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(All) Sort (s) of Different Though

In my last blog I shared a piece of writing which ended with “I still am who I was. Sort of different though.” I can’t help but think of these two sentences and how they apply to all of us, following two years (plus) of the Covid-19 pandemic. We were all given an opportunity back in the early stages to learn lessons, and from those lessons create a ‘new normal’. A normal that offered a slowing down, more equitable workplaces, a more caring society and arts industry, a shift away from constant production. We are all, I believe, sort of different as a result of our combined and individual experiences of the pandemic years.

In mid 2022, are we still in the early stages of developing a “new normal” or have we abandoned it completely? Perhaps the answer is something in between. Instead of being side-tracked and getting angry and frustrated about what isn’t happening, it feels more prudent for us now, more than ever, to find, connect and continue with embracing the different. I share my research, thoughts and observations on pockets of new normalities and research projects that link with ‘all sorts of different’ in society, the arts and my own arts practice. These investigations have really been taking place throughout my time on this earth. I am unapologetically a person who constantly questions, interrogates, reflects and responds to what is happening around me and to me.

In the Arts

From the start of the pandemic, I remember going to numerous zoom events, and reading multiple texts that reflected on the one positive thing to come out of this tragic pandemic. A gift, and opportunity to STOP, get off the treadmill of constant production. It was suddenly ok to embrace home working. Online and then hybrid events were encouraged. I spoke to many artists, who like me, faced various challenges when it came to attending events, exhibitions, residencies. Many were accessing far more opportunities during that first 18 months than they had ever done before. Fastword a few more months into the pandemic, when we began to see the possibility of ‘in person’ events again, and the word ‘hybrid’ made an appearance. Some might say the word became overused, so if you prefer, you can refer to it as ‘blended’.

I remember sharing my fear and my doubt that anything would change for long and it seems I was right. How quickly ‘we’ have returned to the ‘old normal’. How rapidly the switch back to irl (in real life) events, etc. How loud was that door that just slammed back the faces of artists who were/are always isolated, or facing other barriers to accessing the expected route into the industry expected to developing their art practice.

I mentioned in my last blog that I didn’t take the opportunity to stop or even slow down. It feels hypocritical to bemoan the lack of real change when, even I, did my best to carry on as before, even though every part of me didn’t want to. Of course, I had a choice, I could have stayed home as a protest, but the fear of being ‘disappeared’ and my determination to meet my own self-imposed goal stood in my way. Should I take some responsibility then, can I blame it solely on the organisations, the institutions, or groups?

I am inspired by the artists whose practices analyse, experiment, discuss, and invite rethinking how we live and how we care. Through my work with the Parallel State, I had the opportunity to meet, listen, learn and discuss such topics. The Parallel State, State of the Nation podcasts facilitated by artist Simon Poulter (original founder and creator of The Parallel State) were a first hand account of the impact of the pandemic across the arts as it played out. It was during these regular podcasts that I began to collect and listen to words, hope, fear and a desire for change. The Parallel State event, curated by myself and Eelyn Lee that, for me, really digs deep into collaborative care, living with care and the rhizomatic process of connecting care took place as a part of the Coventry Biennial of Contemporary Art: Hyperpossible 2021, “Beyond the Anthropocene”, links to all the speakers, Youngsook Choi, Angela Chan, Jo Capper, Rachel Bower, Anna Hints and Jason Singh can be found here on the Abiding as Activism website.

I am thankful for the work that continues to be done to tackle inequity in the arts, particularly CVAN’s, The Fair + Equitable Programme, “...developing a visual arts sector and ecology that facilitates the leadership and thriving of artists and arts workers from underrepresented and marginalised communities.” I fully support this work and that of smaller organisations. I cannot, however, continue to engage in the fight. There is so much evidence, research and conversation out there already, is it fair to continue expecting those of us facing the challenges to take on the work and the responsibility to push for change? It is exhausting, both mentally and physically and I cannot do it anymore.

My art career has been so immersed in the social and the political I hadn’t stopped to breathe until I was forced to.

So... What is happening in my arts practice?

I’ve been given a second chance to STOP and slow down and this time I’m not going to waste it. I think about the acts of breathing, my heart beating, the neuro pathways, blood travelling around my body, my brain and it’s connection to every part of me. I think about the process of neuroplasticity and how there is a synthesis with the making process of art. I consider the slow process of rehabilitation and how my impatience mirrors my frustration with watercolour painting.

I knew that for me, a big part of my rehabilitation was not just relearning how to speak, read and write. It wasn’t and isn’t just about building the strength and stamina that will enable me to walk where I want to walk whenever I want to. The greatest, most valuable part of my recovery is about slowing down, taking care of myself, spending time just thinking and not doing, to stop being so damn bloody productive.

Words and materials are at my disposal and I am fortunate to have a small space in the back garden where I can sit and create when I feel the need and have the energy. I have no deadlines hovering over me like storm clouds. I don’t have to explain myself to anyone unless I want to. There is no guilt if some days the grand sum of my achievements is watching a series or scroll through social media without interacting. If I want to spend time creating stories for a virtual fashion game, I can (and I do).

This freedom, is liberating but also uncomfortable. There is something very special when I make sense of the myriad of thoughts that buzz around my head when I am silent. It’s probably not a surprise that a lot of my focus is on the changes I’ve experienced since the stroke, but I then find this focus resonates with work previously explored. Even more so with what is currently happening inside my ambitiously named studio just a few steps from my house.

I would like to share this period of ‘stopping’ with you, as I make connections, experiment with materials and words, bring the past and present together to imagine a possible future for my arts practice.

I’ve been working with clay and wire, sitting at a table in my back garden, surrounded by tubs of wildflowers to my left. The long thirsty garden and blanket of bindweed to my right. The smell of lavender and factor 50 suncream permeate a slight breeze if I'm lucky. The hum of bees and birdsong, more pleasurable than the distant hum of cars on the Fosseway.

It felt important to get my hands on wire and in clay, to squeeze, stretch, roll and mould. I don’t know why, maybe it was a direct contact with material that I needed, as opposed to being separated by brush, keyboard, pen or pastel.

I realised the half body form I had created, not only represented the temporary loss of one side of my body, but it also connected to other works I had created. Various iterations of half faces and bodies that I drawn in ink, pastel and digital media. Reflecting on this link between past and current work, there is an overriding sense of a body that does not feel whole. Perhaps this current work is less a commentary on, but more of a journey towards a feeling of wholeness.

My garden has become very important to me. An accessible space, the privacy, the relative silence, the flora and fauna I am sharing the space with. I have watched as the wildflowers

have grown from seed, as they have become home to white fly, cabbage white larvae, ladybird larvae, and aphids; a stop off for bees, hoverflies, shield bugs and the cabbage white butterflies. This ecosystem sustains me and keeps me company. It is helping me heal and become whole. I have connected to the bindweed in all of its varieties. The sculpture exhibits its cracks proudly. It is not broken. It asks to be connected to the soil and all that it contains and sustains. That is the next stage, it cannot be rushed.

It is ok to step away and reflect, to feel the questions and sense the possible answers. In the meantime I am being pulled back to those half bodies and faces of yore. Perhaps I need to immerse myself more in the clay and the wire, and make friends again with the pastels, the paint and the ink to allow for those questions and answers.

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