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SILTings: Shrimpers and Mudlarks; Fish and Ships

Duncan Grant: Bawley boat in Bawley Bay
Duncan Grant: Bawley boat in Bawley Bay

This is the third of my blogs about the SILTings creative programme, which runs next weekend (Friday 4th – 6th June 2021) online, aboard LV21  and the surrounding quayside, and at various locations around Gravesend town centre.

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.

Duncan Grant: Warners Shrimp Merchant, Gravesend
Duncan Grant: Warners Shrimp Merchant, Gravesend

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.

Duncan Grant: Shrimpers
Duncan Grant: Shrimpers

‘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.’

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: She's Like A Forest Fire...Unstoppable
She’s Like A Forest Fire…Unstoppable

 

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.’

 

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: She is Like a Forest Fire...Unstoppable
Blue dresses hanging from Chatham’s Anchorage House

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.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: 'The Great Thames Disaster' performed on LV21 ©Gigi Giannella
‘The Great Thames Disaster’ performed on LV21 ©Gigi Giannella

In 2018, they toured their production The Great Thames Disaster performing it in venues on the route that ill-fated passenger paddle steamer, the SS Princess Alice would have taken along the river.

The SS Princess Alice sunk in 1878, following a collision with a collier ship, The Bywell 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.

Nicola Flower: Flotsam
Nicola installing ‘Flotsam’ on LV21

 

 

 

 

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.

You can see a trailer here for The Great Thames Disaster dance performance, which Daisy choreographed and which involved members of her company, Daisy Farris Dance Collective.

Collaborating in a crisis

Mudlarks at Bawley Bay, Gravesend
Mudlarks at Bawley Bay, Gravesend

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.’

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris: Shrimpers and Mudlarks. Research
Exploring ideas: Using props

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.’

Daisy agrees.

‘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 Flower and Dasy Farris: Shrimpers and Mudlarks -illustrated postcards
Illustrated postcards captured memories of Bawley Bay

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.

Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks. Research
Nicola Flower: Capturing movement in drawing

‘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

Woman on Bawley Bay, Gravesend
Woman on Bawley Bay

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.’

Shrimper
Shrimper

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 Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks costume

[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 Gravesham Sangam group.

Nicola Flower and Daisy Farris 'Shrimpers and Mudlarks' Embroidered shrimps

[Embroidered shrimps]

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.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks rehearsal
Rehearsing in St Andrew’s Church

‘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.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: Shrimpers and Mudlarks
Rehearsing in St Andrew’s Church

‘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.

Daisy Farris and Nicola Flower: 'Shrimpers and Mudlarks'. Filming on Bawley Bay
Filming on Bawley Bay

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!

Fish and Ships

Duncan Grant: Boats and Buoys
Duncan Grant: Boats and Buoys

Between 4th and the 12th June, I’ll be gigging alongside the Gravesham Urban Knitters in Fish and Ships as part of the Gravesham Estuary Fringe Festival.

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.

 

Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish and Ships
Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish…

 

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.

Gravesham Urban Knitters: Fish and Ships
Gravesham Urban Knitters: …..and Ships

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.

Further information

Shrimpers and Mudlarks
Aleph Aguiar
Website: alephaguiar.com

Daisy Farris
Website: dfdcollective.co.uk

 

Nicola Flower
Website: nicolaflower.co.uk

 

Fish and Ships

Gravesham Urban Knitters
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/graveshamknitters

Duncan Grant
Website:
http://www.duncangrantartist.com
Gallery:  http://www.duncangrantartist.com/shop

See also my other SILTings blogs SILTings: The Trail of the Blue Porcupine and SILTings: Filaments Art Collective on LV21

Festivals

SILTingshttps://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/

The Estuary Festivalhttps://www.estuaryfestival.com/

Creative Estuary https://www.creativeestuary.com/

 

 

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John Bulley: The ‘mediocre’ painter who created an icon

Visit my gallery
If you’ve ever been to Camden Lock in North London, you’ve almost certainly seen John Bulley’s most famous painting. There’s a good chance that you may even have a picture of yourself standing in front of it. It’s the signage painted on Camden Lock Railway Bridge, which towers over the market.

