My mum has been on my mind a lot lately.
She has just returned home having spent weeks in hospital and then rehab, after she fell over and broke her hip. We’re now thinking through what needs to be in place for her so that she can continue to live independently into her nineties.
Before her accident, during the lockdown, we used to joke with mum that she had been socially isolating for the last ten years! And, actually, that’s not far from the truth. Macular degeneration has left her with very little vision and that, along with poor hearing, makes it difficult for her to recognise faces and to follow conversation in social spaces. So, she prefers to stay at home listening to her audio books and receiving the occasional visitor.
The isolation that some people with sight loss experience is something that Medway-based artist Wendy Daws has been thinking about for a long time. For nearly 15 years, Wendy has been working with groups of blind and partially sighted (BPS) people, as Lead Artist Volunteer for Kent Association for the Blind (KAB). https://www.kab.org.uk/ KAB is celebrating its centenary this year.
Wendy runs art groups in Medway https://www.facebook.com/KABmedwayartgroup/ and Gravesend https://www.facebook.com/KABGravesendArtGroup/ and before lockdown, was about to start a third group in Canterbury.
Discovering the value of touch
By training, Wendy is a sculptor. She grew up in Hoo in Kent, and after leaving school at 16, worked in a series of admin jobs, taking City & Guilds courses at night school. Uninspired by classes in book-keeping and shorthand, Wendy switched to pottery and sugar craft instead and then, aged 29, she left work altogether to go travelling. When she arrived back in the UK ten months later, Wendy was ready for a change.
‘I was determined not to go back into admin work,’ she remembers. ‘I wanted to do something more creative and be my own boss. I did a City & Guilds welding course and doing that convinced me that I just wanted to learn more.’
In 2003, after what she refers to as ‘three mad years hoovering up art courses and being very skint’, Wendy got a place at the University of Brighton to study for a degree in Three Dimensional Craft and Design. And in her 2nd year, she took an artist residency at Nagoya University of Fine Art in Japan.
‘I wanted to go to Japan because I was interested in Samurai armour,’ she explains. ‘I wanted to know how it was made, how all the elements are held together.’
While she was there, Wendy learnt an etching process, in which an image is transferred onto a copper plate and then put into acid, to leave a raised outline. It was a seminal experience for her.
‘I became really interested in the potential of that raised, tactile line,’ Wendy says. ‘It brought back memories of when I was about 14, on a school trip to the National Gallery. I was drawn to a luscious red cloak in one of the paintings. I remember reaching out my hand to touch it and being told off by one of the guards. And it got me thinking about how we’re not allowed to touch things in museums and art galleries – and I completely understand why we can’t – but I wondered, what if you’re blind, what is there in galleries for blind people?’
Back at university, Wendy developed the etching techniques she learnt in Japan and started to use them in her sculptures. She describes how she started to make miniature ‘blankets’ from little pieces of copper stitched together on latex.
‘They were quite tactile but they had holes in them, so you’d never be warm, you’d never be cosy,’ Wendy explains. ‘I lost my mum when I was 20 and, in hindsight, I think I was somehow trying to recreate a hug from her. Something to wrap myself up in.’
Another key influence on Wendy’s art at this time was the work of South African artist, Willem Boshoff, whose exhibition Blind Alphabet C was held at the Brighton and Hove Museum. https://www.willemboshoff.com/blind-alphabet-feature It was groundbreaking show, designed to improve the accessibility of museums and art galleries to people with sight loss, and to help redress the discrimination they experience.
Boshoff’s exhibition featured a series of lidded, black mesh shoeboxes, mounted on plinths. Inside each box was a carved wooden sculpture, inspired by an unusual word beginning with the letter ‘C’. For example, ‘cassidiform’, which means ‘helmet-like’ and cetacian , which means ‘whalelike’. The mesh box prevented fully sighted visitors seeing the contents. At best they might be able to make out blurred shapes. Detailed explanations of the contents were provided, but they were written in Braille. To appreciate the exhibits, sighted visitors had to rely on visually impaired guides and museum staff , who were on hand to help them.
