is being sucked up at the moment with job hunting, writing proposals for opportunities/commissions and funding applications. Pay and conditions in my part time job have become so dire I need to find another way of surviving or else I’m going to lose it (my head and probably my job). This is probably a good thing (I keep telling myself) – I need a change and it will push me to write those applications I have a tendency to avoid. But its exhausting, and it feels like I’m not getting time to so the thing that’s the most important – making work.
But this week I’ve found the little moments and occasional hour I’ve carved out for myself to play in the studio have brought some joy. The studio is a mess – boxes of cutouts, papers, piles of books everywhere – looks and feels like chaos. But as I’ve been rummaging feverishly through a pile of paper on the table or a box has upturned itself, a combination of accidental collisions makes itself apparent and suddenly I see something makes sense .I feel like with the pieces that work best, it’s not me that making the work, but just discovering it. There’s no saying when it will happen, I just need to be there, forget to try, be patient and eventually something will happen. These moment make the other stuff okay.
“I approach new projects with an attitude of openness and a willingness to embrace my own ignorance, a recognition of my own stupidity”
John Wynne sound artist
At the end of last month, I went to see photographer Peter Sanders in Conversation at the National Media Museum Bradford, which was part of the Bradford Literature Festival. Peter Sanders was a rock photographer in the 60s capturing many musical icons including Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, but then went on to a different path – he coverted to Islam in the early 70s and now photographs Islamic life and culture. More than the photographs he showed as part of his presentation, I was drawn to Peter’s very calm and luminous presence. It’s difficult to describe but he had a certain aura that seemed clear and simple and honest, and I wondered how much of this was down to his faith. I was very interested to hear why he had chosen Islam over the other faiths he had explored, including Bhuddism and Sikhism.
I left the event intrigued, though a little frustrated; although the facilitator tried to probe him, Peter didn’t give much detail on why he had felt called to Islam. Maybe he’s not a natural speaker. That’s ok. Making visual work and having skills of being able to talk to a large group people are two very different things, as I well know.
But it’s being milling around in the back of my head since.
As I mentioned in my last post I’ve been working with a group of mothers – the Coffee Morning Group – at a children’s centre in Manningham in Bradford. The group are one of the best groups I’ve ever met. They are inclusive, friendly and a lot of fun. They have an amazing energy and it’s a joy to just sit and listen to their stories and banter. Most of the ladies are Muslim and from South East Asia. They have been celebrating Eid and a lot of the conversation over the past couple of weeks has been about preparations and celebrations. I’ve become aware through listening to them that I know very little about the faith, culture and traditions of Islam, beyond the basics. Although I’ve met and worked with many people who are Muslim (In Bradford where I mostly work one quarter of its citizens define themselves as Muslim) and also have Muslim friends, I’ve never really sat down and had a proper chat about Islam. I’ve been wondering why – its probably a combination of reasons – the focus is normally on something else, faith isn’t normally a general topic of conversation, and maybe coloured my own personal attitude towards faith in general. I had a very negative experience of religion being brought up as a Catholic and tend to avoid most things that relate to (any) religion.
I’ve been feeling in recent weeks though that I need to learn more. We’re living in very incendiary times, where in the wake of our government’s decision to take us to war against ISIS factions of the media are propagating anti-Muslim sentiment . I think all of us have a duty to reject this insidious Islamophobia. .
As an artist I’m especially interested in how Muslim identity has been or is expressed creatively. I’ve been listening and learning from my Coffee Morning group, I’ve got some books out of the library, and I found a great zine online called Oomk which features work from 40 women artists and writers many from non Western perspectives and experiences. Of particular interest was an article called ‘Islamic Feminism’ by writer Sara Salem which describes her explorations into her own Islamic roots and identity. Also a piece on British Pakistani and Muslim artist Nasreen Raja and her project Reconnecting Memories. Nasreen describes her work as inviting ” dialogue and re-centres a scape for Muslim women’s bodies to become people”
I’m feeling increasingly more awake to the fact that my influences up to now have been pretty monocultural and Western – and I want to look and learn outside this. It’s a big world out there and I know so little of it. So inspired by the John Wynne quote above, time to declare stupidity and learn some stuff.
