Tuesday 1 March 2011

A Valuable But Mixed Experience In Manchester

www.antoniarolls.co.uk for my website
www.jesusonthetube.co.uk for the Jesus on the Tube image story and image
www.antoniarolls.blogspot.com for an account of an Artist and Mother in Bognor Regis
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fl44L6Izrd0 for a short film from the first weeks of creating the A Graceful Death exhibition by Bertram Somme

A Valuable Experience In Manchester, A Mixed Bag

The exhibition was held in St Nicholas Church in Burnage, Manchester, with the Rev Rachel Mann.

a family looking at the Steve As Christ's Head painting hung in the Baptistry in the church

The A Graceful Death exhibition has been packed up, folded away, and transported back to the studio.  It was a new kind of venue for me in Burnage, Manchester.  I hung the exhibition in a public place, a church, and left it there for a week.  The paintings looked very effective in this setting;  they looked strong and memorable and difficult to ignore.  It was hard for some in the congregation, who when they came to the service on the Sunday, could not but be confronted with images of death and dying under the title of A Graceful Death.  "There is no such thing as a graceful death" was the general feeling of those who did not like it.  The opening and closing nights were full of those who chose to come, and take part in the exhibition experience.  But the service is part of many of the parishioners pattern of life, and non-negotiable. Those that did come, and did not like it, are very brave indeed.  The end of life is not an easy subject and if it is unavoidable as part of the Sunday service, then that is very hard indeed.

Neill, in the hat is the Director of the A Graceful Death film, Graham is the camera man.  The large painting of Steve in the background above the altar was particularly effective and wonderful, though very prominent.

A church is a place of refuge for many.  A church, your own church, is yours, and is not somewhere that you want to challenge or frighten you.  Sometimes we have arrived at a set of beliefs that mean everything to us because they make us safe in a world which is unsafe and random.  Sometimes, we feel it is better to come to the services and masses and feel connected with what we feel we need so much, like reassurance, familiarity, companionship, communion with God.  To have paintings from an exhibition that shake that necessary injection of hope and love from God, all around this sacred place of personal refuge, must be extremely difficult.  And A Graceful Death is not an exhibition that is easily dismissed with indifference.  So there were those who disliked the exhibition with a passion, and those who loved it with a passion.  As I was packing up to leave, helped as ever by my son Costya who had come up especially, a church warden came into the church.  The church is kept locked at all times when there is not a service or function going on, as there have been some tricky situations from the street outside.  So I knew this lady was part of the congregation.  Having asked if I was the artist, she told me with great kindness that many of the older folk had been very upset.  I knew this, Rev Rachel and I had discussed it.  Her husband, she said, would not come near the exhibition.  Just as she walked into the church ten minutes or so before, I remembered, she was accompanied by a man who took one look at me and turned and ran back out of the door.  Ah, I thought.  The husband.  She explained that some of the younger members of the parish had lost friends and family recently and were in no fit state to come and see an exhibition of this kind.  I can see that too, and I am so sorry about that.  This lovely church warden then went on to tell me about her father and her sister's deaths, and how she reacted to them.  She spoke with clarity about what was obviously still very difficult for her, even 20 or 30 years ago.  After a while we said our goodbyes and as she went back out into the street I heard her say, "She's very nice, you know" in a surprised voice to, I presume, her husband outside.

Many of the paintings of Steve's last moments were hung in the Baptistry, along with the painting of Peter and Anne Snell, at Peter's death bed.  There were tiny paintings in here too, like the Dancing Steve Out of Life, the Sadness and Tea Diptych.  The painting of me as a Survivor is on the wall of the main part of the church.

I am very nice.  The exhibition is tough.  It brings our experience of loss to the surface and if we have not been able to cope before with the sadness, we are not going to be able to cope in the exhibition.  But this is where the hope and the catharsis comes in.  In this exhibition it is safe to feel a connection with your own story of loss, or bereavement, or illness, or survival.  I am there to talk to and listen for the openings and closings of the exhibition, when there are the most people visiting, and if I am not there, someone else is.  In this case, Rev Rachel, for the days midweek that I was away.  Sometimes images that are not photographs, that are painted, can touch the places that we keep covered.  Other people have written poetry and written essays for the exhibition, and those words are full of hope, sadness and sometimes, acceptance. At the A Graceful Death experience, taking time to look at the paintings and reading the words, the universal human condition of life and death touches us and if we have been bereaved, we know what the paintings and the words are about.  One very amazing lady told me that she had at last, connected to her father's death of 20 years ago when she came to the exhibition during the week.  She was, she said, a mess during the time she spent looking at the A Graceful Death.  She came back again to look finish looking at the paintings and words, at the closing night party.  Now, she said, she feels a relief and a kind of release. She is a priest herself, and counsels those who have been bereaved - and she thanked me for the healing experience.  I thank her, she is a brave lady.

A very important part of the exhibition is the Word Wall.  Here is hung many of the poems that were sent to me for use in the exhibition, plus a few words about who they are about. 

I met some truly wonderful people.  I met the daughter, the granddaughter and the great-granddaughters of the lovely old man who I painted called John Horne.  It was the first time they had seen the painting in real life.  I had sent them prints made by Eileen the photographer, but to meet them for me, and for them to see the painting in real life, was truly a highlight. 

The lovely John Horne.  

There were many profound conversations, and I have some wonderful writings given to me which I want to use for the next A Graceful Death which is in St Martins in the Bullring in Birmingham in November this year.  I hope to receive some more poetry from some very kind people who were moved by the paintings, and I hope to paint more Survivors of the bereavement and grieving process.  And as ever, anyone who would agree to be painted at the end of their lives, with love, grace and dignity, then that is what I want to do.

Looking at the book of thoughts, and reading about the A Graceful Death exhibition.  I spoke with this man, who was very sensitive and had worked in health care himself.

1 comment:

  1. I think what you are doing is a beautiful thing. And I think Jesus is very challenging, and not just comforting. Your writings and what I can see of your pictures speak to me in a powerful way: partly, because my own wife died just over two years ago - she took her own life, but had really tried to give herself a graceful death - which may also sound strange to some people; partly because I have seen many people die; but mostly because they somehow fill me hope when I am such a cynical and pessimistic old cuss these days. I think you have tremendous strength and compassion - so thank you for sharing that with the world.