The intention of the exhibition was to give sighted people an insight into how difficult it is for those with sight loss to appreciate public art. It also aimed to promote understanding of the ‘social model of disability’, where people are disabled by the barriers that society puts in their way, and to prompt discussions about how these barriers might be broken down.
‘I was absolutely gobsmacked by the exhibition,’ Wendy remembers. ‘It just embodied everything I’d been thinking about.’
So ignoring her tutor’s suggestion to explore Samurai armour from a feminine perspective in her dissertation, Wendy wrote about her new passion – the value of touch in art. Her dissertation, The Value of Touch: Blind Alphabet C and Museum Approaches to the visually impaired visitor was published in 2004.
‘What I took away from my time at university, was a determination that any art that I made would be art that could be touched,’ Wendy remarks. ‘And if it can’t be touched, I’ll think, how can I make it accessible?’
After university, Wendy took a part-time job in Francis Iles’ art shop in Rochester, Kent https://francis-iles.com/ where she got to meet other local artists.
Now sharing a studio with illustrator Mark Barnes, https://www.facebook.com/MarkBarnesIllustration/ Wendy returned to etching, replacing the expensive copper etching technique she had used previously, with a cheaper alternative, using photocopied images on acetate.
‘I really liked the acetate with the black line, and just holding it up to the light to see the shadows it created,’ Wendy remembers. ‘So I went through lots of family photos and traced the outlines and started doing this shadow work with laser-cut clear acrylic. I’d then sew those together, in grids, in the same way that you’d make Samurai armour, except mine had gaps.
‘You can’t see the shadow line until it is lit and then it is quite striking. The depth of it makes it look as if the photographic outlines have been drawn onto the wall with a pencil. And through studying the projected images, other people could discover stories of my family’s life.’
Wendy’s ‘memory blanket’ installation Memory was exhibited at Rochester Art Gallery, in 2008. This video combines time lapse and real time footage that documents the process. https://vimeo.com/15401562 The exhibition was a success but Wendy had begun to think about her future as an artist.
‘I was really nervous about describing the detail of my memory blankets in writing because it was so personal, but I was happy to talk to people about it,’ Wendy explains. ‘So I was in the gallery a lot talking to people about my work, and there was this realisation that I didn’t just want to sell my own art, I also wanted to help others to make art.’
KAB Medway Art Group
It was about this time that Wendy started volunteering for Kent Association for the Blind and established the KAB Medway Art Group. The group, which meets regularly, attracts people with a range of visual impairments. They explore a variety of art forms – painting, sculpture, poetry, graffiti, print making – using different generic and specialist materials and techniques. They also visit exhibitions together, invite inspirational speakers and get involved in high-profile group art projects.
You don’t need to be ‘arty’ to join in. Wendy starts everyone off gently, providing a cup of tea and a biscuit, sitting new members next to a ‘buddy’, and selecting materials and tasks where they are likely to succeed. In this way, she gradually integrates them into the group and builds their confidence.
When someone joins the group with existing artistic skills or transferrable practical skills, Wendy is quick to build on them. She tells of how she encouraged one man, a former gas fitter, to use his welding skills to make copper pipe sculptures. A few years on, he is still a member of the art group, but he is also a successful sculptor, selling artwork created in his shed at home.
‘Over time I’ve seen everyone’s confidence grow,’ Wendy says. ‘Everyone is happy to pick up different materials and to try out different ways of using them – and to show me other ways of creating.’
‘[It has] opened the door to new ways of expressing ourselves – be it painting, poetry or music,’ says KAB Medway group member Brian. ‘Our first reactions have been “I can’t do that.” But thanks to the dedication of the artists involved we have found that we can do that… If you cannot paint small, paint large – use a 6” brush if need be!’
