I’ve been living up in Norfolk for about 6 months now and really loving it. But what with settling in, working the day job and exploring the area, I haven’t really got involved much with the art scene here yet.
Norfolk Open Studios 2022 is giving me a chance to dip my toe into the water.
I’ve also got a big box of unframed pieces that you can rummage through and, of course, my colouring books, Van Doodles and Oodles More Van Doodles
Norfolk Open Studios 2022
Norfolk Open Studios is an annual event where Norwich’s artists and makers open their homes and studios to the public. All studios are free to visit.
This year’s exhibitors include over 200 painters, sculptors, weavers, furniture makers, jewellery makers – and lots more – at all stages of their careers, from emerging artists to established professionals. I’m hoping to feature some of them on this blog in the future.
19 Norwich schools are also taking part and, last weekend there was a preview of their work at the Undercroft Gallery, at the back of Norwich Market. Various local artists ran art workshops there and I did a lino cutting and printing demonstration. I was going to throw away the demo prints I did but I hand coloured this one, just to see what it looked like.
There is a comprehensive Norfolk Open Studios 2022 brochure, which introduces each participating creative and their work and, most importantly, tells you when they will be available for you to visit.
As part of Open Studios, I’ll be exhibiting at my house over the next three weekends (September 24th & 25th ; October 1st & 2nd; and October 8th & 9th) between 10am and 5pm.
Do pop by and say hello if you’re in the area. Details are below.
It would be great to meet some more Norfolk art folk. I might even push the boat out and get some tea, coffee, bikkies and cake. Sorry, I drank all the beer!
If you want to make a day of it, the Norfolk Open Studios brochure suggests a number of Art Trails that you might like to follow. Each one based in a different area of Norfolk. I’m part of the Broadland and Great Yarmouth trail. I’m number 056.
After a lifetime in Gravesend, in March this year I moved to Norfolk. We’d always loved Norfolk and went on holiday there most years with the dogs. But good friends and various family and work commitments kept us living in the Gravesend Riverarea.
Things change though. The pandemic meant my wife, Davina, moved her tutoring online. My mum was safe, well and settled in her care home. I was offered the opportunity to do the same work in a new region. And as a few other bits fell into place, we found we were free to go. So we did.
And so far, it’s been great. We’re about ten minutes drive from the Broads, half an hour from the coast, and within walking distance of Norwich, which (as we’ve discovered) has great beer and food and a really vibrant art scene. What more could you want?
I’ve only been here for a couple of months but I’ve started to dip my toe (pen?…brush?) into the local art community.
I’ve got six ink drawings on display in a new restaurant Harry’s Soul Station which recently took over what used to be The Fat Percy pub. The family-run business started two years ago as Harry’s Soul Train, a food truck that toured Norfolk.
In the new restaurant, they’ve just installed the hanging system I designed for non-traditional venues and they’re hoping to feature work by local artists on a regular basis.
I’m also going to join Norwich Open Studios in the autumn, which is part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, so look out for a post about that. I’ve done a few paintings and drawings while I’ve been in Norfolk over the years. Some originals and A3 and A4 prints are available in my gallery.
Jane Sedgwick: Sustainable jewellery
So what’s that got to do with brooches and badges? Well, while I’ve been settling in in Norfolk, a little bit of Norfolk has come to Gravesend and has been staying in a hotel right opposite my old house.
It’s Norfolk-based, contemporary jeweller, Jane Sedgwick, who has been awarded the first Ship & Shore artist residency on LV21 for 2022.
Jane makes wooden jewellery, which she turns by hand and then hand paints in her studio near the North Norfolk coast. Her work uses geometric forms, repetition and colour and is inspired by classic educational toys and nautical imagery.
‘I loved Dundee, and my final degree show was all about marine architecture,’ Jane remembers. ‘I used to go around all the little fishing villages in Fife looking at lighthouses. But it was quite a traditional jewellery and metalwork course and the pieces I made were bigger works – silverware and vessels to be held, rather than worn. I really enjoyed the course but, by the end, I wasn’t really sure that I’d found my thing.’
After she graduated, Jane went to the Royal College of Art in London to study for an MA in GSM&J (Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork and Jewellery).
‘I thought it would help me to find out what it was I really wanted to do and give me more time to study,’ she says. ‘And although I intended to do more jewellery, I ended up developing performance scale work – so, things you might wear over your head – and focusing on the space around the wearer and how the piece made that different.’
When she left college, Jane worked for a while making props for shop windows, and then for a high-end interior design company, where she worked as part of a team creating interiors for Marco Pierre White, Vivienne Westwood and the restaurant at Claridge’s.
‘The job was quite multi-skilled and I loved the camaraderie of working in a team and getting an insider view of these nice venues,’ she says. ‘But being freelance, I got a bit nervous living in London with the rent to pay. So I took on some teaching at Westminster Adult Education Services where I did a couple of morning courses teaching prop making – basically making a lot of things out of paper mache – and another course about window dressing.’
From there, Jane was offered more teaching. Firstly, at Sheffield Hallam University, where she taught drawing on their jewellery and metal course and then, in 1998, at the University of Derby, where she worked for 13 years, teaching on their degree craft course, which had a strong focus on sustainable approaches to making and design.
‘The course was ahead of its time really,’ Jane comments. ‘There were a couple of members of staff teaching on the course who were doing PhDs looking at sustainability-related issues and that really fed through into the programme. So we did lots of work with reclaimed and natural materials.
‘I’d used a lot of reclaimed plastics on my first degree. I’ve always liked colour and although it was a silversmithing and metalwork course, I wasn’t keen on the traditional options for incorporating colour into jewellery, such as enamelling and precious stones. So, probably from a need to save money at the start, I used to rummage through the skips of the sign-makers in Dundee, to find bits of acrylic and plastic that I could combine with my metalwork. I really like that intuitive approach to things – not knowing what you might find, or finding something that you weren’t expecting and thinking how you could use it.’
It was when a lecturer at the Royal College of Art, Onno Boekhoudt, challenged Jane about a piece of jewellery she had designed, that she really started to think seriously about the sustainability of her own work.
‘The piece was designed to light up, and he pointed out that the bulb and the battery would need to be replaced and asked if that bothered me,’ Jane recalls. ‘And it did. I hadn’t thought about that until he touched on it with me. Now sustainability is a real focus of my work.’
In 2010, Jane moved to Norfolk with her partner, also an art educator and maker. The house came with a 10-acre woodland which they manage, and which provides a sustainable supply of sycamore for Jane’s work. Her work also incorporates recycled and yarns, and cordage that she makes from plants, such as nettles and brambles.
Once settled in Norfolk Jane decided to go back to her roots and to try to make a living from making and selling wooden jewellery.
‘My skill set in working with wood was quite limited, so I gave myself a bit of time to try out various woodworking techniques with different kinds of wood, and I did a bit of wood turning and found I was quite good at it! ‘ she exclaims. ‘I’ve always liked Bauhaus and Constructivism, as well as nautical imagery and I collect classic educational toys. And it’s these influences that, I think, come through in my work.’
Soon Jane was exhibiting her work at design and craft shows and selling jewellery through her website.
Meanings and Messages
Jane heard about the LV21 Ship and Shore residency through her membership of the Association for Contemporary Jewellery (ACJ). The association works to promote greater understanding of contemporary jewellery and to bring it to new audiences, as well as supporting the creative and professional development of its members.
The residency call-out was exclusive to ACJ members and was timed to coincide with ACJ’s 25th anniversary touring exhibition, Meanings and Messages, which opened at St George’s Arts Centre in Gravesend, on the 30th April.
Meanings and Messages features 60 brooches, designed and made by ACJ members from UK and around the world.
Jane’s exhibited brooch, Forget Me (K)not, is a tribute to her late mother. The brooch represents the tacit exchange of skills between mother and daughter and incorporates threads from her mum’s sewing box.
Exhibition manager and curator, Jo Haywood, who also has a piece in the exhibition, explains how the power of brooches to communicate, makes them distinct from other pieces of jewellery.
‘Unlike bracelets or rings, for example, which are designed to be worn in a very specific way, brooches are not confined to the task of curving around a body part,’ she says. ‘The wearer always decides its placement. Brooches are like miniature canvases and microcosms – an ideal way to convey meanings and messages. And even when they are not being worn, they remain as standalone pieces of art.’
Jo has curated exhibits into six themes:
Social justice and societal change – a fairer world for all, technology,
consumerism and conflict
Supernature – celebrating the wonder of the natural world
Tributes and personal narratives – for our heroes and loved ones, personal reflection and biographical pieces
Our beautiful planet – Climate change, conservation, sustainability, ecology and animal rights
Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Personal reflections and global impact, and
Love, hope and faith – Humanity, lore, talismans and amulets.
‘There are many pieces of work in the exhibition and some of the messages they convey could be quite difficult to access without presenting them with sensitivity, so we thought it was important to organise them into groups,’ Jo explains. ‘We invited prominent jewellers and researchers from our own community to write a short introduction to each theme, to set the scene, but without reference to individual brooches.’
So while the themes give a clue the meanings and messages of individual pieces, visitors are invited to bring their own interpretations to the work.
‘In the exhibition, each piece has just the name of the artist and the title of the work: there are no artist statements,’ Jo continues. ‘We want the audience to try to guess what the meanings and messages are and write down their interpretations on the luggage tags that are suspended from the community artwork in the gallery. But, of course, if people want to know what it was that the artist really intended, they can look at the catalogue in the gallery.’
Through their time exhibiting in Gravesend, the ACJ hope to achieve two main objectives.
The first is to introduce contemporary jewellery to new audiences.
Jo defines contemporary jewellery as being wide-ranging in its profile.
‘It can include both traditional and fine art jewellery, moving into fashion jewellery and everything in between,’ she explains. ‘Generally, artists will be independent makers with a focus on exploration, which could be of particular materials or processes. Innovation is often a driving force too.
‘Contemporary jewellery can be made using traditional materials, but it can also include other materials, precious or non-precious. This year’s pieces feature gold, silver, aluminium, copper, wood, textiles, ceramics, semi-precious stones and a range of found objects, including gramophone needles, leather gloves, spent bullet cartridges and faux leather made from citrus peel.’
To reinforce the bespoke nature of contemporary jewellery, a PowerPoint display featuring images of the makers working in their studios, forms part of the exhibition at St George’s Arts Centre.
‘St George’s is a fabulous venue because it is right in the middle of the shopping centre so it’s very accessible, and we hope to tempt new audiences to come in,’ Jo says. ‘We’ve tried to make a lot of the participation work accessible as well. There are colouring and design sheets for young children, and each venue has been offered a toolkit of education resources from the Crafts Council, our education sponsor. The toolkit includes ‘making tutorials’ to involve people more in delivering workshops which could, perhaps, be used by gallery staff .’
