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The Genius of Henry Dagg: Holistic musician

I’m not from a musical family really. I played harmonica in a band when I was at college. In fact, one of my mates, Steve Firth, wanted to be in the band but didn’t play an instrument, so he taught himself bass guitar. Ironically, he was the only band member to go on to have a career in music. He played bass with the successful Britpop band Embrace http://www.embrace.co.uk/

Duncan Grant: Dad at work
My Dad

My dad was a decent singer though and, when asked if he played a musical instrument, he used to say that he played the spoons.  As far as I know, he couldn’t play the spoons. It was just one of those things he said if the subject of music came up. Like, when we came home from school asking if we could have recorder lessons, or violin or trumpet or whatever was on offer, he’d say ‘Yes… if you can play The Sound of Silence’ or ‘Will they teach you Over the Hills and Far Away?’ or ‘OK…so long as you practise up the top of the garden’.

I do remember him making stuff. He made moving tanks from cotton reels, elastic bands, sticks and matches, and a kind of percussion instrument – a notched rod with a propeller on the end, which rotated when you ran a stick across the notches. He stretched elastic bands over tobacco tins to make a kind of harp, blew over the top of bottles, ran his fingers round the rims of glasses and made duck sounds by blowing on blades of grass stretched between his fingers and thumbs. His favourite homemade instrument was a makeshift kazoo made from a Rizla paper and a comb.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but since speaking to the extraordinary Henry Dagg, I think maybe Dad might have been onto something.

Holistic musician
It is hard to find the right words to define Henry, although many people have tried.

If you search online you’ll see him variously described as ‘composer’, ‘musician’, ‘bohemian’, ‘self-taught engineer’, ‘blacksmith’, ‘craftsman’, ‘sound sculptor’, ‘creator of musical instruments’, ‘world-class musical saw player’, ‘visionary inventor’ and ‘genius’. And they are all right. He is all of those things. But Henry prefers to be known as ‘a holistic musician’.

‘Holistic musician describes the vocation of musicians like me whose work includes composition, performance, and developing new musical instruments and sound sculptures,’ he explains.

Electronic to acoustic
Henry’s virtuosity was apparent from an early age. He grew up in Dublin, the child of classical musicians. Aged eight, he began learning the ‘cello and was building electronic circuits, which he modified to produce a range of unusual sounds – a process now known as ‘circuit bending’. His first ever public performance, at a school concert, featured a primitive home-built synthesiser, which he used to imitate everyday sounds, including fire engine air horns and his geography teacher’s bubble car.

Henry Dagg: Portable electronic music studio
Henry’s portable electronic music studio

‘The audience was so enthusiastic that it probably altered the course of my future,’ Henry remembers. ‘I continued to build similar projects, the largest of which was a kind of portable electronic music studio, on which I composed my own version of ‘musique concrète’.’  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musique_concr%C3%A8te

During his teens, Henry taught himself piano and electric bass. He transcribed chunks of prog rock from bands like Focus  https://focustheband.co.uk/ and Genesis by ear, and dreamt of a career  as a composer for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (RW), which specialises in producing  bespoke electronic music and sounds for BBC radio and television programmes. https://www.soundonsound.com/people/story-bbc-radiophonic-workshop. In particular,  Henry admired the work of John Baker, whose compositions consisted of recordings of real acoustic sounds spliced together from tiny pieces of tape.

So hoping to follow in the footsteps of John Baker who had joined the BBC as a studio manager, Henry joined the BBC sound engineering section in Belfast. Eventually, he was sent on a very short attachment to the RW but was not offered a post. Instead, having impressed RW head Desmond Briscoe with some of his compositions, Henry was commissioned to compose original music for TV and radio programmes, while still based at BBC Northern Ireland, often still using tape editing and manipulation techniques. Digital sampling was available at that time, but it was unaffordable.

It was during his time at the BBC that Henry brought his first house in Belfast and set about converting it into a series of workshops and studios.  But renovating his house while also holding down two jobs – sound engineer and a composer – became too much. He decided to leave the BBC to concentrate on music, supplementing his income by busking on the streets of Belfast playing the musical saw. https://youtu.be/dp5UKVN8B9c

A 1987 BBC documentary about Henry, Anything that makes a noise: A man and his music provides an insight into the way that he works. https://youtu.be/ljCYiCwNx7E Henry is meticulous and inventive, developing new processes and techniques to get the quality of outcome he wants, whatever the task. The documentary also features Henry at work on a ten-minute tone poem Fanfare for the Bogie Man, commissioned  by the BBC for a programme about a train journey from Belfast to Dublin.

