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Richard Jeferies: Creating artistic communities

Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists: Five of Hearts
Richard Jeferies: Five of Hearts

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
Those of you that know me  know that I’m a big champion of community art. But Richard Jeferies, the artist featured in this blog, has ‘community’ running through him like a stick of rock, which is apt because he does live beside the seaside, in Sheerness on the sunny Isle of Sheppey, on the Kent coast.

Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists - Fun Face Boards
Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists – Fun Face Boards

The Kent art community is pretty well networked and artists from all over bump into one another from time to time. Richard designed a playing card and painted a couple of his ‘fun face boards’ for the launch of my Hand of Artists community arts project in 2015 (click on the link and scroll to the bottom of the blogpost for a slide show). He also contributed to the charity Christmas Card project that I organised in 2019. I turned up for one of his chalk art events, which, unfortunately, was rained off. I’ve also participated in  his online drawing projects.

The coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for all artists, but it must have been particularly difficult for Richard because so much of his art is made with and for other people.

Richard Jeferies: Remembrance mural, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Remembrance mural, Sheerness

If you know the Isle of Sheppey, you will probably be familiar with  Richard’s work, stretching along the coast or dotted around the island. You might also stumble upon his work if you are out shopping in Chatham or taking the kids to school in Gillingham.

‘Some people have said, there can’t be an inch of wall locally I haven’t painted,’ Richard laughs.

 

Richard Jeferies
And if you live on Sheppey, there’s a good chance that you’ll know the man himself.

As well as being a familiar figure around the island with his ‘Artist’ tee shirt and brushes,  Richard has become an integral part of his community.

When he moved to Sheppey from London in the mid-80s, Richard joined the local art group, eventually becoming chairman. He also got involved with the local Little Theatre, painting sets at first and then moving on to acting and directing. Theatre has been a passion of Richard’s ever since, he jokes, he played one of Humpty Dumpty’s soldiers at primary school and was allowed to wear his red and gold trousers to the Christmas party!

‘Acting is another art form for me,’ he says. ‘It’s like drug in a way. You can’t resist it. It draws you in and then you can’t stop doing it,’

Richard Jeferies in John Buchan's The 39 Steps at Medway Little Theatre
Richard Jeferies in ‘The 39 Steps’

In 2014, while he had an art studio in Chatham, Richard auditioned for a role in  a comedy adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps at Medway Little Theatre.

‘In an astounding piece of miscasting, the ruggedly handsome 37-year-old hero, Richard Hannay, turned out to be me in a wig!’ he exclaims. ‘It was so much fun. Very energetic, lots of quick costume changes, slapstick and improvisation.’

Since then, Richard has continued to channel his energies into the community where he lives: designing carnival floats; leading community art projects; entertaining passersby with his window displays at Christmas; and even DJ’ing on Sheppey FM for a while.

 Battle of Britain Lace, Healthy Living Centre, Isle of Sheppey
Sheppey’s Battle of Britain Lace

Community art workshops
Richard has no formal art training. He started painting as a child alongside his father who painted in oils and, when he left school, trained to be a draughtsman, which is how he still earns his living today.

Although, like most artists, Richard says he would give up his day job if the right art project came along, he believes that his day job and his work as an artist are complementary.

‘It’s great because I draw as a hobby and I draw as a profession,’ Richard explains. ‘My professional knowledge of perspective and scale and even just laying out a page feeds into my art, and the art feeds back into my technical drawings, in that I know when a drawing is telling the right information.’

In the early 2000s, as a result of contacts through the local art group, Richard became involved in a project to commemorate the Battle of Britain. It was inspired by the ‘Battle of Britain lace’ which hangs in the Sheppey Healthy Living Centre. The lace is one of  38 commemorative laces made by Nottingham lace-making company, Dobson and Browne, in the mid-40s. Laces were presented to  those whose invaluable contributions to winning the Battle of Britain hastened the end of the War.

Sheppey: Battle of Britain Lace art project
Battle of Britain Lace art project

‘We came up with the idea of photographing the lace, breaking the photograph down into individual squares and then getting as many members of the public as possible to recreate that square in their own style and in colour, rather than in the black and white of the lace,’ Richard recalls. ‘It was a resounding success. Lots of people of all ages got involved and, for many, it opened their eyes to things that they might never have had the chance to do before.’

Art classes
Art classes

 

The finished work, comprising two hundred individually designed squares, was laid out on the tennis courts  at the Healthy Living Centre,  where it could be viewed by the public from the upper gallery.  