The gallery also has a tactile wall of sensory objects – test pieces and samples associated with the exhibited pieces. This helps make the exhibition more accessible to visitors with a visual impairment, and allows sighted audiences an opportunity to experience the exhibits in a different way.
‘There are fabrics, metals, plastics and enamel where you can feel the raised design elements,’ Jo explains. ‘So often when you go into galleries you’re told not to touch anything. But we really want people to get close up and personal with the materials that the makers have used.’
The second objective of the exhibition in Gravesend, which also supports the first, is to create legacy opportunities for ACJ members through a participation programme of master classes and workshops. The aim is to create ‘a network of sustainable practice’ and paid opportunities for members that will continue after the tour is finished.
The Ship and Shore artist residency is just one example of this.
As part of her brief, Jane Sedgwick will work with a small group of local makers from the LV21’s Making More group and the Gravesham Arts Salon, with the aim of encouraging new members to join these groups and learn new skills.
ACJ members Jennifer Kidd and Rebecca Ilett, will deliver a jewellery making masterclass at the Gravesend Adult Education Centre, while other ACJ members will deliver workshops and events as part of the Meanings and Messages programme and beyond.
Ship & Shore
A key part of Jane’s residency, is producing a new, collaborative piece of work reflecting, in some way, Gravesend’s maritime heritage and/or wider nautical references. To link with the Meanings and Messages exhibition, the residency brief suggested that she might like to draw upon LV21’s vast collection of illustrated archive records of badges, issued for ships built at Chatham Dockyard.
In the early 20th century, ships’ badges began to replace figureheads and gilded carvings as a way of identifying ships. The shape of the badge conveyed information about the type of vessel, while the design illustrated the name of the ship and its historical associations. Approved designs were carved in wood and then cast in metal before being installed aboard.
At present, Jane is exploring possibilities. She has visited LV21 and St Andrews Church on the riverfront, explored Gravesend and is planning a trip to Chatham Dockyard for further inspiration. Jane is also looking at the meanings conveyed by signalling flags and nautical buoy shapes.
She is excited about where the journey might lead, but wherever that is, Jane sees her residency on LV21 as an opportunity to develop her own making practice.
‘The work that I make for sale on my website is studio jewellery and though it is bold and colourful, it’s still practical for everyday wear,’ she says. ‘So I’d like to take this opportunity work more intuitively, to have fun with nautical themes and see where things go. I’d like to push myself to be a bit more ambitious and explore scale and wearability.’
You can follow Jane’s residency journey and see what she creates on her Instagram account @janesedgwickjewellery
Community involvement LV21 Ship & Shore programme is a partnership project with Gravesham Borough Council supported by Arts Council England and, to accompany Jane’s residency, there will be free creative activities aboard LV21, at St Andrew’s Arts Centre and on the surrounding quayside.
On Saturday 21 May, Jane will run a Making More workshop aboard LV21. And the residency culminates on Saturday 28 May with an Open Day, where you can meet Jane, learn more about her work, and take part in family friendly drop-in activities exploring textures and jewellery techniques, led by jewellers Jennifer Kidd and Jo McAllister. For further details please go to: https://lv21.co.uk/whats-on/
The ACJ Meaning and Messages exhibition continues at the St Georges Arts Centre in Gravesend until 29th May 2022. Details of future venues and dates for the tour can be found below.
Association for Contemporary Jewellery Website:https://acj.org.uk/index.php
Meaning & Messagestour dates and venues
Exeter University – Conference pop-up exhibition: 1st – 3rd July 2022
Vittoria Street Gallery, Birmingham School of Jewellery: 19th September – 28th October 2022
Mission Gallery in partnership with Swansea College of Art UWTSD: 16th November – 21st December 2022
Goldsmiths’ Centre, London: 9th January – 24th February 2023
New Brewery Arts, Cirencester: 14th April – 18th June 2023
I first met Steve in 1983 in my first week at college in Liverpool. He was studying Geography (and then later Psychology, the History of Art and Fine Art) and I was studying geology. I think probably because our names were close in the alphabet we ended up in the same accommodation. Turned out we shared exactly the same birthday, but I don’t think that had much to do with anything.
We knocked around with the same group of friends and in our second and third years, Steve lived in a house with a cellar that we painted up and used to rehearse our band. There was Pete on guitar, Jez on keyboards, Dicky on drums, Steve playing bass and me doing vocals. I can’t remember the name of the band but we did a couple of college gigs.
For me, that was the beginning and end of my career in music. Steve on the other hand went on to much bigger things and now, since lockdown, he’s taken up his art again, painting pictures featuring the rock band he’s played in for twenty-five years now – the mighty Embrace.
Early influences Steve Firth grew up in Halifax, listening to John Peel on the radio.
‘My era is the early punk stuff,’ he says. ‘I was listening to bands like The Damned, Buzzcocks and The Clash. When I was about 15 went to see Stiff Little Fingers. They looked really cool in their skinny tight pants with zips everywhere and I thought, I want to be on stage doing that.’
Steve persuaded his mum to but him an electric guitar.
‘I thought you’d just plug it in and it would be all big and distorted and I’d sound like The Sex Pistols, but it sounded terrible!’ Steve laughs. ‘There was no internet in those days to learn from and I knew nobody that knew anything about music. My mum bought me a music book but it was all Skip to My Lou My Darling and stuff like that, and I wanted to play Anarchy in the UK. Anyway, I kept it up for a few years. I was in a band at school but I never really took it seriously.
By the time he got to college, Steve was into post-punk and goth rock, listening to bands like Birthday Party and The Mission
‘Everyone at college liked different music to me, and they wouldn’t listen to mine,’ he remembers. They started playing me Pink Floyd and a bit of prog rock. So I started to like Pink Floyd, which I still do now, to be fair. I was in a couple of bands there but I was still only really playing at it. We didn’t really knew what we were doing and we never got to the studio or played any proper gigs.
Post-college blues After college, Steve needed to get a job and with nothing doing in Halifax, he went with a friend down to Crawley, where he found work straightaway, in a warehouse near Gatwick Airport. But after a year of living in friends’ garages and camping out in gardens, he popped home to Halifax to see his mum and never went back.
‘I got a part-time job there, which became permanent and before I knew it, six or seven years had gone by and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘During that time, I played in a punk band that did covers and some of our own stuff. I remember doing a gig in a pub in Halifax and it looked as if we had about fifty people watching us, but there were two TV screens above our heads with the boxing on, and everyone was watching that and we were just an annoyance. So I gave that up and I decided that was it.’
The cat, the suit and the wardrobe In 1994, Steve was looking at the small ads in the local free paper. His cats had ripped up his work suit while he was asleep and he needed a cheap wardrobe to put his clothes in. Glancing through the music ads, he came across a band looking for a bass player.
‘It was influences The Smiths, Stone Roses, Pixies, Nirvana all the bands I was into at that time,’ Steve remembers. ‘And they were literally just half a mile up the road, so I gave them a ring and went to see Danny [McNamara]. He got out his guitar and played me a load of songs, demos they’d done in the studio and I thought, “this guy is serious, he knows what he’s doing”. So I picked up my bass and joined in, and that was the start of it. I was in the band.’
It was two years later before Steve did his first gig with Embrace.
‘At that point, the band hadn’t recorded anything,’ Steve explains. ‘ They sounded a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen, which was good. But they’d done a couple of gigs and got some bad reviews saying they were the lowest common denominator of all the bands they were influenced by, so they were like, “OK, we need to go away and write some proper songs and find an identity”.
They worked really hard.
Steve remembers travelling to Leeds to rehearse three evenings a week after work, and later at the weekend too, while the band worked on new songs and reinvented itself. Finally, they made a demo tape , got hold of a copy of Music Week from the library, and contacted some agents. They got a lot of interest, and after spending a couple of days in London visiting them all, Embrace decided to go with CoalitionManagement and met Tony Perrin, who still manages the band today.
Tony Perrin set about contacting record companies and the band did three showcase gigs at iconic live music venue, the Duchess of York, in Leeds.
‘About a dozen record companies came to see us play,’ Steve says. ‘Butch Vig even came over from America to see us, because there was a real buzz about us at this stage. We weren’t very good really but they saw the potential and at that time, everyone was looking for the next Oasis.’
The band signed with Hut Records, part of the Virgin group.
‘Hut had Placebo, Smashing Pumpkins, Gomez – all these bands that were kicking off at the same time, so it was a hip label to be with,’ Steve explains. ‘David Boyd was in charge and there can’t have been a much more successful person than him in the music business at the time.’
The first three albums
In June 1998, Embrace released their debut album The Good Will Out, which went to number 1 in the UK Album Chart. It went gold immediately and became the fastest-ever-selling debut albums by a British band, going on to sell over half a million copies in the UK. Soon the band were touring in Europe, Thailand and Japan.
‘We didn’t expect that,’ Steve laughs. ‘No-one expects that. You hope for it, but just to get in the charts was a massive thing.’
Their second album, Drawn from Memory, was released in 2000. It was well received by the music press and reached number 8 in the UK Album Chart .
‘That album was a bit more eclectic than the first one, because we thought the first one didn’t show off the band as well as it could have done – we thought we were more interesting than that,’ Steve says. ‘But we took too long over it. In those days, everyone was pushing us to keep up the impetus, telling us you can’t be off the radio for too long or everyone will forget about you and someone new will replace you.’
While they were touring Drawn from Memory, Embrace were supported in Blackpool by emerging band, Coldplay who, later, also supported them at Glastonbury.
‘In those days, we used to get hundreds of tapes from bands that wanted to support us,’ Steve explains. ‘Danny used to religiously listen to them all. He got this tape from Coldplay and offered them the support slot in Blackpool. We thought they were really good, that they’d have a career at least and get a few albums out. We never thought they’d be one of the biggest bands on the planet, just about!’
In 2017, Coldplay returned the favour, offering Embrace the main support slot when they played to 80,000 people at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Drawn From Memory was followed in 2001, by Embrace’s third studio album, If You’ve Never Been.
‘That’s my least favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘It’s too sleepy – sounds as if it needs a good kick up the arse! But it was really a reaction against the criticism we received for the second album. The music press called it “schizophrenic”. We thought that maybe that was why it didn’t do so well, so we did something that was a little bit more chilled.
The album reached number 9 in the charts.
‘Normally, if you got to number 9, you’d be well pleased, wouldn’t you?’ Steve asserts. ‘But that wasn’t good enough for the record label and they dropped us.’
‘The biggest comeback since Lazarus’
Being dropped by Virgin didn’t worry Embrace as much as it might have.
‘Rick [McNamara] had bought a farmhouse with a derelict barn, which the band converted into a studio, ‘ Steve explains. ‘Rick taught himself to operate a mixing desk and we got stuck in.’