In the late ’80s, after being thrown out of art college, John was living in Peterborough, working as a designer for Bike magazine. Fed up with that, he decided to move down to London to join some friends who were painting signs for Oddbins wine shops.

‘I started working as a signwriter, painting signs and hoardings all around London, and it was brilliant,’ John remembers. ‘Anyway, someone from Camden must have seen my work because a bloke called Eric Reynolds contacted me and said, I like what you’re doing. Can you do some signs for us?’

John Bulley: London Zoo
John Bulley: London Zoo

The Camden Market redevelopment was surrounded by hoardings at that time, so John painted those, including a massive piece for London Zoo. He also worked on Dingwalls, a music venue, and painted a satirical mural for the Jongleurs comedy club.

‘That was good fun – no holds barred,’ says John. ‘Basically, I took the piss out of royalty, every government bigwig at the time, and the rich and famous. It was pretty radical and they loved it!’

 

John Bulley: mural Jongleurs
John Bulley: Jongleurs mural

One day, among all the other jobs that he was doing around the market, Eric Reynolds asked John if he could come up with an idea for a design for the railway bridge, which was about to be refurbished and repainted by British Rail.

‘It was that simple,’ John recalls. ‘No biggie. British Rail had their scaffolding up. It was just a job on a bridge that needed doing, so I did it.’

After a couple of days, John came up with a design.

‘I wanted to do something a bit different, with a bit of humour in it, that would stand out from a distance,’ he explains. ‘I invented a big fat typeface and chose colours that I thought suited the Camden feel and that would look good against the green background. And I came up with the idea of making it look as if there were two blokes up there painting it, like it would never be finished, and those blokes would always be up there painting away.’

The painters immortalised on the bridge were modelled by John’s mates, Tim and Frankie.

‘I got them to hang off bits of string in the art department where we worked, so I could pose them,’ John remembers. ‘Neither of them was athletic and they were horrified at having to hang around on bits of string. But there they are, up there forever.’

 

And the rest is history. John’s painting has become one of the most photographed in London.

‘It’s become bloody iconic, it’s weird!’ he says. ‘But I suppose it makes sense. If you’re a tourist and you want to show everybody that you’ve been to Camden Lock, you take a photograph of yourself in front of a big fuck off bridge that says Camden Lock on it. And every time they do a bit of promo on Camden Lock, there it is again’.

Over the years, Camden has been approached by advertisers offering huge sums of money to advertise on the bridge but all their advances have been rejected.

‘The bridge is the bridge and it stays that way,’ says John.

Camden Lock Bridge has been repainted once since John’s original job in 1989.

‘A few years ago Camden got in touch with me wanting to know the spec for the colours I’d used,’ he explains. ‘They were going to repaint the bridge exactly as it was. It needed it. It was looking very sad.’

John’s first reaction was indignation.

‘I said, fuck off, it’s my bridge, I’ll paint it,’ he laughs. ‘But they wanted to do it themselves, so in the end I gave them the colours they needed and they repainted it. And they did a pretty good job, I have to admit.’

‘I like to pretend the bridge is no big deal, just another bit of work I did ages ago but in reality I love it to death,’ John admits. ‘I love walking under there knowing it’s all my own work. And I love the kudos it brings me with street artists when I casually drop into conversation “Oh yeah, Camden Lock Bridge, I did that”‘.

John’s creative relationship with Camden has continued over the years. He’s painted other exteriors, and in 2017 he painted murals for Cuban restaurant Gabeto https://www.gabeto.co.uk/. Recently, he was contacted by Camden Town Brewery. They wanted him recreate his original design, to ‘bring a bit of Camden’ into their new brewery in Enfield. John, who owns the copyright for the bridge design, agreed.

‘I used the Brewery’s colours, but kept the Camden Lock lettering and the pictures of the two mates who I’d originally put up there,’ he explains. ‘It looks really nice.’

John Bulley: Oh Piss Off!
John Bulley: Oh piss off!

John now lives in Southend-On-Sea, in Essex, where he pursues his own art. He also accepts commissions and takes other paid jobs. Among other things, he worked on two of the Harry Potter films and the movie Memphis Belle.

Memphis Belle was a dream job for me cos I’m an aeroplane freak,’ John says.

After the film came out, Biggin Hill contacted John to ask if he would repaint the nose art on the Sally B, the original B17 Flying Fortress used in the film.

