PROJECT : Stephen is an 84 year old retired man, a former forestry worker and refuse collector who over 20 years of his retirement has built the pet cemetery on the foreshore of his native village Cullen. Whilst it is well known locally as a place of interest it is not known beyond this group of local people and tourists to the area. I feel it is actually a site of great interest to the INTERNATIONAL OUTSIDER ART COMMUNITY
OUTCOME : There were two perhaps three distinct outcomes from this engagement. The first unexpected but welcomed outcome was a friendship. What started as an investigation into an outsider art environment and a brief chat with its maker grew into something far deeper. When Stevie agreed to a filmed interview, I realised he had so much more to tell me and decided to continue filming each visit of the residency. On one occasion i caught him halfway up a ladder and ended up taking over the job of painting his sealoft by the harbour. A full day of DIY followed but a turning point for us both in our friendship. Gradually we began to know and trust each other. There were days where we wouldn’t film at all. We just sat chewing the fat down by the harbour or in a local cafe. That relationship means a great deal to me. I wonder if that was not the best engagement i could ever have expected. A real friend, a constant history lesson of Cullen and the north east coast. A place where Stevie had spent all his life excepting a spot of national service. More of my thoughts on what is engagement at the end of this piece.
The second outcome was to create a film and installation which again elevated a single voice in the community but a voice who in so many ways represented that community and its core values. This voice was elevated to a public audience of like minded people. His voice also reaches further to an international audience of educators, academics and art therapists through its promotion within the European Outsider Art Association. A final longer film is ongoing at edit stages while the shorter piece has been used at conference, in exhibition and online in his local community.
The third outcome came by surprise through a generous honorarium budget and the fact that a local contractor booked to assist in the execution of that project let me down. When asked what he would like from this £1000 budget Stevie asked nothing for himself, only that perhaps we could finish the corner of the pet cemetery that had lain dormant since EU regulations stopped him many years ago. I bought and had delivered 9 tons of pebbles but at the eleventh hour the contractor booked to spread these stones disappeared. This left me no other option but to ask via the village facebook group for volunteers to help at 1 days notice during a very stormy wet weekend. Fearing no one turning up we were absolutely astonished by the communities response. Over twenty people turned up and finished the job with us in a few hours. A rather beautiful ending to the filming and a wonderful community engagement that was neither forced, planned or self serving. A giving and a selfless act of generosity in which everyone gathered together and everyone gained a huge sense of the value of community. I have also given a donation to the Cullen volunteers group to help keep the pet cemetery tidy and thank them for all the great work they do looking after Cullen.
THOUGHTS : Finally the work I was constructing had changed entirely. Stevie has become the whole heart of the entire residency for me as had being immersed in the tiny community of Cullen. Cullen became a safe harbour away from home and during the strange times covid has created all around us. I have learned much of what is the stoic character of the people in this area staying there and making a real friendship with my old outsider artist pal. So as sometimes happens I scrapped an earlier work and started again – tying the making of an installation tightly into the film of Stevie. It all began to feel true and authentic at last.
The installation a portrait and simple box cabinet made from found wood supported on old turned table legs is filled with objects that describe both Stevie, his collections and also the village and its history. Below the table sits a perfect circle of stones. The cabinet itself reflects a much larger one which hangs in Stevie’s sea loft in his most private space. Together with the film extract it is a simple but very honest and true portrait of a man and a place.
During stage 2 I will finish the much longer film and show it in Cullen but it needs quite a bit of refinment. These works will continue to develop for quite some time I think and are the true knowing the residency has provided. Stevie has been teaching me the old ways. I think I am trying to hold on to this old man and his knowledge and his experiences before time takes him away. There has been so much loss during covid nationally and also personally that this has made this seem even more important than before. Perhaps I am searching for a truth in life, a better meaning, a better way of living, a father, a community, it’s all of this and more. Artists are seekers. That is what art is, that is what engagement is. That is what the residency really had to offer. Engagement is not about numbers it is about depth, commitment, connections and truth. I wish I had seen this sooner and who knows how much further the community and Stevie would have taken me. See an extract of the longer film here https://vimeo.com/749162391
3 Comments Add yours
Fabulous. Well done.
He’ll never be forgotten and hope he will be with us for a long time to come
I am always impressed by the way you engage with communities and the people within them. You are of course correct that engagement is not a numbers game but about deeper connections with everyday folk who have a story to tell and need an ear to listen. It only takes one person to make a difference and Stevie has with his pet cemetary and the testament to that fact is the 20 volunteers who appeared at short notice to help. Now that is engagement though maybe not as appealing to funders who want big numbers and ever impossible targets. We have forgotten that art is communication, a language that we all as children knew so well but as adults rarely allow ourselves the time to partake. With Covid these sacred honest people and places became so important to us all. A place where we could feel connected in a disconnected world. Thank you for helping us all to see and listen.