Freed from the record company and from the financial implications of recording in London, the band took things a bit slower. They made some more demos and Tony Perrin got them signed to Independiente Records. With new producer, ‘Youth’ on board, Embrace released the album Out of Nothing, which reached number one in the UK Album Charts in 2004.
‘NME were calling it “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”!’ Steve laughs. ‘And I think we appreciated it more second time around. The first time we were caught up, touring, doing interviews, doing photoshoots, videos, all the stuff that goes on. This time we had time to enjoy it.’
Out of Nothing included the hit single Gravity, which was gifted to the band by Coldplay.
‘Danny and Chris Martin stayed in touch all the time,’ Steve explains. ‘They used to talk and play songs over the phone to each other. .. What do you think of this?… Oh that’s not good enough for you….That’s your best song. All that sort of stuff.
‘Gravity came out of one of these conversations. It was going to be on Coldplay’s next album, and then the rest of the Coldplay lads said they didn’t like it. So Chris rang Danny and said, “You know that song of mine Gravity that you really liked. Do you want to have a go at it, otherwise it’s never going to get used?
We’d just finished the album and Danny came in and said what do you think about doing a cover of this? So we did a version of it and it was really good. And, obviously, once our manager and the record company found out, they were really keen. So we went back down to London and recorded it, put it on the album and it turned out to be a great thing for us really. One of our biggest songs. It was even on Gavin and Stacey.’ [In Series 2, Episode 7, when Nessa gives birth to ‘Neil the baby’]
When Gravity was released as a single, Steve was back working again, this time on the shop floor, welding plastic.
‘I never told anybody I was in Embrace ’cause I found it a bit embarrassing, ‘ he says. ‘We had the radio on all day and suddenly Gravity’s coming on the radio and it’s quite exciting. And then it’s on three or four times a day. Finally I had to go to my boss and say, “Can I have Thursday off cos I’m on Top of the Pops.” I never went back!’
Own goal? Embrace’s fifth studio album, This New Day was released in 2006. Just as they finished recording, manager Tony Perrin, was approached by the FA, who asked if Embrace had a song that might make a suitable anthem for the 2006 World Cup.
‘We did have a song with no lyrics, that we hadn’t quite finished that we thought might fit the bill,’ Steve remembers. ‘So Tony told the FA and they said, “That’s great, just what we’re after”. I think it was Tony that came up with the title World At Your Feet. We had about three days to get it recorded it and the FA really liked it and said they’d get all the England team to sing and join in on the video. But none of that happened. The players weren’t into that sort of music. So we didn’t get much support in terms of that.’
The single, which was also on the album, entered the UK Singles chart at number 3. Although Embrace were told the song would sell millions and make them their fortune, it didn’t affect album sales very much and Steve suspects that it might even have put some people off the band.
As the only football fan in Embrace – he follows Leeds – Steve quite enjoyed the experience.
‘I got to meet Groff Hurst, George Cohen, Alan Ball and I went to the Grosvenor in London to the PFA awards and Sven and Nancy and all those sort of people were there,’ he recalls. ‘But if you talk to certain members of the band they’ll say it was the worst decision we ever made. We did one tour after another and suddenly we were in a different league. Now instead of talking to music journalists we were talking to The Sun or The Mail and they didn’t really want to discuss music, they were always looking for an angle, something sexy, some gossip. I don’t think any of us enjoyed that. You were kind of scared of what you were going to say in case it came back to haunt you.’
Then, after probably one too many tours, Danny McNamara’s voice gave up and he told the band that he needed some time off, promising that they would get back together when he’d recharged his batteries. He moved to London and got involved in the club scene for a while.
Back in the zone again ‘After about four years, we got an email from Danny saying, “I’m in the zone again”, so we all got together at Rick’s and started on the next album,’ Steve says. ‘We reinvented ourselves and came back again.’
Embrace‘s next studio album, Embrace, was released after a seven year break, in 2014.
‘That’s still my favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘I think it’s got the most interesting music on it. A bit dancier, a bit heavier. I like the ballads but growing up with punk, I prefer something that people can react to.’
Embrace released their next album Love Is A Basic Need in 2018. And in 2019, the band celebrated 21 years since the release of The Good Will Out with a national tour.
The band’s line up now is the same as it was when that album was released – Danny McNamara on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Rick McNamara on lead guitar, Steve on bass, Mickey Dale on keyboards and Mike Heaton on drums.
‘We’ve stuck together, never fallen out, never split up, never had the whole rock star thing,’ Steve says. ‘We’re just a group of friends really who want to carry on doing what we do.’
Steve says that journalists can be pretty disappointed to find out that the McNamara brothers get on and are no Liam and Noel Gallagher.
In 2018, in a side project, Steve returned to his punk roots, playing in Land Sharks, the band he founded with Embrace drummer, Mike Heaton; Embrace’s keyboard tech, Beever; Mikey Shiraz from punk metal band Mr Shiraz; and Sam Wood, the guitarist from metal band Wayward Sons.
‘Mike our drummer was messing around in his little studio and he came up with this song that sounded very old school, like the Ramones but a bit heavier, and we started sending songs back and forth and then got everyone involved,’ Steve says. ‘We’ve only done about a dozen gigs. It’s not been a big thing because the virus kicked in. But it would be nice to carry on with it, because it’s fun. No stress. Just a laugh – turn up, plug in, have a few beers and a great night. If anything happened it would be fantastic, but it’s not likely to, ’cause we’re not trying hard to push anything.’
Embracing his artistic side Art was Steve’s favourite subject at school and although he loved studying it at college, he says, he never had the confidence to pursue it once he left.
‘I never really thought I was good enough to make money from it,’ he admits. ‘ I didn’t really think I had a distinctive style or anything to say. It was one of those things I’d pick up every few years. I’d go out buy a load of artist’s pads and pens and paint, and then I’d think God, they’re not very good, and then I’d stop for a few years. I’ve never really known what to paint. I haven’t got a focus. ‘
But with time on his hands during lockdown Steve had a change of heart.
‘I thought, come on, you’re in a band. Paint what you know,’ Steve says. ‘I’ve got thousands of pictures, videos, images, and I could manipulate them on my laptop and try to make them look more pop art. So I started painting and I thought, this time I’m not going to give up straight away. I’m going to keep going and and try and develop a style.
‘And what I’ve found is, the more work you do, the more ideas you get. So I’m four canvasses in and suddenly I can’t sleep and I’m thinking, “Oh I’m going to do this or that tomorrow, I’m going to try this style”. And now I’m sat there for twelve hours painting, and it flies by and I still want to do more. I’m loving it for the first time in my life. I posted a few on Facebook and got some really nice responses so it builds your confidence up.’
Steve works in acrylics mainly and has completed 40 canvasses this year featuring the band, which he now offers for sale to sell as limited edition, signed prints.
Embrace have just finished their new album, due out later this year. It a long process, not helped by a six or seven month wait for vinyl. The schedule means Steve will have plenty of time to develop his art further.
‘We don’t do a lot of gigging, so it’s not really like I haven’t got the time.’ he says. ‘Plus, I don’t have to think about doing another job while I’m painting, so that’s a good thing!’
It seems like ages ago when I was commissioned by Gravesham Borough Council to create an installation in a telephone box, as a tribute to The Jam’s 1980 studio album, Sound Affects, as part of the Winter Light Festival 2020. But as with most things lately, COVID got in the way and the event was cancelled. I got paid and I kind of forgot about it.
But now it’s back again! And my installation will be one stop on a circular trail of light around the ‘Heritage Quarter’ and along the river.
Sound Affects I’m not sure quite how well known it is , that the telephone box outside Gravesend Old Town Hall was featured on the Sound Affects album cover.
The original photo was taken by art director, Bill Smith, who worked with The Jam over the three most important years of their career. During that time he designed five album covers and 16 singles bags for the band, as well as a range of promotional ads, posters and videos.
‘The idea came from Paul [Weller] who was working in the studio at the time making the album, and they used some effects from the series of BBC Sound Effects records,’ Bill explains. ‘Paul gave me a sleeve with the BBC scrubbed out and replaced with JAM and the number altered to 80 (to reference 1980, the year Sound Affects was recorded) and “Effects” changed to “Affects”. He asked me to recreate the cover, using images that related to the songs on the album.’
Bill was brought up in Gravesend but, by 1980, had moved away. It was while he was visiting his mother-in-law in Gravesend to photograph her dog for the Sound Affects cover that he took the picture of the phone box.
Bill shared the photography for the Sound Affects cover with renowned rock photographer, Martyn Goddard.
‘I just chose subjects around my home – the jukebox, record player and even my sister’s friends baby,’ Martyn says. ‘Then I walked around the streets of Camden Town and the West End of London shooting interesting subjects, such as the funeral hearse in York way and a taxi at Kings Cross Station. The power station at Dungeness was mine, plus the police car and the Brunswick Centre.’
Martyn has since met one of the funeral staff. a young undertaker who was in the hearse that he shot for the cover. Thirty-odd years later he was running the firm and Martyn was able to provide him with a print of the photo.
The Sound Affects album was released on 28th November 1980 It sold over 100,000 copies and spent 19 weeks in the UK album charts. making it to number 2. The track Start! was a number one single for the band. And although That’s Entertainment was never released as a domestic single, it did chart as an import single, making it to number 21.
Sound Affects was the last album cover Bill and Martyn ever did for The Jam.
‘We created the sleeve and inner bag and I designed a series of ads and posters that used Roy Lichtenstein pop art influences for these,’ Bill remembers. After that there were three or four more covers for singles that I did, including 1981’s Funeral Pyre , for which I also wrote and directed a promotional video. And finally, Absolute Beginners. I also wrote and shot a video for that with Gered Mankowitz but the band weren’t happy with our initial edit and, rather than let us do a re-edit, we were sacked and they did a brand new video shoot. It was the last time I spoke to Paul Weller until the 2015 Jam exhibition at Somerset House.’
Red telephone boxes The first public telephone boxes were introduced by the Post Office in 1921. They were made of concrete and some local authorities, including the London Metropolitan Boroughs, refused permission for them to be installed. Eastbourne Corporation stipulated that the kiosks could only be installed if they had thatched roofs!
In 1924, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott won a competition to design a telephone kiosk that would be acceptable to the London boroughs. You might have heard of Scott. He designed Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church in Northfleet…oh yeah, and Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and the Bankside power station (now the Tate Modern). Scott’s winning design featured steel structure with a silver exterior and a greeny-blue interior. The Post Office, however, decided to make it in cast iron and to paint it red. Kiosk Number 2 (K2). The boroughs were won over and K2 was installed in and around London.
After three more iterations, the Post Office commissioned a new ‘Jubilee kiosk’ to commemorate the silver jubilee of George V. The K6, as it is known, again designed by Scott, went into production in 1936. It was a bit more streamlined than the K2, designed to be cheaper to produce and to take up less pavement space. The number of glazed panels were increased from 18 to 24.
