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Tania Holland Williams: Changing the Shape of Opera

Imagine you are standing on a street in your town. What would it take for you to feel that you were in the presence of opera, that you had suddenly stepped into an opera house?

Fat Lady Opera: The Invisible Opera House - Nightwatchers
The Invisible Opera House – NightWatchers

It was this question that Tania Holland Williams, founder of Fat Lady Opera, asked the people of Folkestone in 2019, as part of her company’s first commissioned project The Invisible Opera House.

Have a think about it. We’ll come back to it later.

Early influences
Tania grew up and went to school in Folkestone. As a small child, she fell in love with music and the theatre. Her father was ‘a mad keen rock and roll addict’, and Tania was introduced to classical music by two inspirational people – her school music teacher and her classical guitar teacher.

‘I had one of the most eclectic teenage record collections,’ she laughs. ‘My first album was Morricone’s Fistful of Dollars. And while I still loved Abba and all the pop stuff, I also had Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.’

Tania Holland Williams ©Brian Slater
Tania Holland Williams ©Brian Slater

While she was still at school, Tania joined FHODS – the Folkestone and Hythe Operatic and Dramatic Society. She loved the sense of belonging that she felt with her new theatrical family. And when she left school, to her parents’ horror, she took a degree in Clowning and Performance at Middlesex University, singing in jazz clubs at night.

It was Tania’s singing teacher who first suggested that she should audition for the Royal College of Music Opera School. She went along and was offered a postgraduate place. Suddenly Tania was on track for a career in opera.

‘With my background in clowning, I found opera a bit puzzling when I first started working in it,’ Tania admits. ‘I discovered that opera likes to put up quite a lot of barriers. It’s got this weight of heritage of the right and wrong way of doing something. If you do a Mozart opera, you’ve got several hundred years of people who’ve done it before telling you how it should be done.’

Germany and the Grand Tour
After  graduating from the Opera School, Tania was awarded a scholarship to study opera in Munich.

‘My dad, who is Austrian, was in the army, and we’d lived in Germany for a while when I was first born,’ Tania explains. ‘My Gran spoke Austrian dialect German, so I felt  an affinity with the German language and I’d always wanted to go back there. Then when I was there, it just seemed like a really great place to do opera. There’s an opera house in every town and there’s an appetite for opera that there just isn’t in the UK.’

Tania Holland Williams
Tania Holland Williams

After she completed her course in Munich, Tania joined the company at the Opera House in Weisbaden. She felt at home immediately.

‘Like at FHODS, the opera company became like my family,’ she says. ‘It was just what I’d been looking for. They had some amazing guest directors. And I really felt I was learning my craft.’

After three years with the company,  both Tania’s singing teacher and conductor, Jonathan Nott,  whom she’d been working with, advised her to move on to broaden her experience.

‘They said it was time for me to get going, basically,’ Tania remembers. ‘So I did move on, but I don’t think I went in the direction that perhaps I should have done, or that they thought I was going to!’

While she was studying in Munich, Tania met  Canadian artist Bonnie Bews and they had became good friends.

‘We’d had this idea of touring for years,’ Tania explains. ‘Bonnie paints beautiful Arthur Rackham-style  pictures on glass, and I’d recorded an album of British songs by Vaughn Williams and Britten, so we decided to tour Canada and Europe together. We knew we’d never make any money from ticket sales, so we decided to sell Bonnie’s paintings, and agreed a cut.’

The tour lasted two-and-a half years. Tania returned to the UK afterwards, exhausted vocally and physically, and in need of a job.

Tania Holland Williams
Tania Holland Williams

Back home
‘When I came back to the UK, I landed with a bit of a bump,’ Tania says. ‘Because I’d been working since I left college, I assumed that I’d walk straight into something reasonably well-paid. But all my connections had moved on. And it took me several years to re-find a way back into opera.’

Eventually, Tania began touring with small-scale opera companies, earning extra money singing oratorios. But after the richness of her experience in Germany, she found the repertoire predictable and uninspiring. And although the oratorios paid well, it wasn’t the opera she craved.

‘I began asking myself what I was doing it all for,’ Tania says. ‘I felt like I’d taken risk after risk with my career, and then to find myself doing really conventional stuff – I wasn’t sure that was really me. I think if I’d stayed in Germany I would have continued singing because there, there was a sense that my practice was continuing to develop, whereas over here, I was just ticking boxes.’

