The Day After.
Well. The exhibition is finished for this time, and all is packed up and in my studio again. We had a very loving closing prayer and blessing from Lucy Winkett, Rector at St James's Piccadilly, and it felt that the exhibition breathed a sigh of relief and began to get itself ready for dismantling.
How was it? How was the two weeks in a central London location, in a fabulous old listed church with a philosophy of "All Welcome, end of story"? Well, it was fabulous. I am spending today back at home in my pyjamas following the sun as it shines in different rooms of the house, and forcing myself to do nothing so the experience can begin to settle in my mind. Here though, are a few thoughts. I will write about the exhibition itself later when I am rested. In the meantime -
St James's in Piccadilly opened itself to me and let me in. I was given a key, given the gallery and given all the time and space I needed to set up. The people who work in the church took me and the exhibition in their stride and nothing was too much trouble for them; I was made to feel welcome, I was made to feel as if the exhibition was important, I was treated with such generosity and courtesy that I could not but enjoy every moment in the church.
I think that as I sat upstairs in the gallery with my paintings and all the A Graceful Death stuff, I saw how important people are to each other. I think I saw how, if the leadership of an organisation is good, that organisation tends to be good. Sitting up in the gallery, the church would fill with the sound of tramps snoring. People would wander around, the traffic outside would ebb and flow, and the tramps would snore as if they were competing with each other to take the roof off. And then suddenly an orchestra would arrive. After a few minutes, they would play Mozart and continue to practice until the lunchtime concert. Up in the gallery, I could only see what happened in the church below if I went and looked. So then the Mozart would stop and after a little while, the snoring would resume and I would watch people come and go in the exhibition. And then, someone would play the piano. Once, two serious and intense young men came and practiced the most disjointed but clever piece of classical music for a concert, filling the whole place with a passionate and deeply intellectual recital of something beyond my understanding. After they left, after the concert, in the silence, the snoring started up again.
Yesterday afternoon, as the exhibition was winding down and people were gathering amongst the paintings for a last rather party like look and chat, a lady somewhere in the church below started to sing Ave Maria. Everyone stopped and looked heavenwards, it was so beautiful, it was so appropriate, and I longed to say Yes, I organised this for the exhibition, it is all my doing. But of course it wasn't. It was a wedding practice below, and I knew that, but I could see the effect it was having on the people in the exhibition and I loved it. By the end of two weeks in St James's, I was becoming accostomed to sudden bursts of fabulous music, and was beginning to take it all in my stride. Like the time, at the beginning of my stay at St James's, lots of young people arrived and started milling around the altar. A tour, I thought. A tour of well meaning but bored teenagers. Suddenly one of them started to sing, and all of them joined in, and lo. Not a group of tourists, but a travelling Venezualan choir rehearsing. Blimey, I thought, I wonder if they are meant to be doing that, before one of the excellent Vergers explained that it was all OK and they were booked to do a concert that day in St James's. And indeed, the next time I saw them they were in black tie and evening gowns with pearls.
That the organisation was good showed itself in the kindness and thoroughness of the people who worked there. All seemed to have a very quiet pride in not just their work, but in the church. Anyone can come in here and sleep, I was told. Anyone. During a service they have to sit up, but after they can go back to sleep. Merchant Bankers can come and sleep if they want but as it happens, tramps and the homeless are the ones who take advantage of it. Hence the snoring. There is a crisis caravan outside available for anyone who needs advice and counselling. It is true, it is an old fashioned caravan parked outside in the courtyard, and you get time and referrals and advice for free there, and anyone can go. There is much the church does and I don't really know any of it, but what snippets I heard from the staff and those who came to the exhibition as members of the church, made me think that there is a kind of fierce determination from the top down, to do what is needed for one human to another, to put their money where their mouth is, and to shine a light, the brightest light that they can, and to do it simply because they can and will. And to shine it in the darkest corners as a matter of urgency.
I met a wonderful man from the Alternatives organisation, part of St James's. He explained how the church encouraged free thinking, exploration, discussion and all sorts of alternative paths to spirituality and God through workshops, through speakers, through weekend workshops running constantly throughout the year and very much a part of St James's.