The freedom to work for himself, brought about an important change in Henry’s approach to composition. He turned his attention from electronica to acoustic music and sound sculptures.

‘I’d become a bit disenchanted with the whole process of making music that had to be assembled laboriously in a studio,’ he explains. ‘Affordable digital samplers were still years away at this stage and my experience of using synthesisers had convinced me that, for my ears at least, music really becomes most alive when the sounds are made acoustically and mechanically by the physical vibrations of real moving objects.’

Henry had already experimented with multi-sampling, using authentic acoustic sounds. An early commission required a rendition of Three Blind Mice for a BBC Schools programme, played by drops of water falling into jam jars. The drops, which Henry chose from hundreds,  were selected for their natural pitch, even though it would have been considerably quicker  to use variable speed to alter the pitch of a single drop.

‘The great thing about multi-sampling like that is that you capture all the individual variations that happen with acoustic sounds,’ Henry explains. ‘No two acoustic sounds are exactly the same and that’s what makes acoustic instruments special. If you use just one sample on a digital sampler that’s exactly what you get every time you use that sound. It loses it’s original quality completely and just sounds artificial.’

Harry Partch and his instruments

‘I started wishing that there was some way that I could keep using new, unusual sounds but performing my work live in a band with other musicians,’ he continues. ‘So I began to imagine a new family of instruments that reconfigured existing acoustic principles to allow live performance using new sounds. I’d already been doing this to some extent for Fanfare for the Bogie Man, where I’d been building little musical devices, but I was also greatly inspired by the new instruments and sound sculptures featured in a California magazine called Experimental Musical Instruments and  particularly by the work of Harry Partch. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Partch. I felt we were kindred spirits, so sound sculptures featured very heavily in my thinking when I was setting up my workshop.’

The Biscuit House and its musical railings

Henry Dagg: Musical biscuits
Musical biscuits

By 1993,  the growing collection of machines and tools necessary to create Henry’s new instruments and sound sculptures had outgrown his Victorian Belfast house that was ‘trying to be a factory’. So he relocated to a former mineral water factory building in Faversham, Kent. As with his previous house, he called his new home ’Biscuit House’, a reference to Henry’s system for baking shortbread biscuits in various shapes, including musical instruments, stamped out with his precision, custom-made biscuit cutters.

 

Henry Dagg: Musical railings and gates at Biscuit House
Musical railings and gates

The first sound sculpture that Henry completed in his new workshop was a set of hand-forged, musical railings and gates for the building itself. The installation, which spanned 40 metres, took him five years to complete and was designed to be played like a glockenspiel.

‘I felt obliged to exploit the long frontage of the building to create a manifesto for my work,’ Henry explains. ‘So I composed a 28-bar chord sequence and built it in groups of chime bars embedded in a wrought iron structure, with a score notated in nuts and bolts.’

 

Henry Dagg: Musical railings and gates opening by Dame Evelyn Glennie
Dame Evelyn Glennie

When it was finished, Henry invited world-famous solo percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, to open the musical gates and railings with a premiere public performance.

‘She very sportingly came and improvised for 20 minutes in front of a big crowd and camera crews from three television channels,’ Henry remembers.

Henry’s first  installation is still there and, these days, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention locally. But at the time, it proved to be a very good investment in terms of the interest it generated for future commissioned work for Henry, as well as providing a splendid, practical addition to his new home.

Rochester Independent College Musical Gates

The first of Henry’s new commissions was for a new set of 12-foot high, 28-foot wide, stainless-steel musical gates and railings for Rochester Independent College. https://rochester-college.org/ Like all Henry’s work, they were made by hand in his workshop. The commission took him  four years to complete.

The completed installation, which is adorned with flying pigs in sunglasses – the mascot of the College – is designed to be played by a group of musicians performing together.

It has a range of over six octaves, comparable to a full orchestra and features vibraphone bars, tubular bells and organ pipe-like tubes sounded by strings that can be plucked, struck or bowed. These two video clips tell something of the story of the magnificent gates, from initial design through to the opening  concert https://vimeo.com/238815007  https://vimeo.com/293949840

The Sharpsichord
A second commission to come as a result of Henry’s Biscuit House gates installation was for a sound sculpture for the gardens of Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society – in Camden, London. https://www.efdss.org/cecil-sharp-house. 

Cecil Sharp was a 19th century musicologist, noted for his collection of English folk song and dance. Henry’s  design – a programmable acoustic harp for public use – was sculptural tribute to Sharp, with much thought given to the context in which it would be erected. He called it the Sharpsichord.