The interest and enthusiasm the project generated, led the council to fund some evening art classes for beginners, and some creative workshops, around the Battle of Britain, drawing on local knowledge about the Second World War. Richard led these sessions and then, subsequently, a series of 10-week community art courses. And although he really enjoyed teaching, artistically it was a steep learning curve for him.

‘I had to learn techniques in so many media,’ Richard says. ‘Everything from drawing, watercolour, acrylics, pastels, oils, even egg tempera – where you mix ground pigment with egg yolk, as Michelangelo did when he painted the Sistine Chapel.’

Richard Jeferies: Art classes
Art classes

But it was worth it.

Richard loved it when novice artists found a medium they loved and were inspired to continue their creative journey.

‘Some members of those early classes have gone on to have artistic success of their own, and I’d like to think I’ve encouraged them slightly,’ he says.

Richard remembers, in particular, one man who came to classes with his wife.

Community Art: Beachfields, Sheerness
Community art project at Beachfields, Sheerness

 

‘It was clear that he was just there to keep his wife company,’ Richard says. ‘He didn’t really join in. Until one day, everyone had a small canvasses and some oils. And during that evening, I noticed that people were leaving their desks and wandering over to see what this man was doing. And he was having the time of his life creating this fantastic sunset using a palette knife. The next week, his wife took me to one side and said, “Thank you for that. It has cost me a fortune. After that class, we went out and bought all the materials and he hasn’t stopped since!”

Community Art Project at Beachfields, Sheerness
Community art project at Beachfields, Sheerness

 

 

‘And I thought, that’s exactly what it is. You can’t teach art per se. Art is an expression, it’s heart not mind.  What I can teach is how to use the media, but in the end the spark comes from the individual.’

The arts funding that made those initial workshops so inclusive is no longer available and Richard is concerned that the introduction of fees for art classes excludes many people from opportunities to be creative.

‘At that time we were able to offer workshops for free. Now you have to charge people £20 a time, and you need at least 20 people in a class to cover the overheads, and many people just can’t afford that,’ Richard reflects. ‘That goes directly against what I try to achieve, which is opening up art to people who would not normally have had the opportunity to have that creative experience. So now I try to do that, whenever I can, through my public art projects.’

Public art projects

Preparing for the mural: Chatham High Street
Preparing for the mural

Richard’s first big public art commission came in 2013. The local council put out a tender for a mural to be painted on some hoardings, owned by the Emmaus Church, on Chatham High Street, . Richard’s winning idea was to use the space to portray Chatham past, present and future.

Mural Chatham High Street: Tiny clay bricks
Tiny clay bricks

‘But I didn’t want to say, this is the mural you’re going to have, I wanted to include local stories and even to get local people involved in the painting,’ Richard explains. ‘And as we were working, we had people rolling up and saying, that looks fun, I wish I could join in, and I’d say, well here’s a brush and some paint, off you go!

‘And as I was painting I thought, maybe we could include some of the local people out shopping in the mural. So as people were passing I asked, would you like me to put your picture up there, or perhaps you’d even like to paint it yourself?  By the time we got to the end, one panel had become six panels and we had 250 faces!

Richard Jeferies: Chatham High Street Mural
Chatham High Street Mural

‘Hundreds of people were involved in that project – young offenders who helped us with the base coat and 150 children who contributed paintings or messages on tiny clay bricks,  as well as other artists and the general public. And that, for me highlighted the whole success of the project. And it was what really gave me the buzz for public art projects.’

Richard Jeferies: Chatham High Street Mural
Chatham High Street Mural

 

 

 

Inspired by the success of the Chatham Mural Project, Richard decided to try to make a go of it as a professional artist.

He rented a Studio at Sun Pier in Chatham and set up Squarecube Artisans.  (The name came from a project where Richard decorated a foam board cube in a different way each day, which earned him the name ‘Squbie’ among his son’s friends.) But although Richard continued to be offered commissions, there was never enough work to enable him to give up his day job.

‘What I really needed was an agent,’ Richard says. ‘ I hate chasing work down and I hate forms. I just want to do the painting stuff.’

Medway FUSE Festival: Frankenstein's monster
Frankenstein’s monster

Despite not making it as a professional artist, public art commissions have continued to come in over the years and Richard has remained true to his principles in their execution.

‘There’s a large community of  artists locally and so I always ask them if they want to join in,’ he explains. ‘I’m not precious about it and I’m not here to take the credit for everything. I like other people to be involved.’

Following the success of the Chatham High Street mural, Richard took part in the Medway FUSE Festival for a couple of years.  One year, working with other artists, he created  larger-than-life cut-out characters to line the Chatham High Street. These figures proved more popular than their creators imagined.

