Three artists (Dawn Harris, Brian Cook and Carolyn Morris) met up one day early in 2018, hoping to work on something together. They were looking for inspiration for new work; they wanted to give themselves a deadline to work towards; and they wanted to collaborate, preferably encouraging a group of artists to work together, many of whom they knew were working on their own in rural areas.
Over a couple of meetings (and some important tea and cake) the ethos of a new project was born. It would involve something akin to Chinese Whispers - an artist would begin a piece of work and then be paired with another artist who would respond to it. There would be a set of rules to give a starting point, regular meetings and some benefit to the artists involved. Crucial to the plan was the idea that it would involve direct engagement between people—’Face to Face’, literally. A central theme was decided and it was agreed that five artists would start the process, each passing on down a line of six, giving the potential for 30 collaborators. An initial call-out for interest suggested it was possible and the project was up-and-running in April 2018, with the first meeting in May.
There were some details to iron out. In pairing artists to work with each other, there was a need for ensuring friends didn’t just choose friends (or not, which could be even more problematic!). Therefore, a ‘name out of the hat’ system was put in place to select the next artist at random and put people together who may never have met before. A chain of artists would then set to work and month by month, it would grow into a final exhibition of related, yet distinctive work from a wide range of creative people working in all kinds of media.
The original three artists were joined by Deb Catesby and Chris Rider to make the first group of five. A theme was chosen (see ‘The Brief’ below) and this would prove a springboard for ideas—either as something to embrace or oppose, or ignore completely.
The ‘thread leaders’ met for a discussion to help them begin their work and then at the first meeting they briefly showed what they’d made so far and explained their progress before another five names were taken from the hat. This next wave then had a chat with their paired artist, arranged a meeting with them and then returned a month later to tell the group about how their work was responding to their partner’s work as well as the general theme. Six monthly meetings followed the same pattern and they also included a useful talk and enjoyable get-together. It was hoped that enough people would take part and there would be enough momentum to see the project through to conclusion.
As it happened, it all fitted together exactly. All the spaces were filled, everyone who wanted to take part did so, and every month an enthusiastic and enthused group enjoyed catching up, hearing latest news and, the most enjoyable part, seeing what people had been doing. Some put their names in the hat every week hoping to get picked, some took a while to pluck up the courage, some chose not to. The artists also grouped together to cover costs. Above all, every participant enjoyed the challenge, which we believe gave artists the space to work as they had at art-school, college or university: non-commercially, in a safe, supportive and inspirational atmosphere.
The results were really interesting and rewarding for all. The artists were from different backgrounds, professional and amateur, and it will be clear from the account here how the cross-contamination of ideas bled through people’s work and how similar, yet different, the approaches and concepts became. The parameters set by the project gave people something to use as well as something to push against—or break. Two things which the organisers found particularly extraordinary were: a) how many of the artists used the project as an opportunity to do something completely different—try a new medium, technique, or a new way of working altogether; and b) how inspiration didn’t flow in just one direction. It was interesting to see how artists were not only influencing those who came after them but also taking inspiration from later participants as they continued to work.
This account of the project contains three interlinked stories. The first is that of the general theme, the undulating tale of the Heart of England in the Dark Ages which pervades all the work, even in its absence. The second is the story of how the different aspects of the theme appealed to each artist and combined with their own realms of experience. The third is a story of the entire collaboration and how those webs of information manifested themselves in both ideas and physical work.
Finally, each artist has looked back on what they did and their thoughts are gathered here, along with some of what they said when they presented to the group. Some struggled with the written part, as some did with the speaking part, but most said they found this time for reflection a useful part of the process. This is not a history book, nor does it purport to be an academic tome, it’s a record of a remarkable project containing some hope for its continuation. We hope readers will recognise the generosity and honesty of everyone who has given freely of their time and shared their knowledge, ideas and stories of their artistic process.
As the one who’s collated the information, it’s been a difficult task but a rewarding and fascinating one, and one which has made me realise that this act of recording it, to give it another place to exist long past its physical life, has become an element of my own part in the project too.
We hope this project inspires others to step out of their comfort zones, try something new and try working in collaboration. We’re very proud of what was achieved here and we hope it’s just the first of many times that we all come ‘Face to Face’ .
CM (& on behalf of Dawn and Brian too) - February 2019
The Face to Face exhibition of work opened and the book was launched at at The Artists' Workhouse, Studley, on April 5 2019. It then toured to Canwood Gallery, Herefs, in June and General Office, Stourbridge, in August, where there was also a talk and discussion with a local historian, specialising in Anglo Saxon history.
The overwhelming feedback from artists was that they relished the challenge and the collaboration. Many said they had learned more about themselves and how they worked, they had made new contacts - and friends - and everyone said they would take part again. Several of the pieces made have been entered into exhibtions and competitions nationwide.
LANDSCAPE: CAROLYN’S THREAD
We’ll begin here with me, writing about me, CAROLYN MORRIS, even though it seems like the actions of an egotistical maniac. This is because a) writing in the third person and pretending it isn’t you is just weird and uncomfortable (ask any artist), but mainly because b) the theme came out of my general research, so it seems a good place to start.
