Visit 18: 3 - 5 November 2007
On Saturday morning, Julie, Ashley, Genie and I prepare to leave for Dorset on a mission to pack up the caravan for the winter. I haven't been back to Holton Lee in two months, mostly because I haven't been able to get a lift - Ashley doesn't drive, and Julie has been busy moving house - but also because I've had building work taking place at my home/studio and have been away on holiday in Spain, so have been very busy too. In the interim we've heard that the Lottery has refused grant funding for the National Disability Arts Collection and Archive (NDACA), despite Holton Lee having donated the land and the Arts Council having committed substantial funding already. This means that the building work cannot start until additional money has been raised. It all seems very unfair, particularly as Holton Lee has created two international award-winning arts buildings already (Faith House Gallery and the Stables Studios), and has such a strong track record generally within disability arts.
Yesterday I had a letter published in the Guardian newspaper about it, having managed to link the grant refusal to Tory leader David Cameron's comment to Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota and other leading arts figures that the Lottery shouldn't fund causes such as 'one-legged Lithuanian dance troupes'. His comment has been very unhelpful: officials won't fund disability arts if they risk being belittled and laughed at, and nor will other funders. We are, though, hopeful that continuing publicity will help to raise the money needed - half a million pounds, which is minimal in the context of other publicly funded arts projects. Disability Now magazine reported the Lottery decision in a feature within their relaunch issue, and I am taking part in a debate at the Tate Modern in December on whether there is a future for disability arts, so we hope to keep the momentum going.
None of us have had much sleep - Ashley was woken at 2am to rescue a young cousin from out of town when he felt threatened at a night club, and hasn't been back to bed since. I am relieved that he has still been able to make it, and assure him he will be able to sleep on the way down and then have a very early night tonight. I am pleased that he won't be missing a night out tonight in order to come to Holton Lee with me! I have had my hands in blue plastic casts for the past three weeks, so would have found it impossible to manage without his help. (About a year ago I developed problems with the joints at the base of my thumbs which have continued ever since, and I am now having treatment in an attempt to avoid surgery on both. I am only somewhat comforted by the fact that this is a condition sculptors often develop!) I have a lot of small blisters and sores from the casts and these are becoming very sore.
Meanwhile Julie, Genie and I went to the launch of Bishi's new album, A Night at the Circus, which took place in a church in Shoreditch last night. I've known Bishi since she was a teenager - her creative partner, Matthew Hardern aka Glamorre, is also an associate of mine - and it was great to see her doing so well. She had a fantastic band backing her, including artist Ansuman Biswas who I met when we performed on the same bill in Coventry two years ago. I did a performance of Wheels on Fire, while Ansuman lay naked on a table for an hour! Anyway, he was playing tabla and percussion, while Patrick Wolf, who I've also met on and off since he was a teenager, did a short set first and then duetted with Bishi later. It was good to catch up with people, too - I'm fortunate to know a very nice crowd of artists and musicians based around the live art/club scene, in addition to the disability art crowd.
Genie enjoyed herself thoroughly as well - she had so many fans clustered around her kissing and petting her at the end of the evening that it was quite embarrassing. She's been really ill for the past fortnight, after a firework went off nearby and startled her at 3am one morning. My best guess is that she reacted by shaking the doormat furiously in a typically terrier-like fashion, as the mat was half-way up the kitchen the next morning! Whatever happened, by some freak she breathed in thick dust that has lodged itself above her tonsils, and she's been in and out of the vet's ever since with breathing problems. I wouldn't normally have thought that a club was a good place to take a sick dog, but as it was a choice between that and having her hysterical all last night as the fireworks exploded around us, it seemed to be the best option. In fact she was enchanted to see old friends and new and to be out on the town instead of locked in a cage at the vet's or miserable at home, so it was definitely the right decision.
Now I hope that the benefits for her of getting out of London altogether for the height of the fireworks, and of being in the fresh air, outweigh the disadvantages of being in the cold and damp. Not being a believer in camping in November, I would have preferred to close the caravan last month - as well as to see Holton Lee at the height of the autumn - but it can't be helped. Luckily we are at the end of an 'Indian summer', and it has been 7 degrees warmer than usual for the time of year all week. Despite this, we have also packed a lot of warm and waterproof clothing!
