Visit 19: 15 - 16 March 2008
On Saturday 15 March, we set off for a very special weekend at Holton Lee. Tanya Raabe is launching her new exhibition of portraits of British members of the Disability Arts movement, 'Who'S WhO?'. Meanwhile Tony is leaving to take over Shape Arts in London, so there will be one very big party! It seems like a long while since I've been down, though I've certainly been very busy. In December I was a panellist at the Tate Modern 'Alternative Arts Debate', organised by the London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF) and chaired by Melvyn Bragg, and the motion 'Disability Arts should be dead and buried in the 21st century' was resoundingly defeated. This has given me the confidence that NDACA is truly representing the wishes and needs of disabled artists - I am glad I was speaking against the motion!
At the end of January my own exhibition opened - Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability - which was the culmination of a 12-month residency at the National Institute of Medical Research, funded by the Wellcome Trust's 'Sciart' fund. The show has been going very well and now a tour is being planned, which is great, but it has also been very time-consuming. I have also been appointed as a New Work Network Associate for 2008, funded by the Arts Council, so spent four days in Glasgow at the National Review of Live Art in February, as well as becoming more generally involved in promoting artists' networking. And I spent an enjoyable four days at the London International Disability Film Festival in February - again organised by LDAF - as well as travelling to Manchester at the beginning of March as the guest of the National Union of Students to speak at their Reclaim the Night rally. Somewhere along the line I also found the time to edit the film that I shot at Holton Lee last summer, 'England', and I am just about to promote this to film festivals etc - it will later be part of my final show at Faith House Gallery when the residency here comes to an end.
In London, it seemed as though spring were here at last - the forsythia in the back yard of my studio is in full bloom (as is the climbing geranium!), and lots of bulbs are poking through the gravel. Once we hit the south coast, though, it is obvious that it's still winter. Last Monday was the worst storm of the winter and much of the land is water-logged as we drive along the edge of the New Forest; it is still raining now. As we drive into Holton Lee, we see that it has a smart new notice board at the entrance, incorporating a blackboard for one-off events - since I've attended everything from a VW rally to a horse show here, I can see why they need that! It's great to be back and to see the familiar landscape - which looks very bleak after the long winter, but still beautiful. I am reminded again of last Monday's storm as I see that the ditches are full, and there is a lot of water lying on the fields.
We stop briefly at the Farm House to say hello, but as they are deep in preparations for the private view, we continue on down to the stables, where we join the volunteers for a cup of tea and to catch up with their news. It's lovely to see them again, and to hear about the developments over the winter. Genie is delighted to be back too, and enjoys a walk round after being cooped up in the car (it takes us between three-and-a-half and four hours to travel each way between Holton Lee and East London). I also check that the caravan is okay - fortunately it seems to be doing well under its new cover, and I bless Dave again for finding us a pitch behind a fence that protects us from the worst of the wind.
I retrieve my scooter from its hiding place and then we go on to the Barn, where we are staying for the night - I do not do camping in March! The new extension opened last autumn, but was only officially opened last month - by the Princess Royal, who had also opened the original building a decade earlier. The New Barn offers single and double ensuite accessible rooms, with meals included and PA support available if required. The original part of the Barn offers self-catering accommodation for groups and individuals - baths and toilets are shared, and there is a communal kitchen - so the Barn is effectively split between hotel and hostel facilities, offering something for everyone.
After this we go over to Faith House Gallery, where the private view is already in full swing. In keeping with the Who'S WhO theme, the Board of Trustees is well-represented, as is the Disability Arts world. Allan Sutherland, Colin Hambrook, Julie McNamara and Tony Heaton are doubly represented, since their portraits are on the wall as well as them being present in person! It is a great show and I can thoroughly recommend it - if you can't get to see it at Holton Lee, Tanya is planning a national tour, and in the meantime you can look at the online version. Certainly it would be good to see it at the National Portrait Gallery, the work is very much up to that standard. And hopefully one day it might be part of NDACA.
I enjoy chatting to old friends, but also meeting new people. One man I talk to tells me about coming to Holton Lee for many years as a member of the 'Post Green' community, which used to camp here every summer and which was the forerunner and inspiration for Holton Lee as it is today. It had not struck me before that by camping here I am very much engaging with the site in the way that the founders did. It is an important realisation, so if you are reading this, then thank you!
Once the private view is officially over, the event turns into a double celebration of the opening of the exhibition together with Tony's massive contribution to Holton Lee. Unfortunately, dear reader, you really had to be there, and if you weren't, then I don't feel it would be appropriate to go into any detail about the rest of the evening! Suffice it to say that the continued rain did not put a dampener on proceedings. Also that, if you had told me two years ago that I would be riding an off-road scooter down an unlit country lane in the pitch dark and pouring rain on a Saturday night I would not have believed you, even if you had told me that it was the only way to get between two party venues! Such is the power of art to transform lives ...
On Sunday morning the stable volunteers, unasked, drop off the newspapers for us on their way to feed the horses, which is a real treat. Later - at around 9.30am - we go down to join them for coffee, feeling rather smug since it is obvious that not everyone will feel as bright as us this morning. It is still raining and I am aware of how terribly hard the work is for the volunteers in these conditions, particularly when the weather has been appalling for days. They are still extremely cheerful, though, and we all enjoy catching up some more. Genie also enjoys the walk there from the Barn, despite the wet, but is happy to come into the Farm House at 11ish for a meeting of the NDACA steering group, where she insists on sitting on my lap so she can take a full part in proceedings.
The meeting goes very well, and there is a very positive energy in the room by the end of it. Clear arrangements have been made to take the project forward until Tony's successor is appointed, and I very much look forward to coming back in a few weeks time to open up the caravan for the summer. At lunch time I take the opportunity for a final ride round on the scoooter, since it has briefly stopped raining, and take some photographs - I am tempted to make a hand print, too, but decide the mud is so thick that it is unlikely to be successful, and even if it would, it is just too cold to be practical. Despite the weather, we are reluctant to return to London, and it is good to think that we will be back relatively soon now. We just stop to buy a jar of honey each and to thank the Barn staff again before hitting the road.
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