Thousands of K6 boxes were made and installed all over the country, replacing most of the existing telephone boxes, as well as introducing them in thousands of new sites. The telephone box by Gravesend Old Town Hall – the one on the Sound Affects cover – is a K6.
Although there was some objection early on to the bright red paint used on the boxes, the K6 box quickly became a national icon. In 1980, British Telecom’s plan to paint all telephone boxes in their corporate yellow caused a national outcry. Battered into submission by the Daily Mail. BT backed down.
By 1985, BT announced that the old red telephone boxes would be replaced because they no longer met the needs of customers and were expensive to maintain and clean. Once again their was a vociferous campaign to stop this but, this time, BT held firm.
In the late 80s, just before deregulation of telecoms, I worked for BT for a bit, identifying new sites for payphones around the country for BT to develop, before they were nabbed by their main competitor, Mercury Communications.
With the old red boxes being replaced by more utilitarian versions, many local authorities used legislation designed to protect buildings of architectural or historic importance to keep their red telephone boxes. Around 2,000 red boxes were given listed status. Lots more were sold off. But more than 6,000 were bought by organisations and converted for community use, as libraries or to house public defibrillators. The only use forbidden by the regulations was ‘telephony’.
In 2021, BT announced that about 5,000 public phone boxes around the UK would be protected from closure in areas with high accident or suicide rates or poor mobile signals.
The Gravesend mod revival scene in 80’s Gravesend In the 1980 when Sound Affects I was released, I was working just around the corner as a Saturday (and holidays) boy, alongside my mum, in Boots. I was 15. At around the same time, my now wife, Davina, and her mates were part of the mod revival – hanging round the town centre showing off the look and dancing the night away at mod clubs. Davina’s friend Kay Sugg even had a scooter.
The Jam, with their mod styling and energetic, punky post-60s mod sound was the soundtrack to their lives. And with no mobile phones then, telephone boxes were essential for keeping in touch.
Davina and her friends still have really good memories of those times.
‘I wasn’t a fully fledged mod when Sound Affects came out but Quadrophenia had been out the previous year, so the revival was in full swing,’ Davina reminisces. ‘The album reminds me of just turning 17, dancing at every opportunity and a continual round of parties with my school friends. My favourite track was and still is Start!‘
‘Sound Affects is as good today as it was 40 years ago,’ says former teenage mod, Yvonne Lynn. ‘Listening to the album back when I was a 16-year old mod living in Gravesend consolidated my feelings of belonging in the mod scene. The lyrics and music made sense to my teenage rebellious self and it was the glue that held our group together.’
‘The album tied in with so much,’ agrees Derek Forbes. ‘Mods, scooters, my first girlfriend and my favourite band.’
‘I was desperate to become a mod,’ Davina admits. ‘But I was too shy so a boy from my school took me to my first mod night in Wings in the Battle of Britain pub in Northfleet. I couldn’t believe that so many other kids of my age were so into 60s music, like I was, so I was soon hooked – and that’s where it all began. After that, most of my time was spent in second hand shops and Kensington Market perfecting the mod look, and dancing! It took hours to get ready. Getting the make up just right – the eyeliner was the hardest bit as well as back combing your hair – normally with a bathroom full of giggling mates and a Supremes album on for inspiration!’
Mod Life, soul music, scootering and Carnaby Street filled my youthful heart, took me on an amazing journeys and left a lasting legacy of wonderful memories that still make me smile at the love we all shared, ‘ says Kay Sugg. ‘From the sharp cut of a suit, a neat bob hairstyle, ski pants or mini, we danced our style, to our music and looking cool round town was an every Saturday treat.’
‘That’s Entertainment’ installation So back to my installation. Because the phone box was featured on the Sound Affects album, Gravesham Council wanted my installation to be a tribute to The Jam.
I tried to combine all this in my piece. I started with some initial sketches – two figures – mods – speaking lyrics from Start! one of the tracks on Sound Affects, to go on either side of the telephone box.
And then a eight smaller drawings – my take on some of Bill and Martyn’s images from the Sound Affects cover.
The Old Town Hall box has 24 panels, eight on each side, so the next job was to measure them up and draw them to scale. While it was pretty straightforward to cut paper to size for the smaller drawings, I drew out the people full size and then cut them into panels afterwards, discarding the bits of the pictures where the metal window frames would go.
Gravesham Council then took those drawings and transferred them onto white vinyl to stick onto the inside of the box. The plan for the Winter Festival is to light the box from the inside, illuminating the drawings, while the Sound Affects album plays on a loop.
So come on down next weekend and have a look and a listen. I’ll be hanging around the phone box and it will be nice to see everyone there – sharp suits, Chelsea boots and Parkas optional.
Follow the link below for the full programme but don’t miss the interactive installation, Light and Thread, in St Georges Arts Centre, created by friends of this blog Filaments Art Collective, who work aboard LV21 was featured last May.
Also, check out Bill Smith’s book which tells the stories behind some of his covers – you’ll recognise pretty much all of them, I reckon.
Light and Thread by Filaments Art Collective
A collection of light installations and digital projections made from textiles, thread and paper.
19th – 30th January 2022
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm
Saturday and Sunday 10am – 4pm
Cover Stories: Five decades of album art by Bill Smith
I’m planning a move to Norfolk in the near future and one of the many things I’ll miss about my home town of Gravesend, in Kent, is the cultural centre and local landmark that is LV21. I’ve exhibited and run workshops there as have many of the artists that have featured in this blog.
This month, LV21 is featuring new work, The Shipping Forecast, by Maidstone-based textile artist Cas Holmes, whose work is often inspired by her life, the journeys she makes, the places she visits and people she meets. She describes it as ‘painting with cloth’.
Origins and influences Cas came to Kent from Norfolk in the mid-80s to study fine art and photography. It was the same journey that her Gypsy Roma grandparents would have made each year to pick hops.
Heritage is key to Cas’s identity, as a person and as an artist, and explicit and derived references to her family’s history continue to influence her life and her art.
Her father studied at the former Norwich Technical College (now Norwich University for the Arts) and became a sign-writer.
‘I think my attention to detail comes from him and from my Roma grandmother,’ Cas reflects. ‘That’s something that they both told me – look up, look down, look around you, pay attention to the world. And from my Norfolk grandmother I’ve taken to heart the Norfolk philosophy and expression “Do different”.’
Those two, combined with a third expression from a medal presented to Cas when she became a Winston Churchill Fellow, “with opportunities comes responsibilities”, have become the mantras that guide her life and work. In recent years she has recognised how, in some ways, she is continuing the tradition of her Roma forebears.
‘It’s taken me 40 years to realise that my life as an artist who has travelled throughout the world, upped sticks carrying all my bits with me, worked on the hop and the hoof, is not too dissimilar to the way my grandmother and my great-grandmother would have lived, taking their things to wherever they needed to work.
A growing interest in textiles Cas gained a degree in fine art (painting and photography) at Maidstone Art College. Her prior experience with textiles gave no indication of the direction her work was to take.
‘My grandmother hated stitch so she never taught me and I found out a few years ago that my mother could knit, though I never saw her do it,’ Cas remembers. ‘I hated that cross stitch apron we all had to make at primary school. Mine was so grubby. I hated doing it because it was so formulaic.’
Then, as part of her studies at art college, Cas made paper and, as a result, became rather more interested in what she was painting on (the substrate) that what she was applying to it.
‘I think that’s the paying attention bit – finding out what your materials can do,’ Cas says. ‘Learning about western-style paper led to me researching Japanese paper making and I put in an application to study in Japan.’
It was while she was in Japan, studying papermaking under a Churchill Fellowship, that Cas’s interest in textiles developed.
‘That’s when I began to understand what materials could do, because in Japan cloth and paper are equally valued as substrates,’ Cas explains. ‘And that’s where, for me, the world of the fine artist – someone who paints on canvas or paper – and that of the textile artist began to merge. It was the beginning of my understanding of what materials mean to me. Studying the links between paper and textiles built my confidence with handling materials, and from very early on, my materials of choice became “found materials”.’
The making process Cas now works mainly on textiles that she collects on her travels or (mostly) old and worn fabric donated by friends. These are then coloured, painted, layered, collaged and stitched to form the final piece.
For the last ten years, the focus of her work has been on the everyday relationship that people have with the world. She is particularly interested in the connection between the urban and natural world and in ‘liminal’ spaces – those spaces in-between, such as verges, field edges and the boundaries where gardens meet the landscape.
‘I’ve always worked in these sort of in-between places – I think it’s part of my psyche,’ she reflects. ‘It’s become an evaluation on how I see myself positioned, because my wok is neither placed strongly in the world of painting nor the world of textiles. It is in-between them and I’m quite comfortable there.’
Cas doesn’t drive and spends a lot of time walking, cycling , or on trains where she can see the world passing. As she travels, she sketches.
‘I’ve always sought to get enjoyment out of the places I’m in rather than the places I’m going to,’ she says. ‘And I want to give people a way in to my particular take on the world. What I see will be familiar to other people so I’m just saying, “Look have you paid attention to this? Do you not see how beautiful, or strange, or beguiling our world can be if you just paid attention to it”.’
There are two elements to Cas’s work – the idea and the materials – and, as she puts it, they ‘satellite around each other’.
‘The interplay between idea and making is very important to me,’ Cas explains. ‘I think that is what art is about – the artist being involved with the materials to create their own particular take on the world. The materials I use will be chosen because they have a connection with the idea that I want to communicate. You need to listen to your materials to push your idea along. The tangibility of touching a soft cloth or the harshness of a piece of paper that you have picked up on your travels, is very important to me.
The process of making a completed work can be lengthy and complex but it always falls into three key processes, not always worked on in sequence:
Mark-making on the chosen material – this might be with paint, dye or other media
Layering pieces of cloth, paper or found materials, constantly referring to her sketchbook to make adjustments, and
Stitching, which holds the work together.
Cas says that her drawings ‘infuse’ her work. They are not intended to be copied but rather act to stimulate and engage her as she works. She might also include photographic elements or text in the final piece.
‘Once I have worked on a basic composition for a piece, I ‘audition’ it by pinning it to a large piece of canvas hanging on a wall, or lay smaller pieces on clean paper, often overnight so I can look at it with fresh eyes,’ Cas explains. ‘After I’ve made any adjustments – fine tuning it like a piece of music – I’ll add the stitching. The form and texture of that is informed by the marks made in my sketchbook.’
Once the piece us complete, interaction with the audience completes the process for Cas.
‘Any successful art work is a meeting point between the artist and the audience,’ she says. ‘You need to ask questions. To leave space for other people to bring their own thoughts and stories to the work. What you’ve done should intrigue them, perhaps trigger memories. Textile art, like any good painting can work at two levels. It might capture your attention as you walk by and you think, “What is that?” and then it might draw you in so you want to look at it in more detail to see what’s happening, or how it is made, or because the subject matter is intriguing. And through that interaction, other things will be revealed.’