Disillusioned, Tania took the difficult decision to retire from singing for a while and she started to look for a ‘normal 9-5 job’, where singing wasn’t a big part of her life.

Tania Holland Williams ©Brian Slater
Tania Holland Williams ©Brian Slater

Her first job was in Thurrock, managing the Creative Partnerships programme, which placed artists in schools to help develop young people’s creativity.  She loved the job.

‘It was an amazing few years,’ Tania says. ‘Although I wasn’t performing, I was working every day with creative people – recruiting  and training artists, engaging and prepared the schools, and then mentoring the projects as they rolled out.’

But in 2011, with a change of government,  it became clear that funding for Creative Partnerships would end. Tania moved on again, this time to a part-time role raising funds to support  the Royal Opera House’s move to High House Production Park in Thurrock. Although she was extremely successful, raising 5.2 million pounds in just 8 months, Tania’s heart just wasn’t in it.

‘I really hated the work,’ she confesses. It was very political. It was affecting my mental health. It was a million miles away from theatre-making and it was breaking my heart being that close to creativity but not being a creative. I remember thinking, I’ve got to change this.’

Tania Holland Williams: The Importance of Elsewhere - Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James
The Importance of Elsewhere – Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James

A sense of belonging
At about the time that she took up her post at The Royal Opera House, Tania set up a company called Curious Planet . The plan was to use Curious Planet  to continue to work with some of the artists she had met at Creative Partnerships. Fortunately, as her work at the Royal Opera House came to an end, Creative Planet started to gain a little bit of traction.

Tania invited 12 artists to join her new initiative and, as part of a visioning exercise, asked them to consider what they might do, as artists, to maintain a sense of wonder in the world.

Two of the artists, Wendy Daws and Peter Cook proposed a project called The Importance of Elsewhere, inspired by a Philip Larkin poem of the same name. Their vision was to create an arts space that was welcoming and totally inclusive.

Tania Holland Williams: The Importance of Elsewhere - Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James
The Importance of Elsewhere – Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James

‘A big problem with funding is that it, unintentionally, creates silos,’ explains Tania. ‘For example Kent Association for the Blind where Wendy worked, is an association for people with vision impairment so their services, their clubs, their activities bring people with poor sight together. But there aren’t many places that are able to say, you can come if you’ve got sight loss, or if you have a learning disability, or if you’re elderly and a bit physically frail, and your access needs will be catered for. Generally, building relationships and making friends, is about sharing a positive interest, not because we share a common characteristic. So the conversation then became about, how can we create a space that is like that.’

Tania Holland Williams: The Importance of Elsewhere - Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James
The Importance of Elsewhere – Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James

To succeed, The Importance of Elsewhere needed access to a large empty space, with smaller breakout areas. It all seemed a bit of a pipe dream until, one day, Tania attended a meeting to discuss the Old Registry Office in Chatham, which had been bought for residential development. Because building work could not start for several months, someone at the meeting suggested that, perhaps,  it could be let out to artists in the meantime. The space was exactly what Tania needed. She put a proposal together, got some funding, and The Importance of Elsewhere moved into the  building.

Tania Holland Williams: The Importance of Elsewhere - Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James
The Importance of Elsewhere – Chatham Registry Office ©Stuart James

 

 

‘It was only for a few months, but I would have loved it to have lasted longer, because it cemented where Curious Planet was going to work best,’ Tania says. ‘Artists from different disciplines came together and created spaces that encouraged creative exchange between communities from diverse backgrounds. Members of the public came as participants, or as audiences, or simply to look around a space that had special memories for them – perhaps they’d got married there or they’d registered a birth or a death there. It was such a refuge and I think, actually, I’m still looking for a place like that, where people feel they belong.’

‘One of my big beefs about the big opera houses and theatres now,’ she continues, ‘is that they are highly functioning commercial organisations, and although the quality of the work is stunning, they are not places where people belong anymore and I think audiences feel it, and that for me is hugely sad.’

