The Windy…and Snowy City

On Monday I left New York, for the second leg of my Winston Churchill Travel Scholarship research trip to Chicago, which meant that I took the first of two internal USA flights.

It was a little bit like getting on the train to London to be honest, including the fact that people are allowed to travel with cats and dogs! Apparently up to seven cats and dogs are allowed on each flight. Who knew?!

Two hours and 20 minutes after leaving New York I landed at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and decided to share a shuttle taxi to the hotel. I found myself in the middle of a group of people heading to a Postal Convention!

As soon as I left the relative warmth of the Arrival hall, the cold air of Chicago hit me and there was snow as far as I could see. In the shuttle car, the temperature display read -10 degrees.

My 8 fellow passengers, plus the driver and I, hit the highway to downtown Chicago. The roads were really busy because it was rush hour, but everyone was really friendly and completely fascinated by the fact of my Scholarship. In no time I arrived at the hotel and back into the warmth.

After being shown to my room, I opened the curtains to find a wall as my view – a very nice wall, but still a wall. A week of looking at that wasn’t going to be ok, so I paid $20 and upgraded to a front view. As my fourth week of travelling starts, I’ve come to realise that a sense of what’s outside is really important, otherwise you can actually start to feel quite isolated, something I hadn’t actually considered when selecting the hotels for this trip.

So, where and what am I doing during this second leg of my trip? Well, more of the same really – still researching Outsider Art practice and looking at the 5 key areas, although other interesting elements are creeping in, especially the conversations I’ve had about bodies of artwork that are discovered posthumously.

On Wednesday and Saturday, I’m spending the day at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, with curators and artists discussing the approach of the Centre, which was established in 1991, and houses ‘a legendary collection of Outsider art’ including the work of artist Henry Darger.

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Henry Darger’s The Vivian Girls

I’m spending part of Wednesday at the Chicago Health Disparities Centre talking about stigma with Patrick Corrigan, who is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Currently, he is principal investigator of the National Consortium for Stigma and Empowerment. I think it will be a fascinating discussion!

On Friday, snow permitting, I’m spending the afternoon with John Maloof, who made the Oscar nominated documentary Finding Vivian Maier. I’m sure our conversation will include works discovered after an artist dies.

‘Finding Vivian Maier is the critically acclaimed documentary about a mysterious nanny, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage lockers and, discovered decades later, is now among the 20th century’s greatest photographers. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Maier’s strange and riveting life and art are revealed through never before seen photographs, films, and interviews with dozens who thought they knew her.

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‘Maier’s massive body of work would come to light when in 2007 her work was discovered at a local thrift auction house on Chicago’s Northwest Side. From there, it would eventually impact the world over and change the life of the man who championed her work and brought it to the public eye, John Maloof.
Currently, Vivian Maier’s body of work is being archived and cataloged for the enjoyment of others and for future generations. John Maloof is at the core of this project after reconstructing most of the archive, having been previously dispersed to the various buyers attending that auction. Now, with roughly 90% of her archive reconstructed, Vivian’s work is part of a renaissance in interest in the art of Street Photography’. [http://findingvivianmaier.com]

Sunday will probably be spent trying to squeeze my ever-growing possessions into my case ready for the flight to San Francisco on Monday morning. Leaving New York, at the check in desk, my case was half a kilo over and I had to, embarrassingly, quickly remove some things and put them in my hand luggage!

I’ll update this blog as this week’s meeting end encounters take place.

Why I’m Here in New York

I can’t believe it’s almost a year since I wrote this blog post for the Huffington Post describing the areas of Outsider Art that I’m hoping to look at during my time in the US and Japan.

Things have developed since then, but the basic premise is still the same.

A Letter From Winston Churchill

15/03/2017 10:40 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:40 GMT

It seemed to take forever for the letter to arrive, but when it did it was worth the wait: “Dear Angela, I am delighted to let you know that you have been awarded a 2017 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Very many congratulations. 2017-03-13-1489417885-6761645-IMG_9371.JPG

 

Those words mark the start of an exciting adventure! The letter went on to invite me to attend a seminar just a few weeks later, during which I would meet the other successful recipients along with Churchill Fellows who had completed their travels this past year.

Weeks before, as I sat waiting to be called into my final Churchill interview, I met one of my fellow applicants who was also waiting to be called in. Despite our nerves, we started talking about our projects and right there and then. I remember thinking ‘If I don’t get my project funding I really hope she does’. Her project was to travel to the USA to research culturally appropriate services for black women with multiple complex needs. You can imagine the smile on my face when I walked into the seminar for successful applicants to see her familiar face as I walked in. It was her – Geraldine Esdailee.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust states that it funds individuals from the UK to “Travel to learn – return to inspire. We fund British citizens to investigate inspiring practice in other countries, and return with innovative ideas for the benefit of people across the UK”. This year has awarded 150 Travelling Fellowships across the UK totalling £1.4 million. The Fellows will be travelling to 49 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects, designed to benefit their communities and professions in the UK. The average length of a Fellowship is six weeks, but I will probably be away for closer to eight.

My project will bring together my experience of working both in mental health and the Arts as I visit New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Tokyo to look at Outsider Art practice. The definition of Outsider Art is often subject to debate as discussed by Priscilla Frank in What Is The Meaning Of Outsider Art? The Genre With A Story, Not A Style. First used in 1972 by Roger Cardinal as the title of his book, Outsider Art was an exact translation of the term ‘Art Brut’ used to describe artwork produced by untrained artists since 1948.