Over the last few years, Cas has used this process to create works for a number of major projects .
40 yards Cas’s ’40 yards’ project started more than 10 years ago, when after returning from work in Australia, she found a piece of cloth outside her house with the words ’40 yards’ on it. It triggered an idea for an exhibition for the 20th European patchwork meeting. She decided to create a body of work using only found materials, from her travels, and to include only images of seasonal changes and daily observations from the street, gardens and park within 40 yards of her home.
‘It was that idea of paying attention to the world again and it was an exploration of the ways in which travel and home, intersect for me,’ she explains.
You can read more about the creation of one particular piece, Cup and Dandelion, here.
What we value -What we miss What we value – What we miss also looked at how people travel through the world. Focusing on migration and identity, Cas posed the question: What would you put in a small bag, that is of value to you, if you had to up and leave at a moments’ notice, and what would you miss that you couldn’t take with you?
For two years as she travelled the world, Cas stitched her reflections on the question to include in the piece. But as the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced, she decided to ask the global community to send her their words, or stitched pieces, reflecting on the effect of lockdown on human connections, that she could include in the piece.
‘The pandemic reversed the original question for many of us,’ Cas comments. ‘Now we had our lives restricted like many migrants may have, in terms of where they can go, what they can do, where they can work and how they can live.’
Spaces, Places and Traces The Spaces, Places and Traces exhibition in 2020, for the Romani Cultural and Arts Company gave Cas the chance to reflect on her own identity. Three larger wall hangings and a series of smaller pieces used fabrics with cultural significance, figurative elements from memories and images from photographs, to explore Cas’s Romany heritage and how it has shaped the person she has become.
Since that exhibition, the project has developed, picking up on the ideas explored in What we value – What we miss but focusing more explicitly on the human cost of migration to Europe from troubled regions across the world. The exhibition will be shown in Antwerp and Northern Ireland in 2022.
You can watch Cas talking about this body of work in this You Tube video.
The Shipping Forecast The Shipping Forecast installation, which you can see on LV21 now (see dates and times below) is part of the ongoing Spaces, Places and Traces project. It is created out of printed and painted cloth, paper and lace and contains stitched words relating to the themes of migration and the movement of people.
The text stitched on the piece was triggered by a shocking sound bite from the BBC news, which Cas overheard in 2018, reporting that, since 2014, 17,700 people had drowned in the waters around Europe .
Since then, while travelling, Cas has been stitching into linen or other pieces of cloth gathered while travelling, snatches of broadcasts or overheard conversations about migration – many of them negative or inflammatory.
For The Shipping Forecast installation, this text has been incorporated into larger panels, which have images of the shipping forecast overlaid, along with bits of clothing and other flotsam and jetsam, some of which Cas picked up on the beaches of Folkestone or Dover. She chose the shipping forecast as an organising theme because of its significance to her when she is away from home.
‘When I’m travelling, I often tune in to the shipping forecast on BBC radio,’ Cas says. ‘The rhythms and its mantra of words to help keep those at sea safe reassure me during the times I struggle to sleep. They make me feel secure and safe. But however useful and comforting the shipping forecast is, it does nothing to keep migrants safe at sea in their fragile boats.’
The Shipping Forecast installation also refers back, once more, to Cas’s immediate and more recent heritage.
‘My great aunts and uncles would have been related to some of those who fled Europe, from the end of the 19th century right through to the second world war, and who have continued to need to move because of their status in society ‘ she says.
Those viewing the installation approach it from the back, where the text appears asemic. From this perspective, they will appreciate that it is about the shipping forecast, but it is only when they return and pass the installation from the front, that the text, and the full message of the piece, is revealed.
‘I feel moved to use my voice as an artist to echo what is happening,’ Cas says. ‘I don’t think I have any answers but I want to make it feel very present. I want to create a visual voice for migrants so that they are not unseen. So they can’t be forgotten. And they should never be forgotten.’
You can hear Cas speaking about The Shipping Forecast project in this You Tube video.
Thursday 25 Nov 12:30-15:30
Friday 26 Nov 12:30-15:30 – if you would like to meet Cas, she plans to be there between 1-2pm
Saturday 27 Nov 12:00-16:00
Sunday 28 Nov 12:00-16:00
Tuesday 30 Nov 12:00-16:00
Thursday 2 Dec 12:30-16:00
Friday 3 Dec 14:00-18:30
Saturday 4 Dec 14:00-17:00
Sunday 5 Dec 10:30-12:30
Apologies for the time that has passed since my last post. As things have opened up, life seems to have got busier for everyone.
The last series of posts that I wrote featured the SILTings festival and the many ingenious ways that LV21 found to continue bringing high quality cultural experiences to Gravesham, despite restrictions on indoor events and social gatherings outside.
Well we’ve come a long way, and on 28th October LV21 are hosting their first onboard ticketed performance since lockdown in March 2020, and it promises to be a most interesting and entertaining evening.
The Plant is a ‘devised play’ with live traditional music, written by Greg Lawrence and Jeremy Scott, directed by Dave Turner, and performed by other members of The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative .
It explores the impact of the Brexit referendum and the divisions it intensifies in an imagined community.
Based around a car factory, known as The Plant, the story has at its centre a young couple, Maddie and Niall, and their attempt to build a life together in the shadow of change.
Three performances, the first on LV21, pay tribute to Robbie Humphries, the play’s original director, who died of cancer in February 2019, before he could see his vision realised.
How it all started In 2016, after the UK had voted for Brexit, Greg Lawrence, a writer living in Whitstable, wrote a short story Heads or Tails in the Darkness about a young couple. One had voted leave the EU while the other voted remain. The story explored the impact of their differences on their relationship.
From that story grew the idea for a play, inspired by the experiences of the workers at the Nissan car plant in Sunderland, before and after the EU referendum.
On Brexit night, Sunderland was the first district to declare for ‘leave’. This was a surprise to many people, as Nissan was the main employer in Sunderland and employees had been warned time and again, that a vote to leave could jeopardise their jobs. Nissan said that World Trade Organisation tariffs would render its business in the UK unsustainable.
Greg Lawrence was intrigued. ‘I thought, wow, I wonder what’s going on there?’
Fascinated, Greg followed the developing situation in Sunderland, thinking that it might be a possible source for a story, and he wasn’t disappointed.
In the weeks following the ‘leave’ vote, behind closed doors, Nissan and the Government held talks about the future of the car plant.
‘I got an image in my head of these people waiting outside the negotiations for a decision that was completely out of their hands,’ Greg explains. ‘And the fragility of the situation, where someone else is making a decision and your entire future is hanging on it, reminded me of so many things that have happened in our past – the primary industries going and all those communities being broken and dying out.’
Greg approached Jeremy Scott, a musician, writer and an academic at the University of Kent, and two theatrical professionals, Robbie Humphries and Dave Turner, to discuss turning his ideas into a play.
‘Rather than just writing the script myself, I wanted to develop it through improvisation, using lots of theatrical devices and tools to see how it would grow,’ Greg explains. ‘And based on a couple of very powerful theatrical productions I’d seen, I wanted to explore how we could use music to help set the scene – the time and place.’
All three collaborators loved the idea. They contacted a group of local actors who already met regularly to improvise, and secured some rehearsal space through Jeremy’s connections at the University of Kent. Then, once a month The Plant Assembly Theatre Cooperative got together to work on the project.
Later, after they had secured funding from Arts Council England to perform the play across Kent, the Cooperative held auditions, drawing their cast from Kent and South London.
The process Robbie Humphries was to direct the play. It was his job to explore, through improvisation, the impact of Brexit and the issues it stirred up for the factory, the community and individual characters.
‘We had a few characters in mind,’ says Jeremy Scott. ‘There was a young couple, Maddie and Niall, from very different backgrounds and with opposing views on Brexit, who have come together in this context and tried to forge a relationships. Then there was Niall’s dad, the union representative; Niall’s best friend; the factory manager, the local MP and the workers themselves.’
The improvisation sessions were filmed, and afterwards Greg and Jeremy worked together to select the most interesting parts of the improvised dialogue, and turn them into a written script.
These extracts, Are You Calling My Workforce Diesel, illustrate how much the final production drew upon the improvisations of the actors. In these clips they are: Jane Bowhay, Adam de Ville and Grant Simpson.
Production was fluid and dynamic process. As well as receiving footage of the improvisations, the writers were able to feed ideas for the narrative back into the improvisation process, via director, Robbie.
‘We realised that we needed a scene where the two main characters meet for the first time,’ Greg remembers. ‘So Robbie worked with the actors, using a drama technique to get that for us. He did the scene three times – one where the characters weren’t allowed to say anything, one where the couple could use just one word, and a third where they could talk normally. For the script Jeremy and I preferred the second option, as we liked the use of body language and movement in the play. It was lovely, so natural and romantic.’
There was also a research angle to the project. A cast member, Jonathan Fitchett, was studying for a PhD looking at improvised dialogue and how it can become dramatic, and interesting to people in a theatrical setting. The videoed improvisations fed into that research and the outcomes of the research helped inform the acting and writing process.
From script to performance After about a year, the script was ready and the Cooperative took stock.
‘The first reading of the play that we did was about three hours long and it was awful!’ Greg laughs. ‘So Robbie suggested that we perform extracts from the whole, just enough to give a sense and the essence of what the play is about. So we did that and we thought that it worked really well as a piece in itself. Sadly, Robbie passed away by the time of the performance in April 2019. And although we developed it a little more since, that version is pretty much what we have now.’
The final play, which lasts about 90 minutes, now contains some written elements, others taken directly from the improvisation sessions, and some that are a little bit of both. The writers have also quoted verbatim, some remarks from the people of Sunderland, about the referendum, the vote and the negotiations.
In April 2021, the Cooperative performed The Plant, script-in hand, to some acclaim, as part of the Union season at the Gulbenkian Arts Centre at the University of Kent.
The music An essential element of The Plant is the traditional music, so much so that the writers refer to the music as ‘the seventh cast member’. Four musicians perform on the stage throughout the piece.
‘I’d always wanted to write a musical but I have no musical talent,’ Greg laments. ‘Jeremy on the other hand plays and sings in folk bands and is fluent in folk music – its chords, its lyrics and its significance.’
But the play is not a musical, both writers insist. It is a play with music.
‘The cast perform the music themselves, but it is definitely not a singing and dancing number,’ Jeremy says. ‘In The Plant the songs and tunes don’t come from the characters, except on one or two occasions. Rather they come from the air. They bring out some of the central themes and are the voice the community, retelling their lives, stories and experiences, which are just as relevant now as at the time the music evolved. Just as you might use a soliloquy in a play to expand on a particular theme, the songs and tunes in the play are the soliloquies of the people.’
