Dandelion seeds floating through the air like summery snowflakes. Children shouting with excitement as they run, jump, explore, and investigate the outdoors. Muddying knees as they fall, but get up and squeal with delight. Zooming past on scooters and bikes. Playing with bubbles, that glisten as they sun sneaks a peek through the clouds.
Butterflies, and bees, and dragonflies, flit about the flowers down by the river, too fast to snap a photo, as they fly away to the next floral spot.
Birds sing from the tops of trees, and if you stop and listen you may spot a blue tit, or a chaffinch before it disappears into the dense leaves. Squirrels clamber up trees, out of reach of dogs as they chase after their tails. Crows command with call and they assemble on the wall of the ruins. A train passes, on its way to the city, another out towards towns and through countryside, that familiar whirring as they speed past.
Conversations are murmurs, fading as footsteps take them away. Parents walk their babies in prams, wheels turning over the path. Traffic in the distance merges with the rush of water that crashes over the weir, as the river courses through. A plane loudly rumbles overhead bringing tired people back home.
I can sit here and listen, and the world becomes an abstract of sounds, stop and close your eyes, and hear a symphony as nature and humanity become one orchestral movement.
This prose was written as I sat on a bench in Kirkstall Abbey park and took in the world around me, as I listened with my eyes closed, felt the air as it touched me, enjoying this moment being calm and still. The snippets of film were shot on my iPhone as I walked with my dog,
Sometimes the reason chronically ill people retreat inward, is to hide all the positive things happening to others, so that they don’t feel overwhelmed by the negativity that incurs from within them:
Frustration at no longer being able to do those things
Anger that peers gain more experience and you do not
Jealously and resentment that you aren’t thought of for those things
Sadness that their life is bubbling with excitement and activity whilst yours is stagnant and dull
Fear that you will never be seen as relevant or worthy ever again
I still get those emotions. But I have enough resilience to not let them become the sole occupants within me. I’ve had to become ever more self aware, and as such it’s tiring on another level, as I navigate life analysing and quantifying my reactions to situations and the people who are making decisions around me.
You know what, there are times when self-pity exists in abundance, but I wonder, who wouldn’t experience it when faced with similar obstacles in their path to self-realisation. Our resilience has to become stronger as we face necessary rejection and more difficult hurdles to navigate. Constantly changing goal posts, constantly changing journeys, constantly facing hostile situations. It is tiring, and I’d rather that I didn’t have to.
But every time I witness friends and colleagues continue on journeys that flourish and seemingly avoid the obstacles I have faced, I must remind myself to be genuinely happy for their victories, to experience my 5 negative emotions for sure, but to allow positive emotions to dance with difficult partners and give them encouragement and find a different meaning from within. Your journey is no longer parallel with mine, and I do miss it, but with any grief I have to learn to put it away in a box. A box that I label accordingly – a memory I can return to with fondness; an event I do not want to experience again; a time that has given me insight and shaped who I have become.
I need to have faith in myself, and that my worth has not been vanquished by a permanent illness, it has merely been displaced. Imagine if you will a worth as a beetle, important and with clear direction, but a falling rock narrowly missed the beetle. It scuttles away just in time, but sadly the worth it was adhering too is no longer there, but it hasn’t lost it forever, where it stands now, a whole new purpose and meaning is offered. The beetle can look at that rock and feel angry at its destruction of the path it was on, the blackness engulfing its sights. Or it can look to where it is now and bask in the new opportunities open to it. Beetle don’t feel bleak, your journey is still worthy, it’s just taking a detour and possibly a brand new direction.
13th-19th May 2019 is mental health week – the theme is body image, my body has been shaped by age, illness and disability. When I look in the mirror I see a different person to who I was – I compare myself to myself, but as a beetle I am on a different path now, my body carries me, it continues to work despite the lesions, it’s finding ways to preserve my life, I can’t fault it for that. I guess I now see my body much differently than I did before – I don’t want or need your judgement and demands, now it is mine to champion.
The Tetley currently have two incredibly poignant exhibitions, from Rasheed Araeen and Kannan Arunasalam. Araeen’s ‘For Oluwale‘ presents work marking the 50th anniversary of David Oluwale’s death. Oluwale, a British-Nigerian drowned in the River Aire after being systematically harassed by the police. Arunasalam’s ‘The Tent‘ presents films reflecting on identity and the meaning of loss against the lasting impact of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 1983 – 2009.
Responding to these works in an appropriate way to engage families with young children was going to be difficult. I decided to focus on the theme of identity and what home and specifically Leeds, means to the participant.