We have an easy drive down - well, easy for me and Ashley, probably less so for Julie! - and Ashley and Genie sleep all the way. It is beautiful and sunny, and the autumnal colours are lovely, though almost at an end now. When we arrive, I am relieved to see that the caravan is in a relatively good state. We left the linen etc in situ since I expected to be back before now, so it is all a little damp, but as it hasn't been raining everything should dry over the weekend, with the linen hopefully drying out sooner rather than later. We don't have much to unpack - we're really here to take things back to London rather than to bring things down. Last year I left the caravan open in the hope that I could use it as a studio in the daytime over the winter while I stayed in the cottages, but this turned out to be unrealistic as condensation was too much of a problem for it to be practical. This year, therefore, I've bought a cover and will shut the caravan up completely for the next few months, which means it should be clean and ready to use straightaway when we open it in the spring.
By the time we finish unpacking, Genie is already dirty! She is very happy to be here, and already seems to be breathing more easily. Ashley and I head up to the farmhouse to check the arrangements, as he is staying in the upstairs flat for the weekend. He is relieved to find a bed made up ready for him, together with an electric heater. He also has a door on to the fire escape, where he can smoke while looking out across Poole Harbour, so he is well provided for. Before we go back to the caravan, I show Ashley the work from the National Disability Arts Collection which is displayed in the meeting spaces at the back of the farmhouse. We admire work by Adam Reynolds, Colin Hambrook, Tanya Raabe, James Wear and Jon Adams - as well as, of course, our own Tony Heaton. The aim is for the collection always to be on show, both around Holton Lee and on loan elsewhere, rather than being buried out of sight in a vault, as so many collections are. Within Holton Lee, it is important not just to show work in Faith House Gallery, but to display it where people can encounter and engage with it during the course of every day. The NDACA building itself will mostly house the archive materials, as well as acting as a physical base for conservation, educational work and curating.
After this we go down to the stables, where Wally and Denise have arrived to feed the horses. It is great to see them and to catch up on all their news, and the cup of tea is also very welcome! The stables are working to include all four 'aspects' of Holton Lee in their work: arts, environment, disability/carers and spirituality/personal growth. I am keen to do the same in my final show - the date of which willl depend on when the rest of the money is raised for NDACA! - and as part of this have been exploring early European art forms and subjects. This has fed into my ongoing series of hand prints, and when I was in Spain I was able to reference a number of cave paintings that I will follow up and try to obtain reproductions of over the winter. I recently met with artist Jon Adams in London, who said that there have been neolithic remains discovered at Holton Lee, and I need to follow this up too. I will be interested to see to what extent I have unconsciously picked up the prehistory of the site, as happened when I did a 'virtual' residency at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire in 1999. (There I used myths from the Brigantes tribe as a way of relating to the religious base of the Abbey without realising that the Brigantes also had a direct link with the site.)
This weekend I want to try to photograph
the deer, although regular readers of this blog will know that my
closest encounters with deer inevitably take place either in complete
darkness, or when I have no camera with me. Unfortunately I seem to
have missed the height of the 'rut', where the deer become completely
fearless and can be found peering into the windows of the farmhouse
in broad daylight - so far I have not seen a single deer at all. We
can still hear them, though - Ashley and I have heard them calling
on the way to the stables, and he was as surprised as I was last year
by the sound . And as we go back to the caravan from the stables,
Ashley flashes his torch round and it reflects off eyes staring back
at us from the fields, so the deer are not far away. (Click below
to listen to a short clip of last year's deer calling: sorry, it may
not work with Safari.)
Ashley then takes some food and heads back to the flat for a very early night, while we put the heater on and settle in to watch Strictly and then X Factor. We can hear a lot of fireworks echoing across the harbour, but Genie copes well with them, as she also does with the continual screaming of the deer, and it actually feels lovely and peaceful. Around 9pm I go out to lock up the artists' common room for the night, and once again eyes reflect back at me in the light of my torch. It is good to reconnect, and I am reminded again that this land has a very special feel about it, which is presumably why it is so significant to so many people and was put into trust in the first place. I feel very privileged to be one of the only people here tonight - though I appreciate it wouldn't be everyone's idea of fun! When I get back to the caravan, Genie is occupying my space on the bed - so long as I stay at the end of it, though, while she is curled up on my pillows, she ignores the fireworks, so it stays that way for some time!