Finally, I met a lady, a wonderful fiercely intelligent brightly coloured lady, who is on the Parish Council and speaks many languages and told me she had a problem with authority; this lady said that this church was run with such creativity and intelligence, such passion and insight, that she had found her faith again after a period of having lost her way. She puts the leadership and the passion and the creativity down to the Rector, Lucy Winkett, and says that without her deep intelligence, commitment and leadership, none of this would be possible. Lucy, said this amazing lady, brought creativity back to St James's.
And now I am home, having been accepted into this church for the last two weeks, after they gave me a platform -asking absolutely nothing in return - to show my exhibition. I am thankful, I am affected by them, and when I can decide what to do to say thank you to them, I will do it. So until I know what I will do, I will say thank you here. Thank You St James's, thank you.
The A Graceful Death Exhibition and Project by Antonia Rolls is about what it means to die. Portraits, paintings and words from the end of life. Powerful, moving, loving, uplifting, inspiring. The A Graceful Death Project includes talks, presentations, discussions, events connected to awareness raising of end of life issues. The latest news, exhibitions, events and developments will be available here.
Wednesday, 11 April 2012
Saturday, 7 April 2012
Closing Prayer with Lucy Winkett
Tuesday 10 April, at 3pm.
I am so glad to have Lucy to say a closing prayer for us,
to bless and thank all those who have visited and all those who have taken part, in A Graceful Death.
And to bless and pray for all those who are on this journey themselves.
All welcome, up in the gallery with the paintings.
Today, the exhibition was visited by many people, one of whom said that I should take it to the Houses of Parliament and then Strazburg. She then said that it would be too much for her to come in to actually see the exhibition, she needed time as her experiences were so raw. Her enthusiastic response was based on the written stuff I have displayed on the staircase on the way up to the exhibition. She promised to come back for the closing prayer. I look forward to welcoming her.
See you all on Tuesday.
Thursday, 5 April 2012
Opening Hours for the next few days -
Thursday 5 April midday – 5pm
Friday 6 April Good Friday 9am – 11.30 am
Saturday 7 April 10am - 5pm
Sunday 8 April Easter Day 12.30pm – 5pm
Monday 9 April Bank Holiday, church and exhibition closed
Tuesday 10 April 10am – 1pm & 2pm – 5pm
Closing Prayer to end exhibition 3pm in the gallery amongst the paintings Tuesday 10 April
I have met some amazing people at St James's. I sit there amongst the paintings every day, and watch people come and go. Some come in, climbing the stairs to the gallery, hesitate at the door and turn and run away. Some come in and spend time looking and I can see them thinking hard. Others come in and glance at the paintings, read what they can quickly and leave without making eye contact and some come to speak to me and tell me what is going on in their lives.
Yesterday a smart man in a suit told me he was 75 years old. He said, he was happy enough, he was retired and had never married nor had children. His father died when he was 16 and he said, after that, he saw no reason to be optimistic about anything. His own life, he said, had been run of the mill, he had no ambition and didn't see the point in doing anything really, he never regained his optimism and still missed his father. He gave me a hug and left the exhibition. This man had a lovely gentle smile, and I don't believe his life was run of the mill. He just didn't feel that forgettable.
Another man dropped in yesterday, struggling up the stairs with his walking stick. A few minutes before he got to the door a small boy walked into the exhibition, and made his way along the paintings, silently and with great confidence. A few minutes later, an anxious old man with a walking stick appeared at the door. I asked if a small boy with lovely aubern hair belonged to him, and he beathed a sigh of relief. His grandson, he said, and he kept losing him because he couldn't move very fast. He is fine here, I said, because the grandson was skipping about the pews in the gallery and had found some toy animals that were part of a small tribute to a young man called David. The old fellow rested on his stick and started to tell me that when he was six, like his grandson, he had been evacuated. He told me the story of his evacuation, and how he had recently been back to visit the village in the country where he had ended up. He was a real East Ender, he said, London was all he had ever known, it was a real shock and adventure at six years old. After a while, Grandad went to sit quietly in the pews in the gallery. Soon, the little fellow made it clear that he was finished, and it was time to go on to the next adventure. On his way out, Grandad made a donation to the exhibition. He had not looked at a single painting, nor do I think he even knew what it was about. It is very nice, he said as he left, to meet nice people. It is good, he said, to have someone listen.The closing prayer for the exhibition is on Tuesday 10 April at 3pm. We will bless and thank all those involved in visiting, supporting, taking part in, the A Graceful Death exhibition and experience.