In 2010, keen to show off what the group could do, Wendy organised their first art exhibition Eyes Wide Open at Rochester Cathedral. They were given free rein to explore the cathedral in any way they chose. The artwork they created, inspired by their visit, was later displayed around the cathedral.
Following that exhibition, Wendy and the group received a commission to create a bronze tactile interpretation of Rochester Cathedral’s Baptismal Fresco by Sergei Fyodorov. The fresco, completed in 2004, was the first traditional fresco to be painted in an English church in eight hundred years. https://www.artandchristianity.org/sergei-fyodorov-st-john-the-baptists-frescoes
‘We ran workshops and studied the fresco to come up with ideas about what this tactile plate should look like,’ says Wendy. ‘Then I carved the fresco plate in clay, A2 size, and it was cast in bronze. And there it is, in front of the fresco, and it will be there forever more!’
By 2015, the KAB Medway Group had begun to get quite a name for themselves. They were invited to explore and respond artistically to the space at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham https://www.re-museum.co.uk/ This too culminated with an exhibition at the museum called Through Our Eyes.
In 2016, Wendy and the group took part in The Value of Touch, a collaborative sensory arts project with the Guildhall Museum in Rochester https://www.visitmedway.org/attractions/rochester-guildhall-museum-2132/ . This explored ways to make selected museum artefacts more accessible to BPS visitors.
After a series of object handling sessions led by one of the museum’s Collections Officers, the group created new artworks inspired by those objects. These were then displayed alongside the original artefacts, with accompanying large print and Braille guides.
That exhibition received more than 400,000 visitors in person and online.
The unprecedented access to the museum exhibits had a profound effect on those involved in the project.
‘The whole project from the very beginning has been a wonderful discovery of the museum,’ one KAB Art Group member commented in the project report. ‘It’s been a privilege to have access to absolutely anything in the museum, we’ve only had to ask and we’ve been able to touch it, smell it, engage with all our senses, and this has led to such a rich exhibition for us.’
KAB Gravesend Art Group
As news of KAB Medway Art Group’s success spread, it prompted interest from BPS people in other parts of the county.
‘Some people from Gravesend said, “Hey that’s not fair! We want an Art Group too,”’ Wendy laughs. ‘But I couldn’t afford to volunteer in two towns so, together with Gravesham Borough Council, I wrote an Arts Council bid and we got some funding to do Totally Touchable, and that was the start of the KAB Gravesend Art Group.’
Totally Touchable (2016) was an exhibition that gave the KAB Gravesend Art Group an opportunity to show the public their own ways of making art. The group offered guided tours to sighted visitors, who were invited to wear ‘simulated spectacles’ or ‘sim specs’ so that they could view and handle the exhibits through the eyes of the people who created them. You can hear from some of the artists and enjoy some of their artwork in this short video. https://vimeo.com/144599869
KAB Gravesend Art Group too has gone from strength to strength.
There is a statue of Pocahontas https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocahontas in the grounds of St George’s Church in Gravesend. In 2016, one year before the 400th anniversary of her death, KAB Gravesend Art Group collaborated with professional opera singer Tania Holland Williams and the RiverVoice community choir to present Reaching Out, an art exhibition and musical performance inspired by Pocahontas. This short video captures the project and the performance. https://vimeo.com/175844855
In 2017, Wendy was commissioned to create two bronze tactile interpretation panels of the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee commemorative statue in Gravesend market. As usual, she used the expertise of the Gravesend art group to help come up with the design.
‘I always try to find a way to include those often unheard in voices in whatever I’m doing,’ Wendy explains. ‘We visited the market when it was quiet and took moulds from the statue. We cast them in plaster and then the group decided what should be included in the bronze plaque, including the Braille that is part of it.’
In 2018, Wendy applied for a commission to work with the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, Kent https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/beaney/ as part of an HLF/RNIB funded project, Sensing Culture.