‘So she’s flying around right now with my artwork on her, which is pretty cool!’ he enthuses. http://www.sallyb.org.uk/ 

Despite his success and his portfolio of work, which often features characters from film or television, John insists that he is not an artist.

‘I hate everything about the art game,’ he says. ‘I loathe the way galleries are like cathedrals with their white walls and there’s all this sacred stuff in them, which you’re not allowed to touch because it is so precious. And I hate arty people standing around clutching their Prosecco pretending to read the art bollocks while sneakily eyeing each other up. Pretentious tossers.’

John Bulley Begbie Trainspotting still
John Bulley: Begbie from Trainspotting

‘I’m the opposite of that. I’m a painter, I mess about with paints,’ he continues. ‘I paint pictures. I copy photographs and I paint bridges. I’m an artisan, not a fine artist.’

John’s disdain of the commercial art world has prompted him to take his art into the community and his paintings are now a familiar sight around Southend.

‘Southend council funds an “official” arts organisation called Metal Culture which controls who can be artists, which leaves nothing for those of us that don’t fit in with their agenda,’ says John. ‘The people at Metal got fed up with me banging on about them getting all the money and called me “mediocre” so I got a tee shirt made with it on and I wear it with pride!’

John Bulley wears his 'mediocre' tee shirt with prideJohn has some sympathy for their opinion of his work.

‘Some of what I do is pretty mediocre,’ he reflects. ‘I’m not making any great claims for it. I paint what I like.’

‘Anyway, I got really fed up with the Arts situation in Southend, so I found an old derelict building and I thought I’d paint that and see if I could get away with it,’ he continues. ‘First, I painted Michael Caine from the film Get Carter and people really liked that, so I though I’d do a gangster theme. I painted the Kray twins, but I did them in their mum’s house set against pink wallpaper having a cup of tea from dainty teacups, and I did Bob Hoskins in Lassiter.’

John Bulley: Derelict gallery
John Bulley: Derelict Gallery

The ‘derelict gallery’ has been knocked down now, but for John that’s just an natural part of the process. ‘Nothing lasts forever and I love the fact that it is temporary’, he says. ‘It gives the work the kind of respect it deserves. And anyway, once you’ve taken a photograph and shared it on Facebook and Instagram and all that, you’ve reached as many people as you’re going to reach. If things get pulled down or painted over don’t be precious about it, do another one.’

‘One day the bridge will come down too,’ he reflects, ‘but for now I’m happy still to be able to wander up the road from the tube station and see it gradually appear over the canal.’

John Bulley: Italian job
John paints on large hoardings around Southend

Now John paints large (8ft x10ft) works and pastes them up on hoardings around Southend.

His work is topical and subtly subversive. ‘I did one of Megan and Harry called One day my prince will come – playing on the idea that a woman needs a handsome prince to be happy – and another one of the Royal Family called Land of Hope and Glory, which of course it isn’t,’ he comments.

John Bulley: One day my prince will come
One day my prince will come

‘I’m quite careful about what I put up around the town. I try to make sure it doesn’t offend. Although I did put up a picture of a homeless person just before Christmas and it was taken down the same day. It’s ironic that people were offended by a picture of a homeless person but not so much by homelessness itself.’

John is a champion of community art. Ten years ago he was one of the founders of  the annual Estuary Fringe Festival https://www.facebook.com/estuaryfringe/ an initiative aimed at giving art back to the community.

 

 

‘Me and my mate were in this cafe one day and I was moaning on as usual about the state of the arts in Southend,’ he recalls. ‘And he said, stop moaning John, and do something about it. So we set up the Festival. The first one was organised in just seven weeks and with no money, which just proves you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds to put on a good festival.’

The Festival features musicians, poets and artists. ‘Basically, we just want to be as anarchic as possible,’ John explains, ‘which we can be of course, because we’re not beholden to anybody.’

And what is John planning for the future?  Well he has some ideas but he’s keeping them under his hat.

‘For now, I’m just chipping away. Trying my best to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be,’ he says. ‘And my bridge is looking a bit sad again now. That could probably do with another coat.’

You can see more of John’s paintings or contact him here: http://www.johnbulley.com/ or on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/theartistjohnbulley/