I was (and probably still am, even while you're reading this in your hover-car of the future) working on a project which involves visiting every church in Worcestershire, reading the Bible and pondering those things which shape our lives and our landscapes, here in the middle of England. I’d visited the church in my neighbouring village of Pinvin, whose name comes from the old English ‘Penda’s fen’ (Penda’s marshland). I’d watched the BBC play ‘Penda’s Fen’ (1) and it was all in my mind when Dawn, Brian and I met in a café to sup strong tea and mull over ideas for the new ‘Face to Face’ project.
When I was aged about ten, a pupil at Pinvin’s St Nicholas CE Middle School, we learned about the origins of the place name and this old pagan king, Penda, who ruled these parts in the 600s. Therefore, I’ve always had a passing familiarity with the name. Since very young, I’ve lived in this little part of the Vale of Evesham, and so to me, the theme’s embedded in my life. This is my landscape; my place in the world; where I’m ‘from’, no matter where else I live. Incidentally, I’ve since found out that when my dad became a teacher, he’d watched ‘Penda’s Fen’ just as a job in Pinvin came up. He decided to look into it because of the name, applied and got the job, we moved nearby and the rest is (our) history!
For me then, the theme was about a place and I imagined the landscape remaining static as human life passed over it. I was wondering what King Penda himself, and those living at the time would look out on, taking their bearings, as I do, from the landmarks of Bredon Hill southwards and the Malverns against the sunset to the west; seeing the Cotswolds turning the stone golden to the east, and aware of the slow rise northwards towards larger areas of population, with their different accents and ways of life.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed, as I thought about Anglo-Saxon armies during my weekend archery sessions and as I pondered the stories of Brexit, Trumpisms, nationalism and immigration in the news, I wrote a piece to rein in my thoughts:-
“There’s a violence in that arrow I shot at a target in a woodland. It’s a weapon; A bullet which absorbs the energy of a taut bowstring and transforms it into such power that it can propel through flesh and organs.
I suppose this weapon stood beside Penda and his men on this land. On this land where I shoot.
By Penda’s Fen.
And did those feet..?
And where was this?
It wasn’t England (not till the 10th century). It wasn’t Great Britain (not till the 1800s). Rome was gone.
It was Mercia at least some of the time.
The last Pagan king of these isles resisted new ways; fought to extend territory over 27 years, leading the loyal into battle again and again.
Pushing borders about. Messing with the map lines.
‘Our country’ just really wasn’t. It was a fluid thing, washing over us and back. A different kingdom with each battle.
And it’s all still there. This landscape.
Under the maps, under the buildings, under the fields.
Penda’s Fen. Remembered in the Mercian Midlands.
We are Midlanders now. ‘Northerners’ to the southern folk; ‘Southerners’ to the north. The middle ground. The mean, median and mode. ‘Medium’. The place of negotiation. A patch in the middle.
Perhaps we’re good middle-men, pragmatic folk, allowing things to pass back and forth. The ones in between, forming the networks of the interior.
Between landlocked horizons. Folk of brook and vale and hawthorn and apple blossom. And landmarks marked in some other non-human time.”
I mixed clay and material from the ground with oil paint to build a landscape on a board. It began in the form of a traditional sort of landscape painting; I suppose, a small homage to the place where I live. It’s not copied from photo or life, it’s an amalgamation of the Vale of Evesham I look out on each day. However, it has continued to develop. I’ve painted more, added more, but more importantly, I’ve collaborated with the elements. I’ve left it outside throughout the time of the project—just about a year by the time of the exhibition. It’s seen every season.
It’s lived out in the garden, exposed to the weather: buffeted, rained on, warmed, frozen, burnt and also partially buried for a short time. I’ve been cooking up a landscape three ways (to use ‘Masterchef’ terminology!) – making a landscape painting; creating a landscape on the surface of the painting; and creating something which is part of the landscape that it’s depicting. I add a bit and nature adds a bit, or, as I’ve found in later stages, nature (slugs mostly!) nibbles a bit away.
I was also fascinated by a photograph of a shed, propped and sagging, which seemed somehow to sum everything up. Temporary, it’s merrily decaying back into the earth. Also near me, the village made way for a wartime airfield and its old control tower is a man-made landmark which has been there throughout my life. Again, now disused and decaying, it’ll sink away without more human intervention. These images have shaped my thoughts even if they don’t actually appear.
To let my painting, at least partially, decay and develop on its own, like these places, has been a valuable experience, and something much-pondered within the group as a whole. I still don’t know what the conclusion will be. The painting’s still weathering and has even created its own image in the form of an imprint in the grass. That process and that faith that there will be an interesting end result is something I’ve recognised as very much a part of ‘what I do’ - and perhaps part of what all artists do. That’s been a very significant lesson.
Although I didn’t get chance to respond to another artist’s work, I benefited greatly from the discussions and from meeting all the artists, especially my group. We’ve met regularly, learned from each other and found things in common.
I hope to have a tiny matchstick of battered painting to show—or maybe I’ll just screen the little video I recorded of a worm wriggling about on it—either way, I’ve loved all the ‘Face to Face’ collaborators greeting me with ‘how’s your painting?’, ‘how are the slugs?’ I always hope for a good conversation around my work and I feel very fortunate that this time it’s been part of the process as well as part of the end result.