‘I was really keen to get involved with this project because it was everything my dissertation was about,’ Wendy enthuses.‘ It was about how to make the Beaney collections more accessible to BPS visitors, and by default, to all visitors.’
Out of that project, a third group, KAB Canterbury Art Group was born.
Highlights of the Sensing Culture project and information about how galleries and museums can be made more accessible to visitors with sight loss can be found on the website http://www.sensingculture.org.uk/.
The MESS ROOM
Wendy now shares a studio at Sun Pier House, in Chatham, with fellow artist Christopher Sacre http://christophersacre.com/website/Home.html and together, they have created the MESS ROOM, a not-for-profit organisation hosting artist-led projects, in partnership with local communities. http://www.messroom.org.uk/
‘Throughout my time working with blind and partially sighted people, I’ve always strived for us to have our own space, a studio where we can make a mess and leave our work here if we want to, instead of just being creative for two hours and then switching it off again,’ Wendy explains. ‘The MESS ROOM allows us to do just that.’
While Wendy’s experience is with the BPS community, Christopher, who is deaf himself, specialises in working people with hearing loss. Last year, both communities collaborated on an art project exploring their experiences and identities, called My Self . The project and the exhibition of artwork, held at Sun Pier House, is documented in this short video. https://vimeo.com/373089157
Having her own studio at Sun Pier House has provided the space and opportunity Wendy needs to concentrate once again on her own career as an artist.
‘I get so embedded in finding opportunities for the groups, that my own artwork gets put to one side, so the aim in the future is that I do make more artwork for myself,’ she says.
The MESS ROOM has also provided space for the group workshops to evolve. Wendy and Christopher have started a new inclusive open arts day, Peer Arts, which, before lockdown, met every Friday at the MESS ROOM.
‘Peer Arts is a model of how things could happen,’ Wendy explains. ‘The only qualifying factor for coming to Peer Arts, is that you are a human. We want it to be completely inclusive. Absolutely anyone can join in. It’s a very relaxed day, and I plan to include this group too in other art projects that I do.’
Creativity in a time of coronavirus
The C-19 lockdown has brought a temporary end to Wendy’s group art activities, but not an end to her drive and creativity. She now has a new lockdown project Out of Sight Not Out of Mind, running in Gravesend, Medway and Canterbury. It is aimed at people with sight loss, and all generations will be invited to create artworks at home.
‘It’s a doorstep gallery,’ Wendy explains. ‘I’ll set up a Zoom account and contact everybody about making new artwork at home. If I need to take materials to them and give them a quick demo at the end of their path, I can do that. At the end of their making, I’ll take a picture of them on their doorstep or through their window, holding their artwork. And then, later in the year, when the lockdown is lifted, we’ll have local physical exhibitions of the artworks.’
Wendy is also involved in two other projects at the moment and, if you want, you can get involved too.
She is now running workshops for the Creative Estuary team, on a theme of The Water Replies. https://creativeestuary.com/the-water-replies/ In this project, everyone living along the Thames Estuary is invited to keep a creative journal about what, for them, life is like living beside the Thames. There is no set format – journals can be completed with words, photos, drawings, collage, poetry, prose, lyrics and thoughts. There is still time to join in. So, if you would like to create your own journal, email email@example.com and they will send you a blank journal, free of charge.
To inspire you, here is one created by Norma, which Wendy Shared on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wendydawsart/videos/273768104042753/
And Wendy is also part of the creative team for the Fat Lady Opera’s current project ‘Persephone’s Dream’, a digital/live hybrid opera that tells a story of withdrawal from the world. More details of how you can get involved in this project can be found on their website: https://www.fatladyopera.com/persephone-s-dream
You can follow Wendy her activities and her groups and projects on social media
THE MESS ROOM
Address: Ground Floor, Sun Pier House, Medway Street, Chatham, Kent, ME4 4HF
KAB Medway and Gravesend Art Groups