 ‘As Cecil Sharp House had music at its core, I thought it wouldn’t do them justice to make a sound sculpture that just made random noises,’ Henry explains. ‘My design for the Sharpsichord was inspired by Cecil Sharp himself, who set up the recorded music library using a cylinder phonograph to record songs. I also wanted it to be fully chromatic and concert pitch so that it could be incorporated in arrangements with other instruments that might be played in the garden.’

The resulting sound sculpture was a two ton, 46-string, solar powered, weatherproof, programmable pin-barrel harp.

It works like this.:

  • Two solar panels at the top charge a battery, providing power for a large rotating pin-barrel to be turned automatically. Alternatively, the instrument can be powered manually using a handwheel
  • The music is programmed manually on the pin-barrel itself, which is drilled and tapped with over 11,000 holes in a grid pattern. It can take up to a day to arrange the pins to produce just a minute of music
  • As it rotates, the pin-barrel activates the mechanisms that pluck the strings of a harp at the back of the instrument
  • The sound from the plucked strings is channelled into a stainless steel box and amplified, in stereo, by two giant acoustic horns. The smaller horn is for treble notes and the larger for bass notes
  • There is also a keyboard to help the programmer to find note positions on the pin-barrel. If a musician has the strength and stamina to exert the considerable pressure needed to pluck the strings, the Sharpsichord  can also be played directly from the keyboard.

‘The idea was that visitors to the garden would execute their musical ideas by inserting pins into the cylinder and then they would leave that musical idea behind,’ Henry explains. ‘This would then be developed by the next people who came along, so the tune would morph from one thing to another in the way that folk music tends to do.’

Henry Dagg: Sharpsichord
Hand fabricated cranks and gears

Although the outline drawing was simple, the work required to  develop the Sharpsichord into a functional prototype was enormous, with many very time-consuming challenges to overcome. Because of this, the build overshot the original timescale  – what should have taken six months took five years – and  escalating metal prices meant  that costs also went up by a factor of ten.

And there was another unforeseen difficulty. The rising price of metal had sparked an epidemic of metal theft.

Henry Dagg: Sharpsichord
Array of mechanical plectra and dampeners

‘Even before it was completed, everybody who saw the Sharpsichord pointed out that it would never survive in a garden in Camden with no real security oversight in the evening and at weekends,’ Henry explains. ‘So that made me think. I realised that this was something of a scale I would never be able to do again and it just didn’t seem at all appropriate to risk its demolition. And so the only solution in the end was to repay the Society its original contributions and, with the help of generous admirers and supporters, buy it back.’

So the Sharpsichord  remained in Henry’s workshop where it still lives today. But that is not the end of the story.

Henry Dagg: Recording with Björk
Recording with Björk

One day Henry, who had been arranging and uploading short videos to You Tube to promote the Sharpsichord, got a call from musician Matthew Herbert. Herbert said he’d sent one of Henry’s videos to Björk and that she was very keen to record a song with the Sharpsichord for her new project and album Biophilia, released in 2011.

However, it transpired that the length and structure of the song, called Sacrifice, which was already written, were far too long and elaborate to fit the cylinder in one programme.  As Björk wanted a fully live performance, Henry arranged the song to include a live keyboard part, to be played on the Sharpsichord keyboard in synch with the cylinder programme.

During the recording session at Henry’s workshop, Björk  asked him about the possibility of taking the Sharpsichord on tour with her, for live performances.

‘It was an exciting prospect for me as it would give the Sharpsichord great exposure,’ Henry recalls. ‘But it was not straightforward. The Sharpsichord was designed simply as a sound-sculpture installation, so it could never have travelled in one piece without considerable, and very expensive, modification.’

Henry Dagg: Björk Biophilia, Alexandra Palace
Björk and Henry at Alexandra Palace

Nevertheless Henry agreed to tour with Björk and, over several months, converted the Sharpsichord  into a mobile structure that could be lifted by crane onto the flatbed truck ready to be taken to  her shows in Manchester and at Alexander Palace, where it proved a great success. You can see Henry and  Björk working together with the Sharpsichord in this video. https://youtu.be/n2kbd1Pt5d8

In 2016, the Sharpsichord made another excursion, travelling to Norway where Henry gave his TED talk The Quest for New Music From Old Technology https://youtu.be/GQqJjEDCpGM 

Although the Sharpsichord has not ventured out recently, Henry believes its future lies in guest-performing with other artists or bands, and he is planning to create an auxiliary memory to augment the Sharpsichord’s current 40-90 second memory, so that it can retain enough material for a concert.

