Open Arts My Self - a curators reflection

The My Self project was joyful. Working with Wendy and Chris, the work in the exhibition, the artists involved in the project - my one overriding emotion reflecting on this project is joy.

I was curator and mentor for this Arts Council funded project; created by Open Arts at Sun Pier House with artists Wendy Daws and Chris Sacre of the Mess Room. The project was hugely successful with an overwhelmingly positive response from participants and audience, and we hope to continue this success with future projects. Here I would like to take a moment to reflect on the work that was made for this beautiful exhibition, show you some photographs I took of the work in situ, and give my reflections on the art that was made and my experience curating and mentoring the artists involved.

The wonderful MySelf shed and portrait wall

The wonderful MySelf shed and portrait wall

The star of the show was undoubtedly the ‘shed’. This piece was a team effort between Wendy, Chris and myself, and started with a conversation about how we could display the work of multiple groups of school children. We wanted to create something cohesive and interactive and envisioned fairly early on a structure that the audience could go inside; experiencing the work from the inside as well as being visually exciting from the outside. It went through a few conceptual iterations; an igloo, a tent, a dome, but we finally settled on a shed, largely for practical reasons which involved the height of the ceiling, our ability to build the thing ourselves and to dismantle and move it to a new site if necessary.

I think it is fair to say that this wonderful structure owes its existence to Chris Sacre, who in addition to building the shed’s wooden frame, also handmade all the willow frames upon which the kids got to make their beautiful paintings. Chris did of course have help though, Wendy traced all the paintings with gel pen to create the internal images for the panels, and the whole team (including Zara and Molly) helped with the painstaking process of attaching all the panels to the frame. The result, I’m sure you will agree is entirely worth the effort and is one of the most striking inhabitants the gallery has seen)

A happy Shed team :)

A happy Shed team :)

All of the artists that I worked with were wonderful human beings, keen to share their stories and their lives, and to see them realise that ambition with such finesse and unique energy was genuinely exciting and satisfying. The challenge of this show from a curatorial perspective was how to best balance all these different energies to create something coherent, and also to give the audience a way visually through this dense collection of visual stimuli. Because the work had such high levels of visual engagement, it took a few days to discover the best way of displaying everything to give the eye and the mind the requisite space to digest each piece in a narrative continuum. 

There was also some element of this during the mentoring phase, and one story which comes to mind that illustrates the point was the work <insert name> was making; she was using the motif of the tree to illustrate her self identity and had made the most beautiful tree as a wall relief from tea bag material, so it was a diaphanous white tree sculpted so as to appear to be growing on or from the white wall. It had an entrancing minimal aesthetic that was immediately appealing and as soon as I saw it, I could visualise how stunning it was going to look in the final show. <Name> had intended to paint the tree and add all sorts of knick knacks hanging from the branches, as well as take it from the wall and have it free standing. I explained how beautiful I thought it was as is, and intended to transplant it directly onto the gallery wall and retain the white minimal aesthetic, she is such a delightfully enthusiastic person and excitedly agreed; when the show was finally formed the tree looked so entrancing and was an absolutely fine piece of work that helped make the exhibition what it was.

The beautiful tea-bag tree

The beautiful tea-bag tree

The white minimalism was a language we fostered throughout the project as a way of balancing the high-key vibrancy of a lot of the work that was made, particularly the shed panels and the wall of wonky portraits. As a quick aside - I am very pleased with the success of this strategy, and am really grateful that Wendy and Chris trusted me so much during the project as a whole, the conversation we had really made me feel valued in a way I haven’t had before, so a quick heartfelt thanks to them for that. OK, back to minimalism, another series of works that benefited (IMO) from this balancing trick was the floor sculptures made by Ken <surname?>.

Ken’s work is instantly affecting, seeing him produce his work in the studio is just something to behold; I call him the art machine because he just doesn’t stop until he runs out of materials or time. Ken is an autistic artist, and his work has a childlike aesthetic, in the best of ways - having worked with children, including my own nephew, their ability to unselfconsciously create is something I have tried very hard to learn from and incorporate into my own practice. Ken has that quality, his marks are intuitive and his thought process completely idiosyncratic. The sculptures he made, with guidance from Wendy Daws are shaped like curved cones, made using the same willow branches covered with painted cellophane that we used for the shed panels. These objects represent the people around him and are covered with his signature drawings, and were universally loved by visitors; his decision to depict his friends in this unusual form is exciting and intriguing. We kept the drawings in black to retain the minimal monochrome aesthetic and allow the shape of the structures to be the dominant visual element, and this worked really well in the space, I love these pieces so much, great work Ken!

A happy visitor exploring Ken’s sculptures

A happy visitor exploring Ken’s sculptures

So the main space of the exhibition was dominated by a triumvirate of pieces; the shed, Ken’s sculptures and the portrait wall. This third element was (how many?) self portraits made using collaged coloured paper, portraying everyone involved in the project; artists, schoolchildren, facilitators, and even myself. Individually these wonky portraits were adorable, charming, idiosyncratic wonders, but en-masse they were a site to behold. They serendipitously fit the space  perfectly that I had in mind for them from the beginning. The portrait wall was the visual coda that held the exhibition together, rhyming with the panels of the shed, and creating a thematic narrative for the concept of the show as self-portraits, albeit elsewhere as less traditional self-portraiture. The playful, youthful exuberance of the work gave license to enjoy the show as a whole in a manner of childlike wonder, and the blast of high-key colour that you got from being in that space was a treat for the eyes. I genuinely loved seeing that wall come together, and have that now as a reference going forward curatorially to draw upon. 

Another individual piece that stands out in my memory was the life size replica of dogs name made by artists name. The artist is blind, and dogs name is her seeing eye dog (correct terminology?). The artwork has been lovingly created in velvet making it irresistibly tactile and also incredibly lifelike. I saw other dogs come up to it and try to interact, convinced that it was a real dog. Artist wanted her dark glasses near the dog to represent herself alongside her companion, so we came up with a way of suspending the glasses above the dog, as well as suspending the handle from the dogs harness, so it looked like she was stood with the dog, albeit invisible apart from her glasses. I think the effect was quite effective, and I enjoyed the playfulness of the presentation.

Art dog and real dog

Art dog and real dog

There were many other wonderful pieces in the show - Helen’s gorgeous sunrise paintings, name’s bonkers guitar-man sculpture, the children’s papier-mache sculptures, Norma’s tea-bag dress, and loads, loads more. Everything in the exhibition showed individuality and exuberance, and I congratulate everyone involved on a beautiful, heart-warming, and exciting show. Well done to Wendy and Chris for helping the artists to create such amazing work, I know how hard they worked (as always) and it is a credit to them that such fantastic work ended up coming to me for curation. Well done also to Heather Burgess from Sun Pier House, who organised the project and got the funding secured to make it a reality - this is their first project of this kind and goes to show that they can run highly successful projects of this scale that help underrepresented social groups while also being incredibly exciting from a purely aesthetic standpoint.

If you got to see the show yourself, I am sure you agree with me what a fantastic spectacle it was, and one that will live in our memories for some time to come, if not then hopefully my project reflections helped give you a sense of what you missed - and we hope to see you for the next project we do together. 

All the best! Matt x

Some of the project’s participants and facilitators in front of the portrait wall

Some of the project’s participants and facilitators in front of the portrait wall