You can read more about how music is used in the play and listen to some of the songs used, here.
A long time coming The Plant has been a long time in the making. It started with Brexit in 2016 and although performances were booked for 2020, these were cancelled because of Covid. The Cooperative kept the spirit of the production going online during lockdown but inevitably with such a long break, some participants moved on.
But the delay also had some very positive consequences.
‘When Robbie passed away in 2019, we lost our director but we were lucky that the actors rallied and stepped up to help put on a great performance,’ Greg says. ‘We really wanted Dave Turner to take over as director but Robbie and Dave were best friends and, at the time, Dave felt that, emotionally, he just couldn’t do it. Later, he did feel able to take on the role and has directed the current production, which I’d always hoped he would do.’
Robbie’s wife, Becks Hill, has also returned to the production, as Maddie.
‘So every step along the way has been a sort of tribute to Robbie,’ Greg smiles. ‘We’ve mentioned him in programmes, in the script, everywhere we can. The Plant is a tribute to him and everyone else who has been with us along the way.’
The Cooperative believe that five years on from Brexit the play will still appeal to a wide range of people, as the themes and issues the play explores are timeless – they have persisted throughout history, are still relevant today and will continue to be so into the future. Also, the writers have been careful to keep the play balanced. It is neither pro-leave or pro-remain.
‘In fact it’s not really about Brexit at all,’ Jeremy explains. ‘It’s about what that debate has done to us as a group of people and how we negotiate our way through it. It’s about questions of Englishness, belonging and identity and I think these will come to the fore more and more as we move forward.’
‘The play also looks at ideas of community,’ Greg adds. ‘The communities that I knew when I was growing up are not there as much and I think we need them back. They are there but we need to appreciate them, nurture them and be part of them to make them work, and the play explores that as well.’
Future plans There are three performances of The Plant at the end of October (dates below) and the Cooperative is applying for more funding to tour the production nationally in the future.
‘I was watching a documentary about Julie Walters talking about the early days of the Liverpool Everyman,’ Greg says. ‘She said they would rehearse a play, jump in the back of a van and turn up at a pub, jump out, put the play on, jump back in the van and go to the next venue. And that, for me, is what theatre is all about. That idea of theatre as education. Theatre that talks about politics, enlightens people and gets communities involved. And I think that’s what we should be doing with this play.’
The writers see The Plant as only the beginning of a journey.
‘What I want to do eventually is to take the idea of this play into other communities and leave them with it so that they can do their own version,’ Greg explains. To say right, here’s an idea – you’ve got a community, a set of characters, there’s a division, there’s an aspect of fragility and there are these themes – now you do what you want to do with it. It could be any issue – vaxxers and anti-vaxxers, anything. These are such divisive times. We’re living in a binary world at the moment. You’re either in or you’re out. Yes or no. There’s no grey.’
The cast Becks Hill as Maddie
Harvey Almond as Niall
Paul Marlon as Gary
Denise Wilton as Jane
Jonathan Fitchett as Geoff
Lauren Mills as Gemma
Musicians Tom Horn
Performance dates LV21, Gravesend – 28th October 2021 – SOLD OUT (all ticket enquires to the Cooperative, please)
The Churchill Theatre, Bromley – 29th October 2021
The Aphra Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury – 30th October 2021
Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
Imagine you are standing on a street in your town. What would it take for you to feel that you were in the presence of opera, that you had suddenly stepped into an opera house?
It was this question that Tania Holland Williams, founder of Fat Lady Opera, asked the people of Folkestone in 2019, as part of her company’s first commissioned project The Invisible Opera House.
Have a think about it. We’ll come back to it later.
Tania grew up and went to school in Folkestone. As a small child, she fell in love with music and the theatre. Her father was ‘a mad keen rock and roll addict’, and Tania was introduced to classical music by two inspirational people – her school music teacher and her classical guitar teacher.
‘I had one of the most eclectic teenage record collections,’ she laughs. ‘My first album was Morricone’s Fistful of Dollars. And while I still loved Abba and all the pop stuff, I also had Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.’
While she was still at school, Tania joined FHODS – the Folkestone and Hythe Operatic and Dramatic Society. She loved the sense of belonging that she felt with her new theatrical family. And when she left school, to her parents’ horror, she took a degree in Clowning and Performance at Middlesex University, singing in jazz clubs at night.
It was Tania’s singing teacher who first suggested that she should audition for the Royal College of Music Opera School. She went along and was offered a postgraduate place. Suddenly Tania was on track for a career in opera.
‘With my background in clowning, I found opera a bit puzzling when I first started working in it,’ Tania admits. ‘I discovered that opera likes to put up quite a lot of barriers. It’s got this weight of heritage of the right and wrong way of doing something. If you do a Mozart opera, you’ve got several hundred years of people who’ve done it before telling you how it should be done.’
Germany and the Grand Tour
After graduating from the Opera School, Tania was awarded a scholarship to study opera in Munich.
‘My dad, who is Austrian, was in the army, and we’d lived in Germany for a while when I was first born,’ Tania explains. ‘My Gran spoke Austrian dialect German, so I felt an affinity with the German language and I’d always wanted to go back there. Then when I was there, it just seemed like a really great place to do opera. There’s an opera house in every town and there’s an appetite for opera that there just isn’t in the UK.’
After she completed her course in Munich, Tania joined the company at the Opera House in Weisbaden. She felt at home immediately.
‘Like at FHODS, the opera company became like my family,’ she says. ‘It was just what I’d been looking for. They had some amazing guest directors. And I really felt I was learning my craft.’
After three years with the company, both Tania’s singing teacher and conductor, Jonathan Nott, whom she’d been working with, advised her to move on to broaden her experience.
‘They said it was time for me to get going, basically,’ Tania remembers. ‘So I did move on, but I don’t think I went in the direction that perhaps I should have done, or that they thought I was going to!’
While she was studying in Munich, Tania met Canadian artist Bonnie Bews and they had became good friends.
‘We’d had this idea of touring for years,’ Tania explains. ‘Bonnie paints beautiful Arthur Rackham-style pictures on glass, and I’d recorded an album of British songs by Vaughn Williams and Britten, so we decided to tour Canada and Europe together. We knew we’d never make any money from ticket sales, so we decided to sell Bonnie’s paintings, and agreed a cut.’
The tour lasted two-and-a half years. Tania returned to the UK afterwards, exhausted vocally and physically, and in need of a job.
Back home ‘When I came back to the UK, I landed with a bit of a bump,’ Tania says. ‘Because I’d been working since I left college, I assumed that I’d walk straight into something reasonably well-paid. But all my connections had moved on. And it took me several years to re-find a way back into opera.’
Eventually, Tania began touring with small-scale opera companies, earning extra money singing oratorios. But after the richness of her experience in Germany, she found the repertoire predictable and uninspiring. And although the oratorios paid well, it wasn’t the opera she craved.
‘I began asking myself what I was doing it all for,’ Tania says. ‘I felt like I’d taken risk after risk with my career, and then to find myself doing really conventional stuff – I wasn’t sure that was really me. I think if I’d stayed in Germany I would have continued singing because there, there was a sense that my practice was continuing to develop, whereas over here, I was just ticking boxes.’
Disillusioned, Tania took the difficult decision to retire from singing for a while and she started to look for a ‘normal 9-5 job’, where singing wasn’t a big part of her life.
Her first job was in Thurrock, managing the Creative Partnershipsprogramme, which placed artists in schools to help develop young people’s creativity. She loved the job.
‘It was an amazing few years,’ Tania says. ‘Although I wasn’t performing, I was working every day with creative people – recruiting and training artists, engaging and prepared the schools, and then mentoring the projects as they rolled out.’
But in 2011, with a change of government, it became clear that funding for Creative Partnerships would end. Tania moved on again, this time to a part-time role raising funds to support the Royal Opera House’s move to High House Production Park in Thurrock.Although she was extremely successful, raising 5.2 million pounds in just 8 months, Tania’s heart just wasn’t in it.
‘I really hated the work,’ she confesses. It was very political. It was affecting my mental health. It was a million miles away from theatre-making and it was breaking my heart being that close to creativity but not being a creative. I remember thinking, I’ve got to change this.’
A sense of belonging At about the time that she took up her post at The Royal Opera House, Tania set up a company called Curious Planet . The plan was to use Curious Planet to continue to work with some of the artists she had met at Creative Partnerships. Fortunately, as her work at the Royal Opera House came to an end, Creative Planet started to gain a little bit of traction.
Tania invited 12 artists to join her new initiative and, as part of a visioning exercise, asked them to consider what they might do, as artists, to maintain a sense of wonder in the world.
Two of the artists, Wendy Daws and Peter Cook proposed a project called The Importance of Elsewhere, inspired by a Philip Larkin poem of the same name. Their vision was to create an arts space that was welcoming and totally inclusive.
‘A big problem with funding is that it, unintentionally, creates silos,’ explains Tania. ‘For example Kent Association for the Blind where Wendy worked, is an association for people with vision impairment so their services, their clubs, their activities bring people with poor sight together. But there aren’t many places that are able to say, you can come if you’ve got sight loss, or if you have a learning disability, or if you’re elderly and a bit physically frail, and your access needs will be catered for. Generally, building relationships and making friends, is about sharing a positive interest, not because we share a common characteristic. So the conversation then became about, how can we create a space that is like that.’
To succeed, The Importance of Elsewhere needed access to a large empty space, with smaller breakout areas. It all seemed a bit of a pipe dream until, one day, Tania attended a meeting to discuss the Old Registry Office in Chatham, which had been bought for residential development. Because building work could not start for several months, someone at the meeting suggested that, perhaps, it could be let out to artists in the meantime. The space was exactly what Tania needed. She put a proposal together, got some funding, and The Importance of Elsewhere moved into the building.
‘It was only for a few months, but I would have loved it to have lasted longer, because it cemented where Curious Planet was going to work best,’ Tania says. ‘Artists from different disciplines came together and created spaces that encouraged creative exchange between communities from diverse backgrounds. Members of the public came as participants, or as audiences, or simply to look around a space that had special memories for them – perhaps they’d got married there or they’d registered a birth or a death there. It was such a refuge and I think, actually, I’m still looking for a place like that, where people feel they belong.’
‘One of my big beefs about the big opera houses and theatres now,’ she continues, ‘is that they are highly functioning commercial organisations, and although the quality of the work is stunning, they are not places where people belong anymore and I think audiences feel it, and that for me is hugely sad.’
Bringing music home Curious Planet continued successfully until 2012. But by this point Tania was, again, beginning to feel a little removed from the creative process. Instead of performing and leading events, increasingly, she was writing contracts for other artists taking part in Curious Planet projects.
But new opportunities were just around the corner.