‘I envisage an optical memory based on lines written in felt pen on a roll of clear acetate,’ Henry says. ‘Whatever it is will be pretty low tech. You could computerise the whole thing but it’s not in the spirit of the Sharpsichord. Everything you hear, you can attribute to something you see.’

In this clip Jack Hues (formerly of new wave band Wang Chung) sings the Beatles song She’s Leaving Home, accompanied by the Sharpsichord. https://youtu.be/eoWdefgfxgI and here Hannah Peel and Laura Groves sing The Beach Boys  song God Only Knows, accompanied by Henry on the Sharpsichord. https://youtu.be/LpD1PsZS-sU

Extending the acoustic range
Henry Dagg: CATASTROPHONYOver the years Henry has invented and built  a range of  innovative and unusual acoustic musical instruments, usually in response to commissions.

Perhaps the most well known is the CATASTROPHONY, a miaowing cat-organ, which famously reduced Prince Charles to tears of laughter during a recital at a royal garden party in 2010. Here is Henry playing the CATASTROPHONY at Jools Holland’s Hootenanny in 2010. https://youtu.be/cHfBQCJaJoI


The Ring Cycle
came about as the result of Henry’s involvement in a schools project in Basingstoke in early 2005.

A group of musicians – Henry,  jazz musicians Herbie Flowers and Buster Birch, and Dave Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator – was appointed by Anvil Arts https://www.anvilarts.org.uk/ to hold workshops in schools. The musicians helped children to make their own music and encouraged them to get involved in a public performance at The Anvil concert hall, along with the four musicians and members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Henry’s role was to challenge primary school children to create their own instruments, and also to devise and produce a new instrument that could be played by a whole class at the concert.

Henry Dagg: The Ring Cycle
The Ring Cycle performance

Henry came up with The Ring Cycle, a line of rotating cylinders of tubular bells, powered by one person on a cycle frame, that could be played by 30 performers. Each player had one cylinder in front of them, and a mallet. They followed the conductor, who had a flip chart with a series of numbers on it, and then, when their particular numbers came up, brought their mallet in contact with the rotating bells.

‘It  was really simple and didn’t require any ability to read music, just the ability to remember a string of numbers,’ Henry explains. ‘The kids were very good at it and took to it really naturally. They played three pieces  and it made a fantastic, really loud sound.’

While he was thinking about possible instruments that the children could build from readily available materials, Henry came up with the idea for his Hooty Scooty.  Although he quickly realised that the project was too technical for children, he later developed  it into a very playable instrument.

The Hooty Scooty combines the working elements of a hurdy-gurdy, two phono-fiddles and a scooter. The front wheel of the scooter drives the rosined wheel which bows the strings. This means the performer has to be scooting while they are playing in order to make the sound. You can see Henry performing  on the Hooty Scooty  alongside pianist Rimski and his pedalling piano at the 2013 Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent. https://youtu.be/m2Msy7LwTQI

When the Tour de France came to Canterbury in 2007, The Canterbury Festival asked Henry to come up with some bicycle inspired musical contributions as part of the celebrations.

‘They had heard about my Ring Cycle so they commissioned me to write a new 20 minute suite for that,’  Henry says . ‘They also wanted me to create a new pedal-powered monophonic instrument to lead a parade of cycling-inspired instruments. So I devised the Voicycle.’

The Voicycle uses the pedalling power from an old tricycle to drive a heavy flywheel, that in turn powers an acoustic siren, with a lever to control the pitch. Here is Henry performing Edelweiss on the Voicycle at the Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent in 2013 https://youtu.be/iGUhGKbr1x8

Achieving the dream
After the opening performance of the Rochester Gate Harp, Henry took a break from time-consuming commissioned projects. He is now spending time converting the former offices and canteen in his factory-home into a habitable residential area.

‘It’s now 25 years that I’ve lived in a place with no insulation and no central heating and I’ve decided that this needs to take priority over commissioned work,’ Henry says. ‘ I have never embraced the bohemian lifestyle, living in a cold, crumbling canteen-cum-bedsit. It just became a necessity because once you accept a commission, your time is sold before you can get your hands on it.’

And while Henry has achieved a great deal of success and support from his commissioned works, he feels that he has still not really yet achieved what he hoped when he left the BBC all those years ago.