At around 5am the next morning it is very cold, and we are glad when the sun is up properly and it becomes warmer again. We are also glad to have breakfast, although I manage to burn the toast and the alarm screams in indignation. By 10am Ashley is hard at work cleaning the caravan; Genie is watching him and trying to persuade him to play ball instead; Julie has gone to pick up supplies from the shop; and I am able to set off on my scooter with my camera, full of gratitude for the support of the other two which is allowing me to get on with my 'work'. As I approach the woods, I stop to say good morning to a couple of women who are staying at the Barn and who are exploring the area on the Tramper off-road scooters. They are relieved when I introduce myself as the artist-in-residence, and I realise that I possibly look a little menacing in my black nylon trousers and jacket, boots and black sunglasses. In my mind, I look rather more countrified!
I haven't gone far into the woods before I encounter a group of the wild ponies who graze at Holton Lee, and stop to photograph them. They are inevitably a bit wary, but allow me to get close without moving away; it feels quite magical to be this close. I continue to the Chase Manhattan hide, but there is no sign of any deer so I go on towards the heath. I reflect on how wonderful it is to have access to the new scooter, which is allowing me to go places and see things at Holton Lee that I never could on my mini-scooter last year. It is just a shame that the weather has only improved sufficiently for me to feel the full benefit of it just before the winter sets in!
On the edge of the woods, I stop to make a hand print alongside pony and deer tracks in the mud. This is a complicated business, as it involves getting off my glove and plastic hand brace, then kneeling on the ground and using my other hand, still in its brace, to push my right hand into the mud. Then I have to get up and wipe my hand off with the towel I am carrying for this purpose before getting the brace back on and taking the photograph. It proves to be hard to make a visible print, but I try twice and manage to get something recorded. By the time I've finished, I have to return to the caravan to change the camera battery as the cold last night has drained this one - it feels quite warm now, though, and I am really pleased we came down this weekend rather than the previous one after all. On the way back from the caravan to the heath I photograph the hand prints again, as the light has changed. I go on to try to make another two, first in the sandy soil of the heath and then again in another patch of mud, but it is hard to make enough of an impression to photograph. In the meantime the blisters from my casts are filling up with mud; I don't think I will mention this at the hospital!
I am really pleased that Ruth, the project architect from Sarah Wigglesworth Architects who is directly responsible for the NDACA building, now wants to incorporate hand prints into the cob which will form the back wall to link to this series. Cob is a traditional building material which is essentially just a mixture of clayey soil with straw, and part of the farmhouse was built with it. Our idea is to get people from all the different groups who use Holton Lee to make prints as well as the people who actually build the wall, helping to reflect the fact that the building will be part of the Holton Lee 'community' as a whole rather than simply being on the same site. Having a series of different hand prints will also reflect the fact that the disability arts movement has a real sense of community about it.
As I potter about on the heath, I spot my shadow falling across the heather and take a photograph - perhaps the shadow self-portraits will become a series too. I am thinking about using the idea of an outlined, two-dimenstional figure within the work that I will make to incorporate within the building. Later I meet Julie, and we have lunch there which Ashley has made for us with the food she has bought in Wareham - rolls, and thermos mugs of coffee. Julie has borrowed one of the Tramper off-road scooters from the Barn, and is concerned about the battery. Her worries turn out to be correct, as the battery dies minutes after we set off for the far side of the heath.
Ashley, bless him, comes to our rescue, getting another Tramper from the Barn and riding it down to meet us. We have no choice but to leave the first Tramper on the heath until tomorrow, reminding us of Sally and Julie having to abandon the golf buggy on the heath in May, and its subsequent appearance in a sketch in Sally's exhibition! It's not funny really, though - I remember how upset I was in April when a scooter that I was using at an Arvon Foundation writing course in Shropshire turned out to be faulty. Having thought it was extremely powerful as I drove downhill, I only realised it had no power when I reached level ground and it slowly ground to a halt out of sight of the main buildings! By the time that someone came to find me, it had ceased to be amusing at all.