‘The Frankenstein’s Monster cut-out, designed and painted by artist Riven Gray, was stolen that day and was apparently last seen on a train heading for London!’ Richard laughs.

Richard Jeferies: Pavement Art
Richard Jeferies: Pavement Art

Other community projects followed, such as annual pavement art events along the long sea wall on Sheppey, involving both local artists and the public.

In 2019, Richard was commissioned to restore a poem written by Ros Barber. It had been painted by Simon Barker, fourteen years previously, onto the risers of the massive concrete steps on Sheerness sea wall,  as part of the Four Shores project.  The poem, which faces out to sea, recalls a ship carrying explosives that was sunk there.

Four Shores Project, Sheerness: Restoring Ros Barber's poem
Restoring Ros Barber’s poem

‘The action of the salt water and sand movement had eroded it,’ Richard explains, ‘So I repainted the whole poem which, in many cases, involved recreating the text from scratch and even repositioning some lines, because sand movement had covered the original locations.’

The pandemic strikes
In 2020, all public involvement in public art events stopped because of the pandemic.

‘Last year was a real bummer,’ says Richard. ‘ We had four or five projects that we were hoping to kick off with and they would all have been community projects but, because the money had been allocated in the local council budgets,  I ended up doing them either by myself or with just one other artist.’

Richard Jeferies: Bee Road mural, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Bee Road mural

Working alone outside can have its disadvantages. As he started work on a mural of a giant bumble bee on the sea wall at Beachfields. Richard was approached by the police.

‘I was engrossed in my work when a police car pulled up and an officer told me they had received a report of someone drawing graffiti on the wall,’ Richard remembers. ‘ Luckily I had all the correct permits, so they went away smiling.’

The twelve foot high mural, which took Richard three days to complete, signals  the start of the ‘Bee Road’ at Barton’ Point Costal Park, as part of the Making a Buzz for the Coast run by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The route is marked by smaller bees along the way.

Richard Jeferies: Fighting Temeraire mural Sheppey
Richard Jeferies: Fighting Temeraire mural

Minster Parish Council also commissioned Richard to recreate JMW Turner’s famous painting  The Fighting Temeraire on the sea wall. The original vessel,  after fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar,  was towed up the Thames  by a paddle steam tug , before being broken up for scrap in Rotherhithe. Turner, who was a regular visitor to Sheppey, painted his original masterpiece there.

Richard Jeferies: Alice Maze
Richard Jeferies: Alice Maze

 

 

 

Other lockdown projects have included painting  a set of concrete steps in descending tones of the rainbow, to make them more  visible to people with sight loss, and an ‘Alice Maze’ for children, on the seafront, inspired by the original Tenniel illustrations .

Unfortunately, the maze was later removed by the council.

Richard Jeferies: Rainbow steps, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Rainbow steps

‘It was a great tragedy that, having devised and painted a fun, interactive floor mural for children to enjoy, it had to be removed because someone thought a children’s play zone was a good place to ride his bike,’ Richard says sadly.  ‘So when the cyclist slipped over, he decided to claim against the council and the maze had to be power washed away to prevent further “slippery when wet” incidents.’

Drawing projects
When Richard is not working or painting, you’ll find him at home, drawing or making things.

‘I go through phases,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I can’t think of anything to draw so I’ll start making something. Then, when I’ve got no inspiration for making something, I’ll start drawing again. It means there is always an outlet if I really need it. And of course there are days when you have so many ideas, you do nothing!’

Richard Jeferies: #gothonmykeyboard
Richard Jeferies: #gothonmykeyboard

The days that Richard does nothing must be few and far between. Once, when he was bored at work, he drew a small ‘goth’ on a Post-it note,  stuck it on his computer keyboard and posted it on Facebook and tagged it #gothonmykeyboard.

‘The next day I had another idea and she became a recurring theme,’ Richard explains. ‘Sometimes she was just a silly cartoon and sometimes she might have a message. I found that she could say things  that I wanted to say and people responded to her. She became the voice of inclusivity.’

Richard Jeferies: Goth on my keybord says:
Richard Jeferies: Goth on my keybord says:

 

 

Later, when Richard came across the charity SOPHIE (Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere) set up in memory of Sophie Lancaster, who was murdered  in Lancashire in 2007 for being a goth, he published a fundraising book for the charity, featuring a collection of his #gothonmykeyboard cartoons, along with poems by Jaye Nolan and Alison Eley.

‘People suggested that my goth character would be good for that,’ he says.  ‘She never came down hard on anyone.’

Richard Jeferies: Colouring sheets
Colouring sheets

During lockdown, last year, Richard featured another character, Luna the Librarian, in a series of free colouring sheets for children, published via Facebook.  Luna made her debut in a mural that Richard painted on a boarded up window at Sheerness Library.