‘The reason for the existence of a lot of my instruments is not because I really wanted them at all, but because other people wanted them,’ Henry explains. ‘They don’t really represent my ideas of the electro-acoustic ensemble that I’ve been trying to reach all my life.  I think live performance is the experience that musicians live for and what I really want to do is to be able to perform my music live, with others.’

You can hear Henry Dagg playing live at Artists Behind Closed Doors at 8.30pm on 28th July 2020.  Register for the event here: https://www.routestock.org/events-1/henry-dagg-abcd-artists-behind-closed-doors

Contact Henry Dagg about any aspect of his work via his website: http://henrydagg.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wendy Daws: A touching story

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

My mum has been on my mind a lot lately.

She has just returned home having spent weeks in hospital and then rehab, after she fell over and broke her hip.  We’re now thinking through what needs to be in place for her so that she can continue to live independently into her nineties.

Before her accident, during the lockdown, we used to joke with mum that she had been socially isolating for the last ten years!  And, actually, that’s not far from the truth. Macular degeneration has left her with very little vision and that, along with poor hearing, makes it difficult for her to recognise faces and to follow conversation in social spaces. So, she prefers to stay at home listening to her audio books and receiving the occasional visitor.

Wendy Daws
The isolation that some people with sight loss experience is something that Medway-based artist Wendy Daws has been thinking about for a long time. For nearly 15 years, Wendy has been working with groups of blind and partially sighted (BPS) people, as Lead Artist Volunteer for Kent Association for the Blind (KAB). https://www.kab.org.uk/  KAB is celebrating its centenary this year.

Wendy runs art groups in Medway https://www.facebook.com/KABmedwayartgroup/ and Gravesend https://www.facebook.com/KABGravesendArtGroup/ and before lockdown, was about to start a third group in Canterbury.

Wendy Daws: Copper, Latex, Canvas Blanket, 2003
Copper, latex and canvas blanket

Discovering the value of touch
By training, Wendy is a sculptor.  She grew up in Hoo in Kent, and after leaving school at 16, worked in a series of admin jobs, taking City & Guilds courses at night school. Uninspired by classes in book-keeping and shorthand, Wendy switched to pottery and sugar craft instead and then, aged 29, she left work altogether to go travelling. When she arrived back in the UK ten months later, Wendy was ready for a change.

‘I was determined not to go back into admin work,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted to do something more creative and be my own boss. I did a City & Guilds welding course and doing that convinced me that I just wanted to learn more.’

In 2003, after what she refers to as ‘three mad years hoovering up art courses and being very skint’, Wendy got a place at the University of Brighton to study for a degree in Three Dimensional Craft and Design. And in her 2nd year, she took an artist residency at Nagoya University of Fine Art in Japan.

Wendy Daws: Copper, wire, latex and canvas blanket, 2003
Copper, wire, latex and canvas blanket

‘I wanted to go to Japan because I was interested in Samurai armour,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to know how it was made, how all the elements are held together.’

While she was there, Wendy learnt an etching process, in which an image is transferred onto a copper plate and then put into acid, to leave a raised outline. It was a seminal experience for her.

‘I became really interested in the potential of that raised, tactile line,’ Wendy says. ‘It brought back memories of when I was about 14, on a school trip to the National Gallery. I was drawn to a luscious red cloak in one of the paintings. I remember reaching out my hand to touch it and being told off by one of the guards. And it got me thinking about how we’re not allowed to touch things in museums and art galleries – and I completely understand why we can’t – but I wondered, what if you’re blind, what is there in galleries for blind people?’

Wendy Daws: Copper and thread blanket, 2003
Copper and thread blanket

Back at university, Wendy developed the etching techniques she learnt in Japan and started to use them in her sculptures. She describes how she started to make miniature ‘blankets’ from little pieces of copper stitched together on latex.

‘They were quite tactile but they had holes in them, so you’d never be warm, you’d never be cosy,’ Wendy explains. ‘I lost my mum when I was 20 and, in hindsight, I think I was somehow trying to recreate a hug from her. Something to wrap myself up in.’

Another key influence on Wendy’s art at this time was the work of South African artist, Willem Boshoff, whose exhibition Blind Alphabet C was held at the Brighton and Hove Museum. https://www.willemboshoff.com/blind-alphabet-feature  It was groundbreaking show, designed to improve the accessibility of museums and art galleries to people with sight loss, and to help redress the discrimination they experience.