Tania Holland Williams: Byre Opera - Handel's Xerxes ©Felix Diemer
Byre Opera – Handel’s Xerxes ©Felix Diemer

Bringing music home
Curious Planet  continued successfully until 2012. But by this point Tania was, again, beginning to feel a little removed from the creative process. Instead of performing and leading events, increasingly, she was writing contracts for other artists taking part in Curious Planet projects.

But new opportunities were just around the corner.

She received an invitation to sing  from a friend in Scotland. He was working with a local theatre and wanting to begin to programme opera. He wondered if Tania might also be interested in directing.

Despite not having sung for some time and never having directed professionally before, Tania said yes. Soon she was directing regularly and touring productions around Scotland with Byre Opera.

Tania Holland Williams: Byre Opera - Handel's Xerxes ©Felix Diemer
Byre Opera – Handel’s Xerxes ©Felix Diemer

Tania found that she loved directing and although many of the operas she was directing were from the standard repertory, she found that, as director, she could make a difference to the way an audience experienced the production.

‘I’ve always trusted that the audience will come with you no matter how strange or weird the work you’re presenting them with, if you’ve done the work and if the spirit within the work is right,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been frightened to look the audience in the eye. There is a sense that we are sharing this moment in time. There’s a contract that you enter into when you are performing, particularly in small spaces.’

Tania’s ultimate ambition was to produce new and exciting work and to engage new audiences who wouldn’t normally sign up for contemporary opera. However, she was keenly aware of the barriers that she would need to break down.

Tania Holland Williams: The Opera House Next Door - The world’s first Escape Room opera experience ©Brian Slater
The Opera House Next Door ©Brian Slater

‘It’s really tough to do contemporary music and opera,’ she explains. ‘I think the problem with contemporary music as opposed to contemporary visual arts  is the commitment required. If you’re looking at a piece of contemporary art and it doesn’t hold your interest, you can just move on. But with contemporary music, you have to buy a ticket. And you’re trapped – literally trapped if you are sat in a concert hall. And if you’re not offering people Mozart or Beethoven or a familiar composer. You’re basically saying, come and trust us.’

If new audiences weren’t going to come to see contemporary performances, Tania decided that the contemporary performances would have to come to them. She set up a project called Davey Jones’ Locker which took new music into people’s living rooms.

Tania Holland Williams: The Opera House Next Door - The world’s first Escape Room opera experience ©Brian Slater
The Opera House Next Door ©Brian Slater

 

‘We went to over 60 living rooms in Kent,’ Tania says. ‘The idea was to find an adventurous home owner who liked music and ask them to pull together an audience of about ten people. Then two instrumentalists, or a singer and an instrumentalist would come and give them the most interesting, thought-provoking, wonderful evening possible.’

For the project, Tania commissioned very short pieces from living composers, each lasting just a few minutes. She then used various devices to provoke conversation about this new music.

Tania Holland Williams: The Opera House Next Door - The world’s first Escape Room opera experience ©Brian Slater
The Opera House Next Door ©Brian Slater

‘We might say, this piece hasn’t got a title so we’d like you to think about what the title might be so that we can feed that back to the composer. Or we might use different instruments, or ask the composer to write three different endings, Tania explains. ‘They were all things that allowed us to say to an audience, this piece has been written specifically for tonight – so people knew they were getting something special, just for them.’

The legacy of the project took Tania by surprise.

‘It was a really, really rewarding project,’ she enthuses. ‘And quite wonderfully and unexpectedly for me, I ended up feeling really back immersed in a world of music again. So in 2018, I launched Fat Lady Opera, which has pretty much taken over my life. It’s been joyful!’

Fat Lady Opera: The Invisible Opera House - Nightwatchers
The Invisible Opera House – NightWatchers

The invisible opera house
So back to the question that Tania posed at the beginning of this blog. What would it take to turn your town into an opera house?

Fat Lady Opera’s first major project, The Invisible Opera House set out to find the answer.

‘I wanted to show that Folkestone, where I grew up, could become an opera house, so I set up “opera enquiry hubs” to ask people what they thought were the essential ingredients of opera,’ Tania says. ‘There was a general consensus that you don’t need the massive building surrounding the opera, but there are some key ingredients, such as big stories and a certain style of singing.’

Working with SparkedEcho Tania devised and delivered a series of interactive activities designed to introduce audiences to contemporary opera as a relevant and accessible art form. 