Julie and I both carry on pottering and photograhing for a little while, but the light is going and we decide to go back to the caravan. This is fortunate, as Sarah, the Chair of the Trustees, arrives wanting to see a copy of the Guardian letter. We chat until Sarah becomes too cold to stay, which is our cue to go to the farmhouse flat for hot baths before meeting Wally and Denise at a nearby pub for dinner. Genie is allowed into the pub on the basis that we will eat in the public bar, and is delighted to be with us and not at the vet's or at home listening to fireworks. When we return, the caravan is like a fridge, and I am relieved that Ashley is there to help me to set it up for the night. I am really struggling with my hands now, and am grateful I managed to soak them in the bath earlier.
It is very cold again in the night and the next morning, and once I put the heater on the condensation starts to drip down from the skylight on to the floor, where I put newspapers down to catch it. This is the only noticeable effect that the heater has! I reflect that I am so lucky to be able to return to a warm home tonight while millions of people will spend the whole winter living in the cold and damp, or actually sleeping outside. Then I burn the toast - again. The smoke alarm goes off - again. I reflect - again, as I let smoke out of the door and even more cold in - that the alarm has been tested and so is one less thing to check later.
About 8am I take my coffee in a thermos mug and set off for the woods with my camera. It is so cold that, despite all my layers and a large pair of woollen gloves over the casts, my hands are stinging. It is, though, a beautiful morning, and I feel amazingly lucky to be here on a Monday morning. There are hosts of little spider webs glinting in the sunshine, spread out over the gorse and plants as if they've been put out to dry. No one is about apart from a solitary dog walker who fails to spot me, and as I get deeper into the woods, I meet the ponies again. They take even less notice of me than last time, and I enjoy photographing them for ten minutes before moving on. At the Chase Manhattan hide, I find who I have been looking for - a mature stag who, according to one of the stables' volunteers, comes here regularly for a morning drink. He has already seen me, so rather than go into the hide, I move towards him, shooting pictures as I go. To start with he freezes, blending in with the trees. Then he walks slowly away, dignity preventing him from running. It is another magical encounter, and makes all the discomfort and difficulty worthwhile. On my way back through the woods I sight him again and take a couple more pictures; I also meet the ponies again and do likewise.
I get back to the caravan around 9.30am, by which time the sun has gone in again for the rest of the day, and start emptying the last contents into bags. Ashley joins me, and then takes over like the star he is while I go off to meet with Tony for a couple of hours. On the way to the farmhouse I meet Matt, the land manager, who is being told by an excited dog walker about the Tramper she has found abandoned by vandals on the heath. Oh dear ... I explain, and am promised that someone will retrieve it later. Tony and I have a productive meeting, and I return to the caravan shortly after noon to discover that Ashley has just about finished cleaning and emptying it: he's worked like a Trojan this weekend. Meanwhile Genie has spent the morning asleep under a blanket in the van, saving her energy for the inevitable hours of screaming hysterics at the fireworks tonight. (Yes, dear reader, she has tried every form of sedation known to veterinary science, but all to no avail so now she sticks to the skullcap and valerian herbal remedy which just takes the edge off.)
Trish then comes down to return some art work of mine, a print version of my Helping the Handicapped website, which has just come off exhibition in Faith House Gallery. I am going to loan it permanently to NDACA, but before then I need to include it in a show at the National Institute of Medical Research in January, where I am finishing a one-year residency funded by the Wellcome Trust. One of the starting points of the residency was whether it is possible to distinguish a 'Scientific' Model of Disability from the Medical Model. The print, which was produced for a show in Chicago last year, explains the current theoretical models of disability in use today, and so will give context to the rest of the show.
After saying goodbye to Trish, we move the things that are usually stored underneath into the caravan, switch off the power and gas, and lock it unceremonially before covering it up and so putting it to bed for the winter. Despite the grey of the cover blending in with the sky and harbour, the caravan does, in all honesty, now look slightly as if it's dropped down from outer space. I am reminded of what Ashley said earlier in the year about us being the 'rave' end of the site!
Finally we visit the stables for a cup of tea and chat with the volunteers there before hitting the road. I know that I will feel the physical after-effects of the trip for some days to come, but I feel that I have been able to connect again with the essence of what Holton Lee is all about. I've also had the satisfaction of a good job being well done in terms of packing up the caravan, and experienced the autumn at first hand - judging by the temperature, just before it comes to an end. Next time I'm here, it will be winter.
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