Wendy Daws: Cotton and thread blanket, 2003
Copper and thread blanket

Boshoff’s exhibition featured a series of lidded, black mesh shoeboxes, mounted on plinths. Inside each box was a carved wooden sculpture, inspired by an unusual word beginning with the letter ‘C’. For example, ‘cassidiform’, which means ‘helmet-like’ and cetacian , which means ‘whalelike’. The mesh box prevented fully sighted visitors seeing the contents. At best they might be able to make out blurred shapes. Detailed explanations of the contents were provided, but they were written in Braille. To appreciate the exhibits, sighted visitors had to rely on visually impaired guides and museum staff , who were on hand to help them.

The intention of the exhibition was to give sighted people an insight into how difficult it is for those with sight loss to appreciate public art. It also aimed to promote understanding of the ‘social model of disability’, where people are disabled by the barriers that society puts in their way, and to prompt discussions about how these barriers might be broken down.

‘I was absolutely gobsmacked by the exhibition,’ Wendy remembers. ‘It just embodied everything I’d been thinking about.’

Totally Touchable exhibition, Blake Gallery
Totally touchable art

So ignoring her tutor’s suggestion to explore Samurai armour from a feminine perspective in her dissertation, Wendy wrote about her new passion – the value of touch in art.  Her dissertation, The Value of Touch: Blind Alphabet C and Museum Approaches to the visually impaired visitor was published in 2004.

‘What I took away from my time at university, was a determination that any art that I made would be art that could be touched,’ Wendy remarks. ‘And if it can’t be touched, I’ll think, how can I make it accessible?’

Memory blankets

Wendy Daws: Memory Blanket, Acrylic and shadow, 2004
Memory Blanket ©Simon Sandys

After university, Wendy took a part-time job in Francis Iles’ art shop in Rochester, Kent https://francis-iles.com/ where she got to meet other local artists.

Now sharing a studio with illustrator Mark Barnes, https://www.facebook.com/MarkBarnesIllustration/ Wendy returned to etching, replacing the expensive copper etching technique she had used previously, with a cheaper alternative, using photocopied images on acetate.

‘I really liked the acetate with the black line, and just holding it up to the light to see the shadows it created,’ Wendy remembers. ‘So I went through lots of family photos and traced the outlines and started doing this shadow work with laser-cut clear acrylic. I’d then sew those together, in grids, in the same way that you’d make Samurai armour, except mine had gaps.

Wendy Daws: Memory Blanket, Acrylic and shadow, 2004
Memory Blanket ©Simon Sandys

‘You can’t see the shadow line until it is lit and then it is quite striking. The depth of it makes it look as if the photographic outlines have been drawn onto the wall with a pencil. And through studying the projected images, other people could discover stories of my family’s life.’

Wendy’s ‘memory blanket’ installation Memory was exhibited at Rochester Art Gallery, in 2008. This video combines time lapse and real time footage that documents the process. https://vimeo.com/15401562  The exhibition was a success but Wendy had begun to think about her future as an artist.

Wendy Daws: Memory Blanket, Acrylic and shadow, 2004
Memory Blanket ©Simon Sandys

‘I was really nervous about describing the detail of my memory blankets in writing because it was so personal, but I was happy to talk to people about it,’ Wendy explains. ‘So I was in the gallery a lot talking to people about my work, and there was this realisation that I didn’t just want to sell my own art, I also wanted to help others to make art.’

KAB Medway Art Group
It was about this time that Wendy started volunteering for Kent Association for the Blind and established the KAB Medway Art Group. The group, which meets regularly, attracts people with a range of visual impairments. They explore a variety of art forms – painting, sculpture, poetry, graffiti, print making – using different generic and specialist materials and techniques. They also visit exhibitions together, invite inspirational speakers and get involved in high-profile group art projects.

KAB Medway Art Group, Through Our Eyes, Royal Engineers Museum ©Gary WestonYou don’t need to be ‘arty’ to join in. Wendy starts everyone off gently, providing a cup of tea and a biscuit, sitting new members next to a ‘buddy’, and selecting materials and tasks where they are likely to succeed. In this way, she gradually integrates them into the group and builds their confidence.

When someone joins the group with existing artistic skills or transferrable practical skills, Wendy is quick to build on them. She tells of how she encouraged one man, a former  gas fitter, to use his welding skills to make copper pipe sculptures. A few years on, he is still a member of the art group, but he is also a successful sculptor, selling artwork created in his shed at home.

Wendy Daws: The Value of Touch. KAB Medway Art Group‘Over time I’ve seen everyone’s confidence grow,’ Wendy says. ‘Everyone is happy to pick up different materials and to try out different ways of using them – and to show me other ways of creating.’