Monday, 2 April 2012
Today, Snowy the Cat is the Star.
Don't forget -
Tuesday 4 April Poetry Workshop with Penny Hewlett,
"Face to Face with Loss", up in the gallery of St James's Church Piccadilly, amonsgst the A Graceful Death paintings.
Today, Snowy The Cat is the Star.
I am sitting in St James’s in Piccadilly as I write this. I thought an update while it is happening would be very on the ball, so here it is.
A Graceful Death is exhibiting in St James’s Church in Piccadilly, in the wonderful old wooden gallery up some stairs, overlooking the main church below. Sitting in the pews and looking up to your right, will give you a small surprise as you will see some paintings of those nearing the end of life looking down at you from above. There have been quite a few startled visitors to the exhibition wanting to know what was going on up here, having been a little surprised while quietly saying their prayers in the main church below and glancing, as one does, to the right towards the beautiful Wren windows, and seeing a painting of Steve looking down at them, as he sat so ill in the hospice a few days before he died.
I have just met a most interesting lady. She came up the stairs to the exhibition with two friends, both of whom left very quickly. This lady came into the exhibition with purpose, and having looked at most of the paintings, spent a long time at the far end of the gallery. From time to time this lady wiped her eyes with a large, white hanky, and I wondered what painting had moved her so. She was old, very thin, with long hair tied into a pony tail. She seemed self-contained and a little eccentric. When she eventually came to say something to me, I was not expecting her to have cried so much over the picture of Snowy the Cat. Snowy the Cat was added to the A Graceful Death exhibition at the request of the poet Rosie Miles; Snowy is a much loved and often missed cat. Well, the memories that Snowy the Cat prompted, are as follows:
A while ago, my long thin lady had been diagnosed with an aggressive and fearful cancer and had had to undergo emergency surgery and intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It was chaotic, and it was a miracle that she did not die. However, she said that during her treatment, amongst other things, her memory seemed to have been utterly wiped clean, her ability to do even the smallest thing was incredibly hard. Her therapist however, (she used the word therapist and so I shall too) had a cat. This cat always sat on her bed, and she became very aware of it. The cat became ill too, and my long thin lady was terribly concerned that it would not survive. She had resisted going into a nursing home, it seems that she was being cared for privately and had the services of her therapist and the cat – one of her reasons for not wanting to move anywhere else was that she had devised for herself a diet that was incredibly restrictive, she was afraid no one would be able to keep up with it. However, the cat in its illness, became a focus for her and she fed the cat – presumably with her therapist’s agreement - her own special diet. The cat, she said, was very appreciative. As this lady slowly recovered, she was able to cat sit for her therapist. The cat, said the therapist, was still very ill, and would die soon. My lady was not to be upset nor alarmed, but should care for it as best she could, when the therapist could not do so. How, thought my lady, could she best care for the cat, when her own treatment had taken her memory away and made her so ill herself? I would want to know everything that happened to my cat, she said, if it was my cat, in the care of someone else, and not likely to survive. So she wrote a diary day by day, such that she could, in her jumbled state, of the cat and its movements and health.
The cat survived. It did die, later on, when it was well and truly old. But while my long thin lady was dealing with her own cancer, her own ill health and the nightmare of treatments, she managed to focus on a cat that had its own illness, and to bring it through somehow. And my long thin old lady survived too. Her eyes are going now, she said, and her hearing, which explained why she was looking so intently and for such a long time at the painting of Snowy.
With a lovely smile and a cheerful wave, she said goodbye and left. Her parting words were that there is such a powerful link between the animal world and the human world, if we look for it. She is delighted to have seen Snowy included in this exhibition, and it moved her to remember the way her therapist, by giving her the cat to care for, brought her through her own terrible battle with cancer.
So, today, Snowy is the Star.
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