There were workshops – including an updated, community-led version of Carmen, set outside a vaping shop.

‘It was the first and only time I was a Carmen with a baby doll attached to me for the whole time,’ Tania laughs. ‘Even when I was murdered by Don Jose, I was still carrying my baby! It was brilliant, anarchic and exactly the way opera should go!’

Tania also directed a short musical theatre piece called Belongings, written by composer, Samuel Bordoli and lyricist, Bill Bankes-Jones. The piece, inspired by items of luggage carried by the KinderWagen children fleeing war in WW2 and the more prosaic commuter experience, was realised in Customs House in Folkestone Harbour, at the junction with the railway lines.

The project culminated in a community performance, NightWatchers which, through choruses and sea shanties, told the story of life and loss in a fishing community during a rescue in a storm, out at sea. The cast of 45 from schools, Age UK and local choirs, rehearsed  in Folkestone Harbour, and performed there, in November, to an audience of over 400 people.

Tania is now working on the next stage of The Invisible Opera House, planned for 2022.

Tania Holland Williams: Persephone's Dream ©Claire Shovelton
Persephone’s Dream ©Claire Shovelton

Dreaming through lockdown
For Tania, the involvement and engagement of the audience is as important a part of the production process as the performance itself. But more than that,  she feels the presence of an audience is necessary to validate her as an artist.

”As a performing artist and particularly somebody who really revels in ensemble work, I wonder, am I still the artist person that I thought I was if I haven’t got an audience?’ Tania asks. ‘I don’t mean I need an adulatory audience, but I do need that immediacy of energy exchange. I love the moment when the audience’s eyes open slightly wider and they’re there, in a new place because the lighting’s changed. They’ve forgotten about what went on in their own lives earlier in the day because they’ve suddenly come into the space that you’re in.

Tania Holland Williams: Persephone's Dream ©Sarah Booth
Persephone’s Dream ©Sarah Booth

‘Of course, there is a reward in believing that that I’ve created a good piece of work,’ she continues. ‘But the reason for doing that work is because you want it to reach people. You want it to communicate and without an audience, it’s an incomplete transaction.’

For the creative industries, the last 18 months have been littered with ‘incomplete transactions’ as COVID regulations limited audience involvement and companies sought new and innovative ways to continue their work.

‘At the time, we were just trying to find ways to maintain connections with people, while still thinking about opera and theatre,’ Tania remarks.

During lockdown, Fat Lady Opera  produced Persephone’s Dream at the Cockpit Theatre, with Tania directing.  It was a hybrid work, based on the legend of Persephone, featuring live operatic performance, and a 2-D virtual Chorus of Curious Eyes performing in a Zoom grid, which marked the boundary on stage between the living and the dead. At the time of the performance, the theatre was allowed an audience of only 40, so the opera was also filmed and made available online.

Tania Holland Williams: Persephone's Dream
Persephone’s Dream

With obvious parallels to the lockdown that everyone was experiencing at the time, Persephone’s Dream moves through the different stages of sleep, exploring the purifying power of isolation, as well as its dangers.

‘In the first section, the doors are locked the windows closed, everything is secure, I’m in my house now thank you very much,’ Tania recounts. ‘Then there is an increase in drowsiness, and certainly for me during lockdown, everything seemed to go into a sort of muffled slow motion.

Tania Holland Williams: Persephone's Dream in rehearsal
Persephone’s Dream in rehearsal

 

 

Next, the piece explores the REM dream state through a scene called “Resistance”.

‘It captures the strange hand based strictures that were cropping up, Tania explains. ‘Sing Happy Birthday twice when you wash your hands, clap the NHS, don’t touch your face.’

After that comes “purification”.

‘There is a stage in sleep called “sleep spindles” where the brain is cleaning itself up, Tania says. ‘For me, that was ritual, the idea of acceptance, trying to make a new normal part of our understood world.

‘The final scene is “threshold”, so waking up again and realising that the world has changed and it has become greener. And the audience is left with the question, if you are going to wake up and cross the threshold, do you really want to wake up at all?’

New commissions, new skills
Following the success of Persephone’s Dream, Fat Lady Opera received two new commissions – Twelve Points of Tide and A Song for Kent.