Richard Jeferies: Luna the Librarian
Luna’s first outing

‘One of their large plate glass windows had been smashed and was boarded up awaiting repair,’ Richard remembers. ‘Having walked past it  for several weeks and seen the boards still there I asked the library if I could paint it. They agreed and until the glass was fixed, Luna was on show.

‘Because of that project, I was commissioned to paint another mural in the children’s area of the library.

‘The colouring sheets were just my little bit of something I could do in the first lockdown, a) to keep myself sane and b) to help other people. I ended up producing nearly one a day,  almost 50 in all. Some of them were exhibited at The Beaney Art Gallery in Canterbury as part of their Life in Lockdown exhibition.’

Richard has also illustrated a book for an ADHD charity, ADHD Awesome which was published this year and is now raising funds via Kickstarter for an adult colouring book of ‘saucy seaside postcard style drawings’ featuring Instagram model @SunnyToni85.

Richard Jeferies: Terry Pratchett frame
Richard Jeferies: Terry Pratchett frame

Making models
In 2009, as a challenge to improve his inking skills and develop positive drawing habits, Jake Parker created Inktober.  Each day in October, artists were given a single prompt word as a stimulus for a drawing.

Richard was inspired by the idea and helped found a Facebook Group called Drawing Days, where members – including me – followed a word prompt each day and uploaded our themed drawings.

Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar window
Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar window

The daily drawing format has since been picked up by all kinds of groups and each year the Discworld forum, one of the forums of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, issues daily Terry Pratchett themed prompt words for Disc-tober.

In 2020, Richard, a great fan of Terry Pratchett and his books, decided to challenge himself to make a model, related to the prompt word every day. He then arranged the whole set of models in a tiny handmade room – a library containing all Pratchett’s books.

Tiny rooms had featured in Richard’s work before.

Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar attic
Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar attic

 

 

During December 2018, he transformed the front window of his house into a giant advent calendar, adding one themed room each day. There was a library, a 60s themed room, a kitchen, a Terry Pratchett room, and an observatory, complete with a telescope to commemorate the late astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who Richard once met while on a visit to the Herstmonceux Observatory in East Sussex.

‘He was as eccentric in real life as he came across on the screen,’ Richard recalls.

‘He was filming a show and I asked him for an autograph. He agreed, reached into his left pocket for a pen and came out with a pair of glasses. So he reached into his right pocket and came out with another pair of glasses. He held them both and said, “Oh, I was looking for them!’

Richard Jeferies: Kite
Richard Jeferies: Kite

Everything in each room in Richard’s advent calendar was handmade. The final piece to be added was an attic containing ‘old computers and all the usual paraphernalia you’d probably find in your own house’.

‘It was great fun to do,’ says Richard. ‘And it certainly created a lot of interest, especially with youngsters and their parents on the school run.

 

 

Recently Richard has been experimenting with making models out of tin foil using scrap cans collected  from his local beach.

Richard Jeferies: Hare
Richard Jeferies: Hare

‘I just had a feeling that I could make something out of tin cans and feathers seemed the easiest, so I made a kite which I’ve got in my garden,’ Richard says. ‘I’m now building a hare, also out of tin cans, for my mum, because she wants that for my Dad’s memorial grave. And a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the owner of a local holiday park. He saw the kite and wants me to do a tin can sculpture for him, to promote recycling.’

Just before lockdown, Richard completed a painted ‘Elmer the Elephant’ to go into Elmer’s Bog Heart of Kent Parade to raise funds for the Heart of Kent hospice. The parade was to have taken place last summer, but has been postponed until this June because of the pandemic.

For the future, Richard is just looking forward to the end of lockdown so that he can continue with his community art projects.

‘My art is no different from thousands of other artists,’ he says. ‘I create stuff that somebody else can easily do. But if I can inspire somebody who didn’t necessarily think they could do it to do art, I consider that a resounding success.’

You can find out more and follow Richard on:
Facebook:  www.facebook.com/SquarecubeArtisans 
Instagram:  #gothonmykeyboard  
Website:
http://squarecubeartisans.co.uk/
Kickstarter ‘Saucy Toni Colouring Book: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/squarecubeartisans/saucy-toni-colouring-book

 

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Wendy Daws: A touching story

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

My mum has been on my mind a lot lately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totally Touchable exhibition, Blake Gallery
Totally touchable art

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

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

Memory blankets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensing Culture. Image courtesy of The Beaney
©The Beaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Daws: THE MESS ROOM My Self project
My Self

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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