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.
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 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.
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.
Collaborating in a crisis
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 Gravesham Sangam 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!
Fish and Ships
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.
Shrimpers and Mudlarks
Fish and Ships
Gravesham Urban Knitters
SILTings – https://lv21.co.uk/projects/siltings/
The Estuary Festival – https://www.estuaryfestival.com/
Creative Estuary – https://www.creativeestuary.com/