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Some have argued that the term Outsider Art is itself exclusive and not inclusive, serving as a divisive term rather than a useful label. Outsider Art is often viewed as work produced not only by formally untrained artists, but also by those who often face physical or mental health challenges.

As you can imagine, it would be impossible to thoroughly investigate all Outsider Art in just 7 weeks, so the scope of my work will specifically look at Outsider Artists with mental health challenges, exploring 5 specific aspects;

1. Is the label Outsider Art useful? Does it help us to navigate the complex intersections between health and creativity, work and wellbeing, mainstream and marginality?

2. How is Outsider Art best curated? Should convention mean diagnosis/biographical details are included on labels and interpretation?

3. What are the ethical and moral considerations of exhibiting Outsider Art, especially in a commercial setting, managing finances, the expectations of the artist and the gallery?

4. What are the clinical and therapeutic implications of Outsider Art? What is the source of the tension between formal art therapy and facilitating Outsider Art. Should we in the UK adopt a non-interventionist approach?

5. Should Outsider Art be more closely aligned with public health services in the UK as it is in Japan? How/should we make this happen?

…and so my journey begins, almost 10 months before my first plane takes off in January 2018. It will be almost a year filled with forging links in the places I’ll visit; talking to artists, curators and mental health professionals working in the field in the UK and making sure I can share what I witness in the USA and Japan when I return.

 

“Losing Juliet Changed Me and My Paintings Forever”

Yesterday I went on a quite extraordinary studio visit to an artist that I’ve followed for a long time. It was extraordinary for several reasons, but mainly because the artist Rodney Dickson and I have got more in common than we’d both like to admit.
Visiting New York to research Outsider Art practice, my exploration so far has led me to believe that not only is the term unhelpful, but those artists who’ve experienced traumatic, and I mean truly traumatic, events, should come into a special category of their own.
Rodney has talked very movingly on film about losing his wife of 35 years, Juliet, who took her life almost 2 years ago, in 2016. Juliet took her life in their shared studio and living space after suffering from a severe and enduring episode of depression.
Our lives have crossed paths several times without either of us really realising it. Originally from Ireland, Rodney studied in Liverpool, entering the John Moores Painting Prize, the Prize I used to run. Rodney is one of the relatively few artists to receive a commendation, in the 1987 show.
During a splendid lunch (probably the best I’ve been offered by any artist during a studio visit I have to say!) our conversation turns from painting to our shared experience of being bereaved by suicide. Rodney has questions for me…lots of them!

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Rodney Dickson in his studio

Surrounded by his paintings, for the next 3 hours we talk about every aspect of our unwelcome shared experience. We talk about how it felt to not be left a suicide note. We talk about how it felt to be the person to find our loved one. We talk about our flashbacks, those lucid, 3D visions that drop in front of our eyes at the most inopportune moments. We talk about everything in a way that you can never really fully share with people who haven’t walked your path. Although over a decade separates our experiences, we agree on many things; that neither of us would be sitting having this conversation without the love, support and understanding of those around us; that we accept that we’ll never really have the answers that we crave and especially that talking helps.
It’s when we discuss the transformative effect of our traumatic experiences that we both agree that once the worst thing has happened, it gives you a fearlessness, such that enabled me to make a BBC film about our shared experience, and then travel half way across the world alone.
For Rodney, he has developed the courage to not only pick up his paintbrushes again, but to embrace some significant changes in his painting style. “The day after Juliet died I decided that I wasn’t going to paint anymore. There was no point. Eventually, after almost 9 months, I decided that I did actually want to paint again. It’s who I am. The first time I stood in the studio ready to paint, my head began to throb with an intensity I’d never experienced before. It was like my brain had short-circuited. Everything had built up and it was too much to take. Over time, I stood in front of my paintings again, and, after that, the almost unbearable intensity started to reduce and, eventually, I could paint again, just as had before.”

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Artist Rodney Dickson
When you lose someone you love it becomes a line, a marker, in your history. Our life experiences are split in two. There’s everything that happened before you lost that person, and then there’s everything that’s happened since. When we move across the studio to look at Rodney’s work, that marker in his life is immediately evident in his practice. Rodney’s paintings defy gravity with their heavy layers of oil paint, sometimes applied to the board straight from the tube. The once dark and heavy palette is now light and somehow more fragile. The surfaces are just as densely painted. The weight of the impasto and the texture created are mesmerising and as soon as I entered the studio I can smell the paint.
Once, every inch of the painting surface was covered in paint. Now some areas are left bare, revealing the raw surface of the board, exposing a vulnerability, rather than building a shield of paint armour in front of the viewer – a metaphor for what this experience does to you. It leaves you exposed, staring at parts of yourself you never knew existed, in a landscape that you don’t recognise. Slowly, like Rodney’s paintings, you regroup, build a different you with the same components, just put together in a different way, a new way.

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Painting by Rodney Dickson
Our mutual willingness to be open and honest about our shared experience, and our love of painting, evolved in an afternoon of intense and deep conversation.
Rodney walks me to the subway. It’s easy to get lost in this part of Brooklyn, and I’ve never visited this neighbourhood before. As we say goodbye, I think we both know that although this was the first time we’d met, it was an afternoon that neither of us will forget anytime soon.

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The Artist’s Palette