‘There is not story that is not true” Chinua Achebe
Working with the parents group at Midland Road Children’s Centre in Manningham, Bradford over the past weeks, I’m struck by their fantastic stories. They are full of banter and anecdotes which intrigue me and make me laugh and want to know more. During my last session with them, we made instant books, working with collaged materials. For this week’s session I wanted to find a creative way of accessing some more of the stories – of the group, their community, their friendships, and their history, without disrupting the organic and spontaneous flow of conversation.
I’ve been doing some collaborating and talking lately with Chemaine Cooke and Sam Musgrave, two Bradford based artists who run integrated dance company Maho. I’ve known Sam and Chemaine for some time and we share similiar approaches and ethos in working with people. Sam and Chemaine have worked with the parents group before me and were interested in collaborating with me on my sessions with them. As it happens our interests in storytelling shave converged at this time – Maho are involved in a current project called Electric Fireside which brings people together in two sites in Bradford over two weekends “to share stories and express themselves creatively”.
So I spent the early part of this week gathering materials that could be used to explore stories with; cutouts, acetates, lights, objects, props. I’ve been exploring a lot of these materials through my own work over the past year in my photographic project WE ARE ALIVE AGAIN in which I have been exploring performative and collage processes in working with personal and family archival materials – and I have been keen to involve others to expand the project.
So I had proper fun making a cardboard box set and covering it with streetmaps of Manningham. It felt like playing like a child again. I photocopied images of buildings and printed some onto acetate, and mined my box of cutouts to find images I thought might appeal. Letters to make words, and mini lamps for stage lighting, and by Thursday morning I had a box of goodies to bring.
Sam and I co-facilitated the session – Sam began by asking the group to get into pairs and come up with two stories to share with the group – one true, and one made up. Much hilarity ensued as the ladies told their real and made-up stories and we all had to guess which was which. We talked about what makes a good story, and decided as a group to make and enact a story, using the materials I’d brought. A photocopy of mehndi sparked the story of how the group came about; two years ago one of the ladies offered to show a couple of the other mothers how to do menhdi, over a coffee morning at her house. The numbers grew over time and the group got too big to fit in a living room. They found space to meet at the nursery (where many of their children go) and have been meeting up there every week since. The ladies made the set and stood up at the front, and the story was told to us all. For the ending of the story the group chose to tell about a communal trip to the Bradford Alhambra to see a show, where they danced onstage with the cast and their celebration afterwards. Everyone got up to tell this last bit. The telling was communal, collective, joyous and fun, dancing and laughing. It was magical. The identity of the group is so strong, and this I think comes from the stories they tell about themselves.
Later that day I went to another storytelling event. My best friend Andrea has recently set up the Ilkley Writers group and they put on an event as part of the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe called ‘The Witching Hour: Dark Tales From Ilkley Moor“. In a darkened room, we listened to ten stories by ten tellers, a mix of professional and amateur writers, told against a background of a eerily beautiful black and white film showing details of the moor. It was a powerful evening, the tales all so different but all with a darkness at their heart. I thought about all the stories I had heard that day- formal and informal, real and made up, and how they’re all mixed up in my head. Our lives are just the stories that we tell.
On Friday, I made a zine called 60 Minutes Later – A Collaborative Zine About Identity” with a Facebook friend who I have never met. Arlene lives in Largs, Scotland, and I’m near Bradford. From 2pm – 3pm we each made 12 pages of a zine which we are going to collate and photocopy. It’s something Arlene and I have been talking about for a while – inspired by a zine Arlene had made and sent me called ’58 minutes later’ in which she set herself the challenge of making a zine in under an hour. We agreed that we could gather materials beforehand but that we had to actually make it within the hour. It was an exhilarating, fun, and slightly stressful experience. I surprised myself slightly by the stories I told of myself in this pressured time span. They are far more direct (and true) than anything I could have done given more time. Maybe this is a good method for getting to the heart of a story, the heart of a person.