‘[It has] opened the door to new ways of expressing ourselves – be it painting, poetry or music,’ says KAB Medway group member Brian. ‘Our first reactions have been “I can’t do that.” But thanks to the dedication of the artists involved we have found that we can do that… If you cannot paint small, paint large – use a 6” brush if need be!’

Wendy Daws: Clay carving Rochester Cathedral’s Baptismal Fresco ©Sara Norling
©Sara Norling

In 2010, keen to show off what the group could do, Wendy organised their first art exhibition Eyes Wide Open at Rochester Cathedral. They were given free rein to explore the cathedral in any way they chose. The artwork they created, inspired by their visit, was later displayed around the cathedral.

Following that exhibition, Wendy and the group received a commission to create a bronze tactile interpretation of Rochester Cathedral’s Baptismal Fresco by Sergei Fyodorov. The fresco, completed in 2004, was the first traditional fresco to be painted in an English church in eight hundred years. https://www.artandchristianity.org/sergei-fyodorov-st-john-the-baptists-frescoes

‘We ran workshops and studied the fresco to come up with ideas about what this tactile plate should look like,’ says Wendy. ‘Then I carved the fresco plate in clay, A2 size, and it was cast in bronze. And there it is, in front of the fresco, and it will be there forever more!’

By 2015, the KAB Medway Group had begun to get quite a name for themselves. They were invited to explore and respond artistically to the space at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham https://www.re-museum.co.uk/ This too culminated with an exhibition at the museum called Through Our Eyes.

 

Wendy Daws: Value of TouchIn 2016, Wendy and the group took part in The Value of Touch, a collaborative sensory arts project with the Guildhall Museum in Rochester https://www.visitmedway.org/attractions/rochester-guildhall-museum-2132/ . This explored ways to make selected museum artefacts more accessible to BPS visitors.

After a series of object handling sessions led by one of the museum’s Collections Officers, the group created new artworks inspired by those objects. These were then displayed alongside the original artefacts, with accompanying large print and Braille guides.

That exhibition received more than 400,000 visitors in person and online.

Wendy Daws: Value of TouchThe unprecedented access to the museum exhibits had a profound effect on those involved in the project.

‘The whole project from the very beginning has been a wonderful discovery of the museum,’ one KAB Art Group member commented in the project report. ‘It’s been a privilege to have access to absolutely anything in the museum, we’ve only had to ask and we’ve been able to touch it, smell it, engage with all our senses, and this has led to such a rich exhibition for us.’

KAB Gravesend Art Group
Wendy Daws: KAB Gravesend Art Group 'Totally Touchable'As news of KAB Medway Art Group’s success spread, it prompted interest from BPS people in other parts of the county.

‘Some people from Gravesend said, “Hey that’s not fair! We want an Art Group too,”’ Wendy laughs. ‘But I couldn’t afford to volunteer in two towns so, together with Gravesham Borough Council, I wrote an Arts Council bid and we got some funding to do Totally Touchable, and that was the start of the KAB Gravesend Art Group.’

Wendy Daws: KAB Gravesend Art Group. Totally TouchableTotally Touchable (2016)  was an exhibition that gave the KAB Gravesend Art Group an opportunity to show the public their own ways of  making art. The group offered guided tours to sighted visitors, who were invited to wear ‘simulated spectacles’ or ‘sim specs’ so that they could view and handle the exhibits through the eyes of the people who created them.  You can hear from some of the artists and enjoy some of their artwork in this short video. https://vimeo.com/144599869

KAB Gravesend Art Group too has gone from strength to strength.

There is a statue of Pocahontas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocahontas in the grounds of St George’s Church in Gravesend. In 2016, one year before the 400th anniversary of her death, KAB Gravesend Art Group collaborated with professional opera singer Tania Holland Williams and the RiverVoice community choir to present Reaching Out, an art exhibition and musical performance inspired by Pocahontas. This short video captures the project and the performance. https://vimeo.com/175844855

In 2017, Wendy was commissioned to create two bronze tactile interpretation panels of the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee commemorative statue in Gravesend market. As usual, she used the expertise of the Gravesend art group to  help come up with  the design.

‘I always try to find a way to include those often unheard in voices in whatever I’m doing,’ Wendy explains. ‘We visited the market when it was quiet and took moulds from the statue. We cast them in plaster and then the group decided what should be included in the bronze plaque, including the Braille that is part of it.’

Sensing culture
In 2018, Wendy applied for a commission to work with the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, Kent https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/beaney/  as part of an HLF/RNIB funded project, Sensing Culture.