With Leeds posters, we took images of Leeds, and thought about the area in which we lived, what we enjoyed about our home, its relationship to Leeds as a whole. When you are young and around the age of 7, the concept of Leeds is limited to home in the suburbs – the city is a place you visit rather than being intrinsic to your identity. The children told me about the places they lived, from Alwoodley and Bardsey in the north, and Farsley and Kirkstall in the west, over to Oulton in the east. Travel featured a lot, along with fun days out, and school. Walking in the wonderful green spaces that Leeds offers us across the metropolitan area, with the major parks of Roundhay, Golden Acre, Temple Newsam and Middleton Woods, was a must. Oh and of course drawing and doodling is always lots of fun.
I have at times, throughout my time as an artist, been accused of never having people or humanity in my photographs, and not showing any life around me. Humanity is not just people, humanity is what encompasses us. The way we interact with our environments, the reason things are where they are, the way they are. Do we know the stories of the strangers in photographs? Not always, people watching in a perfectly composed shot, we invent their stories and use them for our own narrative. I could say that those photographs have no humanity. The story of my photographs are very introspective, the essence of my humanity, they are what I see and what I obsess upon. Then there is the story of how and why they became, and I obsess beyond the image – how things got there, why are they there, social history, natural history, our impact upon the world.
When I was at university studying my degree, when viewing photographs we read into them, we researched our subject, and discovered in the brief artist statement what the photographers intention was, but there is not always provided, the in depth analysis of each individual photograph, not in the way that we apply to them. The reasons why they chose that photo fits and bends with our narrative. Reading the artist statement is an important necessity, or we are free to manipulate the image to mean something else, or create a dialogue that isn’t true.
The signs, the signified and the signifiers. What we see is this. A tennis ball sitting on the grass. That is the signifier, the form which the object takes. It tells us nothing unless we place meaning upon it. The signified is the interpretation, the what and why we place upon the image we are looking at. So that tennis ball, why is it there, where has it come from, who was the owner, what does it say about the environment, what was the weather that day, when was it taken, who took a photo of it, why did they take a photo of it, what is the point of it… Without me giving any statement of why I took the image, the viewer is open to question, and can draw assumptions as to why the photo was taken and what it’s purpose is. Now, I share the image alongside other photos of tennis balls, or remnants of tennis balls. I have opened this up to so many more interpretations. Why is there a collection of images of tennis balls in various degrees of degradation? I welcome others to interpret in their own way and add reason as to what the intention behind taking the images is. But now I provide reason in my artist statement, so that changes the initial viewing and interpretation of the photos. This is my experience, and therefore the humanity in the image.
My experience of taking images comes very subconsciously initially. I seldom start with a plan of why and what. But I am very self-aware. I question why. There is more to the image than it just being there, there is very definite signs within the images I take. With the example of the tennis ball, my reason became obvious quickly. I kept seeing them everywhere after I had become parent to a pet dog, on our walks they are there, why are they there? After the big mower has come to cut down the grass, they multiply and clearly come into view, like worms after the rain. But it isn’t just the mower that destroys these tennis balls, it’s the dogs that through rambunctious play, tear and rip and break their beloved toy. I have spoken to dog walkers that tell me that the tennis ball is their pet pooch’s favourite toy, yet they lose and destroy them so easily, seems like careless ownership of a beloved toy to me. My dog would never lose his favourite toy, bury it under blankets perhaps, but never lose or destroy it in such a manner. Bizarrely my dog doesn’t like playing fetch and is completely nonplussed by a tennis ball. Maybe that is my fascination. I have no association of tennis ball destruction with my hound, so the tennis ball becomes my obsession.
My way of working begins, as I focus on something compulsively. I then ask myself why. And by asking myself why, I will begin to research and discover more about my environment and everything within it. There is also a the added caveat that I am now disabled, so my environment has shrunk. But shrinkage doesn’t mean I am now devoid of inspiration or subject. It means that I am now more invested in my environment, in it’s history, in my interaction with it, I am a slow walker, so I take my time, I revisit often.
There is plenty of humanity within my images, perhaps you have just not looked close enough to find it.
Audio of blog, with stumbles over words included
[Image descriptions: On the left there is a grid of 8 images of different pink and purple flowers. The image in the middle is a grid of 8 images of the same view across the River Aire, taken on different days, with different skies and trees in various stages of foliage. The image on the right is a grid of 8 images, this one shows remnants of tennis balls found on the ground]
A little over six months, I have been taking photos of this view across the River Aire, from the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. I will continue right into summer this year, and look forward to see the whole year pass me by. The everyday, collecting as I walk my with my dog, here I sit and catch my breath, take in the world, and recuperate.
At this half way point, I am sharing a short video that showcases the changing seasons, as well as the amazing skies that reflect back at us.
My practice is that of a walking artist. I document repetitions in my journeys. Past projects have looked at flowers in and around the Medicinal Gardens at Abbey House Museum; collected images of lost, discarded, and mown up tennis balls; and I am currently looking at paths from a disabled persons, my, point of view.