The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.
I was sat with my morning coffee in a sweet Bristol cafe, a man walks in and he has a puppy shoved down his coat. It's cute and I wish I had my camera. It's a local place and the food is wholesome and the decor homely. A couple of lads who were cleaning the streets come in and order one of each type of cake and ask the waitress what chick peas are. She explains and he says 'maybe tomorrow, today I'm have the red velvet cake.' They leave, put their high vis on and dis appear in a cloud of vape smoke. My buds are in bed in our little place in St Paul's. They came down from our home city of Birmingham for the opening of No Man's Land. I've got to do a little talk this morning so I've snuck out and headed to this cafe. I'm reading up on non violent communication ready for a week of running self defence sessions then I start to think about the opening of No Mans Land in Bristol. Navigating between the need to process an event and look towards the next week of work this quote by Nhat Hanh leapt out at me. I'd written it in my notebook a while back and my notes are always spreading and sprawling. One shelf of my bookcase is dedicated to these notebooks. A library of un finished thoughts.
I often can’t quite place what feel like parallel worlds I seem to extend across and often can’t quite rationalise why I don’t have one set job, or why I don’t want one. At a recent workshop earlier we talked about lived experience and how this can be used and emboldened in forms of activism (sometimes called change making, I prefer activism). As I began to talk about my own lived experience the realisation that I’d never shared my collective life experience welled up in my throat and turned clarity into a series of emotional and jumbled series of rants and outbursts. I had lost the language to talk about it collectively as I had spent a long time keeping parts of my military life locked away from the life I lead now. But what it did do is give me a better awareness of why I can’t just keep on one set path. Curiosity and a strong sense of being involved in art that can create greater understanding with perhaps the space for reconciliation is something that has been part of me for a very long time. I actually joined the military with the feeling that I would protect people from harm, defend those who needed to be defended. A naive and now very much different view to the one I have now. But that was my truth at the age of 21. On a more personal level I needed to find a way to support myself and create a sort of alternative family. I craved some structure and guidance. Thats one of the factors that aids the military recruitment model.
There’s part of me that’s still not ready to share some of the experiences of the past 20 years, and something my friend said over the weekend really resonated with me “I think it’s ok to be open 90% of the time, but there may always be 10% of things you just want to keep back.” I think I’m keeping a bit more than 10% back and this is something I want to work through with my creative work. Which brings me back to Bristol and the thoughts I have on the No Mans Land exhibition.
I’ve been part of this collective of artists and late photographers for about 4 years now, from the early conversations with Pippa at Impressions and the sage words from friends over the years have really helped to get a better understanding of working slower, but wider. Listening to Dawn Cole talk about her work has shaped and encouraged me to look at many view points on war, the effects of war and the representation of narratives from conflict. When I first set out on this work I felt this concern around depicting the army as a ‘good place for women’. I knew that I had no ambition to glorify or take a side in this piece. Thats why the collection of work made so much sense to me and how it gave us the space to meet and share our collection of what I feel at it's heart is anti war.
As an artist - I feel I can say it now. I think I'm an artist. It's the only label I can sort of sit in with any level of knowing. You know, that thing in your gut that just says 'yeaaah, I think thats me'. I’m open to all experiences and constantly listening and thinking about stories, view points, feelings, thoughts, facts and emotions. I may not present as an artist. If art comes from pain I've got a fair amount of it and it's the closest medium I've found to try and do some good out of that. Not in a self absorbed way, I don't do pity, but more in a 'hey this is something I did, maybe give that one a miss'. It may be confusing to think how a creative can deliver self defence sessions, but for me this is also part of the art. I’m using creative processes to talk about difficult subjects. Art to me is far more than aesthetic. Art can be whatever it wants to be when it supports and uplifts connection, purpose and understanding, in my opinion. Others may dis agree, but that's also the magic of art. We can keep creating and sharing so many different aspects of human nature through art that the ideas are endless. I can't even begin to tell you how much I've learnt over the past few years as seeing art as an act of resistance. It's powerful and it's important. Don't just buy art. Be art. Live art. Love art. Everyone should have access to art and art should be everywhere. It's our job as artists to put it out in spaces you can access. Galleries without fees. Rooms with no doors. I'm trying. Taking each slice when we can and working on it. Because we just can't work on it all. Take your piece, find your people and do something with it. Now back to the other notebook, next the to one I started yesterday and underneath the one I started this morning.
No Mans Land will be on show until the 20 July at Bristol Cathedral. It's free. I just ask you get a hot brew for the folk who live on the green out front.