She received an invitation to sing from a friend in Scotland. He was working with a local theatre and wanting to begin to programme opera. He wondered if Tania might also be interested in directing.
Despite not having sung for some time and never having directed professionally before, Tania said yes. Soon she was directing regularly and touring productions around Scotland with Byre Opera.
Tania found that she loved directing and although many of the operas she was directing were from the standard repertory, she found that, as director, she could make a difference to the way an audience experienced the production.
‘I’ve always trusted that the audience will come with you no matter how strange or weird the work you’re presenting them with, if you’ve done the work and if the spirit within the work is right,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been frightened to look the audience in the eye. There is a sense that we are sharing this moment in time. There’s a contract that you enter into when you are performing, particularly in small spaces.’
Tania’s ultimate ambition was to produce new and exciting work and to engage new audiences who wouldn’t normally sign up for contemporary opera. However, she was keenly aware of the barriers that she would need to break down.
‘It’s really tough to do contemporary music and opera,’ she explains. ‘I think the problem with contemporary music as opposed to contemporary visual arts is the commitment required. If you’re looking at a piece of contemporary art and it doesn’t hold your interest, you can just move on. But with contemporary music, you have to buy a ticket. And you’re trapped – literally trapped if you are sat in a concert hall. And if you’re not offering people Mozart or Beethoven or a familiar composer. You’re basically saying, come and trust us.’
If new audiences weren’t going to come to see contemporary performances, Tania decided that the contemporary performances would have to come to them. She set up a project called Davey Jones’ Locker which took new music into people’s living rooms.
‘We went to over 60 living rooms in Kent,’ Tania says. ‘The idea was to find an adventurous home owner who liked music and ask them to pull together an audience of about ten people. Then two instrumentalists, or a singer and an instrumentalist would come and give them the most interesting, thought-provoking, wonderful evening possible.’
For the project, Tania commissioned very short pieces from living composers, each lasting just a few minutes. She then used various devices to provoke conversation about this new music.
‘We might say, this piece hasn’t got a title so we’d like you to think about what the title might be so that we can feed that back to the composer. Or we might use different instruments, or ask the composer to write three different endings, Tania explains. ‘They were all things that allowed us to say to an audience, this piece has been written specifically for tonight – so people knew they were getting something special, just for them.’
The legacy of the project took Tania by surprise.
‘It was a really, really rewarding project,’ she enthuses. ‘And quite wonderfully and unexpectedly for me, I ended up feeling really back immersed in a world of music again. So in 2018, I launched Fat Lady Opera, which has pretty much taken over my life. It’s been joyful!’
The invisible opera house So back to the question that Tania posed at the beginning of this blog. What would it take to turn your town into an opera house?
Fat Lady Opera’s first major project, The Invisible Opera House set out to find the answer.
‘I wanted to show that Folkestone, where I grew up, could become an opera house, so I set up “opera enquiry hubs” to ask people what they thought were the essential ingredients of opera,’ Tania says. ‘There was a general consensus that you don’t need the massive building surrounding the opera, but there are some key ingredients, such as big stories and a certain style of singing.’
Working with SparkedEcho Tania devised and delivered a series of interactive activities designed to introduce audiences to contemporary opera as a relevant and accessible art form.
There were workshops – including an updated, community-led version of Carmen, set outside a vaping shop.
‘It was the first and only time I was a Carmen with a baby doll attached to me for the whole time,’ Tania laughs. ‘Even when I was murdered by Don Jose, I was still carrying my baby! It was brilliant, anarchic and exactly the way opera should go!’
Tania also directed a short musical theatre piece called Belongings, written by composer, Samuel Bordoli and lyricist, Bill Bankes-Jones. The piece, inspired by items of luggage carried by the KinderWagen children fleeing war in WW2 and the more prosaic commuter experience, was realised in Customs House in Folkestone Harbour, at the junction with the railway lines.
The project culminated in a community performance, NightWatchers which, through choruses and sea shanties, told the story of life and loss in a fishing community during a rescue in a storm, out at sea. The cast of 45 from schools, Age UK and local choirs, rehearsed in Folkestone Harbour, and performed there, in November, to an audience of over 400 people.
Tania is now working on the next stage of The Invisible Opera House, planned for 2022.
Dreaming through lockdown For Tania, the involvement and engagement of the audience is as important a part of the production process as the performance itself. But more than that, she feels the presence of an audience is necessary to validate her as an artist.
”As a performing artist and particularly somebody who really revels in ensemble work, I wonder, am I still the artist person that I thought I was if I haven’t got an audience?’ Tania asks. ‘I don’t mean I need an adulatory audience, but I do need that immediacy of energy exchange. I love the moment when the audience’s eyes open slightly wider and they’re there, in a new place because the lighting’s changed. They’ve forgotten about what went on in their own lives earlier in the day because they’ve suddenly come into the space that you’re in.
‘Of course, there is a reward in believing that that I’ve created a good piece of work,’ she continues. ‘But the reason for doing that work is because you want it to reach people. You want it to communicate and without an audience, it’s an incomplete transaction.’
For the creative industries, the last 18 months have been littered with ‘incomplete transactions’ as COVID regulations limited audience involvement and companies sought new and innovative ways to continue their work.
‘At the time, we were just trying to find ways to maintain connections with people, while still thinking about opera and theatre,’ Tania remarks.
During lockdown, Fat Lady Opera produced Persephone’s Dream at the Cockpit Theatre, with Tania directing. It was a hybrid work, based on the legend of Persephone, featuring live operatic performance, and a 2-D virtual Chorus of Curious Eyes performing in a Zoom grid, which marked the boundary on stage between the living and the dead. At the time of the performance, the theatre was allowed an audience of only 40, so the opera was also filmed and made available online.
With obvious parallels to the lockdown that everyone was experiencing at the time, Persephone’s Dream moves through the different stages of sleep, exploring the purifying power of isolation, as well as its dangers.
‘In the first section, the doors are locked the windows closed, everything is secure, I’m in my house now thank you very much,’ Tania recounts. ‘Then there is an increase in drowsiness, and certainly for me during lockdown, everything seemed to go into a sort of muffled slow motion.
Next, the piece explores the REM dream state through a scene called “Resistance”.
‘It captures the strange hand based strictures that were cropping up, Tania explains. ‘Sing Happy Birthday twice when you wash your hands, clap the NHS, don’t touch your face.’
After that comes “purification”.
‘There is a stage in sleep called “sleep spindles” where the brain is cleaning itself up, Tania says. ‘For me, that was ritual, the idea of acceptance, trying to make a new normal part of our understood world.
‘The final scene is “threshold”, so waking up again and realising that the world has changed and it has become greener. And the audience is left with the question, if you are going to wake up and cross the threshold, do you really want to wake up at all?’
New commissions, new skills Following the success of Persephone’s Dream, Fat Lady Opera received two new commissions – Twelve Points of Tide and A Song for Kent.
These commissions presented a new challenge for Tania who had rarely been commissioned as a composer. And there was still the ongoing COVID restrictions to wrestle with.
Twelve Points of Tideis a mini opera, written by Tania for the cello and for herself as singer. It explores the corrosive and additive qualities of tidal movement, through the eyes of Mona, Minor Goddess of the Silty Waterways.
Mona has a superpower, she can hold back the tide, for a while at least. But as she combs the shore carrying her burdensome haul, her Shipping Forecast itch gets stronger. The piece, which explores guilt and loss and the urge for release, is structured around seven ‘shipping forecasts’ that range across Thames Estuary locations along the Gravesham riverfront.
Shipping Forecast 3: Skimming Skin
Shipping Forecast 4: Fret
You can hear six of the seven Shipping Forecasts and download the libretto here.
‘I’d never really call myself a composer because I don’t think I’ve earned the permission to be called one yet,’ Tania admits. In writing Twelve Points of Tide, I ended up joining a sort of cello mentoring group to learn to write. I feel my knowledge about string writing has definitely come on in leaps and bounds!’
Twelve Points of Tide had it’s debut at the 2021 Estuary Festival, played over the tannoy from LV21 , and with the music available to listen to online. Tania hopes to produce the work as a fully staged opera in November this year.
Song for Kent was commissioned by Sound UK as part of the national Song for Us project , which celebrates lives and communities through music.
Despite, COVID restrictions, Tania saw it as an opportunity to involve the audience, as part of the process, right from the beginning.
‘The brief was to write a song for Kent, based on people’s experiences last year,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make it interesting, relevant and meaningful – a celebration of friendship and kindness against the backdrop of the isolation and solitude brought about by lockdown.
‘I was inspired by the Ram Dass quote, We’re all just walking each other home. If we can be comfortable with the fact that we are solitary entities that make our way through the world then, if we can be gracious and give a wave of encouragement to other entities as we pass them, that’s a life well lived.’
To kick start the songwriting process for Walking Each Other Home, Tania organised a series of group walks along the Kent coast. She also organised ‘companionship telephone calls’ for those unable to join the walks.
‘I just wanted people to get outside again in a space that’s welcoming,’ Tania explains. ‘It was very informal. We chatted and every now and then we stopped to sing. And those that didn’t want to sing just looked around, or took photographs and listened. I made lots of notes about what people said – those really profound and interesting comments, along with the mundane, and I incorporated them into the libretto.’
The content of Walking Each Other Home ranges from the big question – What is the most important thing on a long walk, boots or socks? (Tania says ‘socks’) – to more reflective remarks.
Tania was particularly affected by a telephone conversation where a woman described visiting the sea as ‘standing on the edge’.
‘She told me, it doesn’t sound like a safe place, but it’s not the end, it’s a space for possibility,’ Tania recalls. ‘And I’d been thinking about life as a long journey and that we’re all on the road to ‘the sea’ and it crystallised for me into a section of the song called ‘the parting of the ways’, which is a reflection on loss, and how the rites of grieving have been hammered because we haven’t been able to be with people.’
‘Having the audience there right from the start has given it an interesting and different perspective,’ she continues. ‘As a director, you want to be telling people, this is where we are going and what we’re doing. But actually, not knowing where the piece was going to lead was freeing. And with the process as much part of the final product as the final product itself, it has just been joyous!’
A Song for Kent will be performed live aboard LV21, by RiverVoice Community Choir and Fat Lady Opera Community Chorus, during the Gravesham Waterfront Weekend, on Saturday 7th August 2021, from 2.30 – 3.30pm. A streamed recording will be broadcast at 12.30pm on 11 August 2021 at www.asongforus.org
If you missed the last two blogs you can catch up here and here.
I do apologise to those of you who got an unexpected preview of this blog, yesterday afternoon. I pressed the wrong button. This is the final version!
Shrimpers and Mudlarks For the main part of this blog, we’re back with the Shrimpers on Bawley Bay in Gravesend, but this time virtually and through the medium of dance, captured on film by by dancer/choreographer Daisy Farris and artist Nicola Flower.