These commissions presented a new challenge for Tania who had rarely been commissioned as a composer. And there was still the ongoing COVID restrictions to wrestle with.

Twelve Points of Tide is a mini opera, written by Tania for the cello and for herself as singer. It explores the corrosive and additive qualities of tidal movement, through the eyes of Mona, Minor Goddess of the Silty Waterways.

Mona has a superpower, she can hold back the tide, for a while at least. But as she combs the shore carrying her burdensome haul, her Shipping Forecast itch gets stronger. The piece, which explores guilt and loss and the urge for release, is structured around seven ‘shipping forecasts’ that range across Thames Estuary locations along the Gravesham riverfront.

Shipping Forecast 3: Skimming Skin

Shipping Forecast 4: Fret

You can hear six of the seven Shipping Forecasts and download the libretto here.

Tania Holland Williams: Walking Each Other Home
Walking Each Other Home

‘I’d never really call myself a composer because I don’t think I’ve earned the permission to be called one yet,’ Tania admits. In writing Twelve Points of Tide, I ended up joining a sort of cello mentoring group to learn to write. I feel my knowledge about string writing has definitely come on in leaps and bounds!’

Twelve Points of Tide had it’s debut at the 2021 Estuary Festival, played over the tannoy from LV21 , and with the music available to listen to online. Tania hopes to produce the work as a fully staged opera in November this year.

Song for Kent was commissioned by Sound UK as part of the national Song for Us project , which celebrates lives and communities through music.

Despite, COVID restrictions, Tania saw it as an opportunity to  involve the audience, as part of the process, right from the beginning.

Tania Holland Williams: Walking Each Other Home
Walking Each Other Home

‘The brief was to write a song for Kent, based on people’s experiences last year,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make it interesting, relevant and meaningful – a celebration of friendship and kindness against the backdrop of the isolation and solitude brought about by lockdown.

‘I was inspired by the Ram Dass quote, We’re all just walking each other home. If we can be comfortable with the fact that we are solitary entities that make our way through the world then, if we can be gracious and give a wave of encouragement to other entities as we pass them, that’s a life well lived.’

Tania Holland Williams: Walking Each Other Home
Walking Each Other Home

To kick start the songwriting process for Walking Each Other Home, Tania organised a series of group walks along the Kent coast. She also organised ‘companionship telephone calls’ for those unable to join the walks.

‘I just wanted people to get outside again in a space that’s welcoming,’ Tania explains. ‘It was very informal. We chatted and every now and then we stopped to sing. And those that didn’t want to sing just looked around, or took photographs and listened. I made lots of notes about what people said – those really profound and interesting comments, along with the mundane, and I incorporated them into the libretto.’

The content of Walking Each Other Home ranges from the big question – What is the most important thing on a long walk, boots or socks? (Tania says ‘socks’) – to more reflective remarks.

Tania Holland Williams: Walking Each Other Home
Walking Each Other Home

Tania was particularly affected by a telephone conversation where a woman described visiting the sea as ‘standing on the edge’.

‘She told me, it doesn’t sound like a safe place, but it’s not the end, it’s a space for possibility,’ Tania recalls. ‘And I’d been thinking about life as a long journey and that we’re all on the road to ‘the sea’ and it crystallised for me into a section of the song called ‘the parting of the ways’, which is a reflection on loss, and how the rites of grieving have been hammered because we haven’t been able to be with people.’

‘Having the audience there right from the start has given it an interesting and different perspective,’ she continues. ‘As a director, you want to be telling people, this is where we are going and what we’re doing. But actually, not knowing where the piece was going to lead was freeing. And with the process as much part of the final product as the final product itself, it has just been joyous!’

A Song for Kent will be performed live aboard LV21, by RiverVoice Community Choir and Fat Lady Opera Community Chorus, during the Gravesham Waterfront Weekend, on Saturday 7th August 2021, from 2.30 – 3.30pm.  A streamed recording will be broadcast at 12.30pm on 11 August 2021 at www.asongforus.org

Links
Fat Lady Opera
https://www.fatladyopera.com/
Walking Each Other Home
Instagram: www.instagram.com/walk.ingeachotherhome
Tania invites you to send in pictures of your walking boots!

 

 

 

 

 

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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/