‘I was really keen to get involved with this project because it was everything my dissertation was about,’ Wendy enthuses.‘ It was about how to make the Beaney collections more accessible to BPS visitors, and by default, to all visitors.’

Sensing Culture. Image courtesy of The Beaney
©The Beaney

Out of that project, a third group, KAB Canterbury Art Group was born.

Highlights of the Sensing Culture  project and information about how galleries and museums can be made more accessible to visitors with sight loss can be found on the website  http://www.sensingculture.org.uk/.

The MESS ROOM
Wendy Daws: THE MESS ROOMWendy now shares a studio at Sun Pier House, in Chatham, with fellow artist Christopher Sacre http://christophersacre.com/website/Home.html and together, they have created the MESS ROOM, a not-for-profit organisation hosting artist-led projects, in partnership with local communities. http://www.messroom.org.uk/

‘Throughout my time working with blind and partially sighted people, I’ve always strived for us to have our own space, a studio where we can make a mess and leave our work here if we want to, instead of just being creative for two hours and then switching it off again,’ Wendy explains. ‘The MESS ROOM allows us to do just that.’

Wendy Daws: THE MESS ROOMWhile Wendy’s experience is with the BPS community, Christopher, who is deaf himself, specialises in working people with hearing loss. Last year, both communities collaborated on an art project exploring their experiences and identities, called My Self . The project and the exhibition of artwork, held at Sun Pier House, is documented in this short video. https://vimeo.com/373089157

Having her own studio at Sun Pier House has provided the space and opportunity Wendy needs to concentrate once again on her own career as an artist.

‘I get so embedded in finding opportunities for the groups, that my own artwork gets put to one side, so the aim in the future is that I do make more artwork for myself,’ she says.

Wendy Daws: THE MESS ROOM My Self project
My Self

The MESS ROOM has also provided space for the group workshops to evolve. Wendy and Christopher have started a new inclusive open arts day, Peer Arts, which, before lockdown, met every Friday at the MESS ROOM.

‘Peer Arts is a model of how things could happen,’ Wendy explains. ‘The only qualifying factor for coming to Peer Arts, is that you are a human. We want it to be completely inclusive. Absolutely anyone can join in. It’s a very relaxed day, and I plan to include this group too in other art projects that I do.’

 

Creativity in a time of coronavirus
The C-19 lockdown has brought a temporary end to Wendy’s group art activities, but not an end to her drive and creativity. She now has a new lockdown project Out of Sight Not Out of Mind, running in Gravesend, Medway and Canterbury. It is aimed at people with sight loss, and all generations will be invited to create artworks at home.

‘It’s a doorstep gallery,’ Wendy explains. ‘I’ll set up a Zoom account and contact everybody about making new artwork at home. If I need to take materials to them and give them a quick demo at the end of their path, I can do that.  At the end of their making, I’ll take a picture of them on their doorstep or through their window, holding their artwork. And then, later in the year, when the lockdown is lifted, we’ll have local physical exhibitions of the artworks.’

Wendy is also involved in two other projects at the moment and, if you want, you can get involved too.

She is now running workshops for the Creative Estuary team, on a theme of The Water Replies. https://creativeestuary.com/the-water-replies/ In this project, everyone living along the Thames Estuary is invited to keep a creative journal about what, for them, life is like living beside the Thames. There is no set format – journals can be completed with words, photos, drawings, collage, poetry, prose, lyrics and thoughts. There is still time to join in. So, if you would like to create your own journal, email info@cementfields.org and they will send you a blank journal, free of charge.

To inspire you, here is one created by Norma, which Wendy Shared on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wendydawsart/videos/273768104042753/

And Wendy is also part of the creative team for the Fat Lady Opera’s current project ‘Persephone’s Dream’,  a digital/live hybrid opera that tells a story of withdrawal from the world. More details of how you can get involved in this project can be found on their website:  https://www.fatladyopera.com/persephone-s-dream

You can follow Wendy her activities and her groups and projects on social media

Wendy
Website: wendydaws.co.uk
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wendydawsart/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wendy_daws/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/WendyDaws

THE MESS ROOM
Address:
Ground Floor, Sun Pier House, Medway Street, Chatham, Kent, ME4 4HF
Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/MessRoomMedway/
Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/messroommedway/
Twitter:  https://twitter.com/messroommedway

KAB Medway and Gravesend Art Groups
Blog:  kabmedwayartgroup.wordpress.com

Duncan Grant: Portrait of my mum
Original – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/mum/
Print – https://duncangrantartist.com/product/mum-print/