During the 19th Century, shrimpers would catch and cook brown shrimps aboard Bawley boats and bring in their hauls to sell at Gravesend market, or at the various family run shrimp merchants around Gravesend at that time.
My Great Aunt Hilda used to work in Warners Shrimp Merchant on Cross Street, near the river in Gravesend, preparing shrimps to sell to tourists in Rosherville Pleasure Gardens.
More than ten years ago, visual artist Nicola Flower, heard about the Bawley Bay Shrimpers and the story stuck with her.
In 2014, Nicola met contemporary dancer, Daisy Farris. The two women had applied, separately, to produce work for IN-SITE, a regeneration project taking place along the Rochester riverside. Both artists were successful and the commissioners paired them up.
The rest is history.
‘We made our first piece together,’ remembers Nicola. ‘And then we just kept coming up with ideas of other things that we might do together.’
Although the women have very different backgrounds, they also have a lot in common.
‘We’re from different artistic disciplines but we’ve both got an interest in each other’s work,’ Nicola continues. ‘So Daisy’s definitely a visual creative artist as well as a dancer and I’m interested in the things that I make as a visual artist coming alive. And we both really like is storytelling. We’re very interested in narrative, but neither of us is overly attached to that narrative being true.’
Although Nicola and Daisy both continue with their own artistic endeavours, they enjoy the support and challenge that comes from their collaboration.
‘Collaboration is so stimulating,’ Nicola says. ‘I’m very excited with my own ideas but I love it when there’s something to butt up against. It takes me out of myself and it makes me think and respond in a different way.’
Their first collaborative work for IN-SITE was a dance performance and installation, She’s Like A Forest Fire…Unstoppable. It championed interesting characters from the Medway area and, in particular, featured a woman known locally as ‘Bluebell’.
Bluebell was an eccentric who, in the 90s, was often seen walking between the Medway towns, dressed entirely in blue.
The production drew on people’s memories of Bluebell and featured oversized blue dresses to capture her essence.
In homage to Bluebell the blue dresses were hung as an installation at Anchorage House, Chatham.
‘Artists can challenge the hierarchy in history and give a voice to people who are not usually thought of as heroes,’ says Daisy. ‘Bluebell was flamboyant, ritualistic and joyous, but she experienced exclusion from society. Through our work, we wanted to celebrate a compelling and universal character and elevate her status.’
Since then, Nicola and Daisy have continued to collaborate on site-specific works, often linked to rivers.
In 2018, they toured their production The Great Thames Disaster performing it in venues on the route that ill-fated passenger paddle steamer, the SSPrincess Alice would have taken along the river.
The SS Princess Alicesunk in 1878, following a collision with a collier ship, TheBywell Castle, near North Woolwich Pier, on the River Thames . It was carrying 700 passengers returning to London after a day at the seaside.
650 men, women and children died in the incident – the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster. The tragedy led to the collapse of the Sheppey tourism industry at that time.
Following the accident, it is reported that a flotsam of male and female apparel covered the surface of the Thames.
As part of her research for the project, Nicola created a large-scale drawing of this on the deck of the generator room, aboard LV21.
It wasn’t until 2018, that Nicola’s idea for a dance performance based around the shrimpers of Bawley Bay and the mudlarks, who scavenged in the Thames for items to sell, started to become a reality.
‘Initially our idea was that this would be a performance with multiple costumes and dancers from Daisy Farris Dance Collective,’ explains Daisy. ‘We were having a very exciting conversation with Päivi Seppälä, co-owner and director of LV21, about producing it for what was going to be SILTings Festival 2020, and then within a month it all stopped because of the pandemic.’
‘Then, later, when the second wave of the pandemic arrived, Päivi told us that although the festival would go ahead in 2021, realistically, we weren’t going to be able to have a number of dancers and we weren’t going to be able to perform in front of an audience,’ Nicola continues. ‘So we started to think about an online alternative, something that has a legacy. We had made a film previously, in 2015, so we decided on that, with the hope that, perhaps, we might revisit the performance as a live event in the future, when we’re allowed to.’
COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing rules made life difficult for all artists. But for Nicola and Daisy, who were collaborating on a project, the effect could have been devastating. Lockdown restrictions made life more difficult – they spent a lot of time on Zoom, which was a lifeline – but there were also liberating factors that in the end, they feel, made their work stronger.
‘Pre-COVID, the outcome of this project would have been very different,’ says Nicola. ‘For me, the creativity we’ve tapped into has been exceptional because of the pandemic.’
‘Although it didn’t feel like it at the start, I think the pandemic was a bit of a blessing in disguise,’ she says. ‘We really honed in on what we as artists wanted out of the project. Sometimes that can end up being pushed to the back because you are committed to having to produce certain outcomes. But because nothing was happening, all expectations went out of the window and we were given more free rein than we’ve ever had before.’
During 2020, Gravesham Borough Council created a series of small grants Make It in Gravesham to support artists to continue to work during lockdown and to stimulate public engagement when public performance and face-to-face, participatory events were not possible.
Nicola and Daisy were successful in receiving some funding through the scheme.
‘That was a real challenge because we suddenly realised that we didn’t know how to do that!’ Daisy laughs. ‘Nicola and I spent hours and hours Zoom together thinking about how to make work. And in the end it was great because we engaged people in ways that we never thought we would and we worked in ways that we never imagined.’
The pair made videos for nursery and primary school children, for LV21’s Think Up cultural education programme, focused on the sensations and movements associated with shrimping and mudlarking on the Thames.
‘In the primary school video, Daisy would do some movements that shrimpers and mudlarks might have done on Bawley Bay – manual work, the playful wrestling actions of the mudlarks – and I would do a drawing showing the children how to draw the shapes that Daisy made,’ Nicola says. ‘Our nursery video tried to recreate the sensations that you might experience on Bawley Bay – so, the sound of pebbles, the movement of heavy objects – using plastic bottles or dropping stones in water. And we also sent illustrated postcards to the elderly communities in care homes and sheltered accommodation, which they returned with written memories of Bawley Bay.’
The artists combined elements of their research into Bawley Bay, with children’s drawings, and the stories and memories of elderly care home residents to inspire and inform their final creative piece.
‘It was a way in to the performance itself,’ explains Nicola. ‘Our projects often start with heritage, but it’s not in-depth heritage. We like a suggestion of heritage, so we draw on snippets of information that could be urban myth, or a memory, or even something half-remembered.’
Building the performance
The Shrimpers and Mudlarks performance was inspired by a photograph from Fishermen from the Kentish Shore by Derek Coombe. It shows a woman standing alone on Bawley Bay looking out to the river from the bank of the Thames. It is the only picture of a woman in the Gravesend section of the book.
‘We are two women making work and we often tend to lean towards the femininity of work,’ Daisy explains. ‘We think the shrimper women were responsible for selling the cooked shrimps when they arrived in the Bay. We thought this kind of job would be messy and tiring and probably a bit smelly, but we wanted to capture a little bit of the vulnerability of the woman alone on a beach through the dance performance.’
Nicola is a textile artist and created the costume for Daisy to wear in the dance performance. It was the first time that she had created a costume specifically for her to perform in.
‘We had a conversation fairly early on about whether we wanted the costume to be a very realistic costume of a late Victorian era, or a modern take on that – and that’s what we’ve gone with,’ Daisy explains.
‘I started to construct a garment very intuitively, from ideas to do with worn and torn, patchwork fabric with layers that you can move in to do a manual job,’ explains Nicola. ‘And then I had an idea that I’d like to make a big cape that was encrusted with pearly shrimps – much more beautiful than she would have had – but a nod to the fact that her whole livelihood was the shrimps.’
[Nicola’s costumes for ‘Shrimpers and Mudlarks]
Nicola drew on the skills of the Gravesham community to embroider the shrimps, and also made an enormous fabric ‘net’ from recycled sari fabrics and scarves donated by members of the Rethink GraveshamSangam group.
Finally after months of working together virtually, at Easter this year, Nicola and Daisy had the chance to spend a week together in St Andrew’s Church in Gravesend, to try out their ideas in practice. It gave them an opportunity to review the project and decide what worked and what did not.
‘You can immerse yourself in the creative process, but there’s a tipping point where you have to have a bit of an honest conversation to see if it is really going the way you want it to,’ Nicola explains. ‘And definitely there was a moment that Daisy and I recognised that less is more and we knew we’d found the “sweet spot”.’
‘That’s where collaboration is really helpful,’ Daisy adds. ‘We started off with a lot of props – we had this big megaphone, we had big shoes, builders’ bags and rope, all of which was trying to get me to move in a way that was evocative of manual labour. But it just takes one of you to be brave enough to say, “I don’t think we need that” and then you begin to see things differently.
‘It’s a lot harder to make those judgements when you are working on your own because you’re too involved in what you’re doing to know what enough is. So we had a conversation towards the end of that week where we agreed to just put the props to one side, to do less, to let the art speak for itself and trust that what we’d brought to it already was enough.’
The final performance, which was filmed on Bawley Bay over a weekend, depicts scenes spanning a day. Daisy dances alone to a specially commissioned score, composed by musician Aleph Aguiar.
In her cape encrusted with pearly shrimps she moves to reveal glimpses of her patchwork dress underneath.
As the day, progresses her demeanour changes from vulnerability to strength, until finally the dancer discards the cape to reveal a giant skirt of patched fabric, which she uses like a heavy shrimping net, laying it out on the shore and then pulling it in.
As the end of the day approaches, lights in her cape and nets evoke the golden glow of shrimps and mudlarking treasure.
The costumes Nicola created for the performance will be on public display at Gravesend Library window throughout Estuary 2021.
The film premiers online on Friday 4th June 2021, and will be screened in various public places over the coming months. But you can see it here!
Inspired by the river, the Gravesham Urban Knitters have made over 50 small knitted fish and 50 miniature knitted boats. These will be exhibited, alongside some of my boat pictures on board LV21 during SILTings (4th to 6th June) and along the quayside on the 12th June.
You might know the Gravesham Urban Knitters from their other projects around Gravesham. These include a knitted 4-foot high model of the Gravesend Clock Tower, and a whole pod of knitted Benny the Whales, when Benny was in Gravesend. They’ve even knitted bikinis for trees!
The group meets at Gravesend market on Thursdays from 10am – noon. If you’d like to join them just turn up or contact them via their Facebook group. Meetings are COVID safe and you’ll be welcome, whether knitting or crocheting is your thing.
At the moment, the group are making flowers to decorate part of the town centre for Blooming Lovely Festival in July.
If you want to give it a try before you commit, or if you just want to have a go, why not go down to the quayside between 11am and 4pm on 12th June, pick up a free craft pack and join Gravesham Urban Knitters in Worldwide Knit in Public Day.
If knitting isn’t your thing, why not join me instead and create your own souvenir postcard using cyanotype printing techniques.