Face Pulling and Meaning It

Oh My!

Where to start?

Last night’s private view of nine women was fab.

It’s one thing to have a great night out, full of friends, music, art, humour, deep conversation and thought provoking ideas…

It is one whole world away to be in the midst of it and realise that they are my friends, it’s my music, my art… that both the humour and the thought has been provoked by my work…or some of it at least.

It could go either way… either I could be full of myself and thinking how amazing I must be…

or… as has actually happened, I am bemused, confused, flattered, and thinking that someone must be mistaken, and that I’m a huge fraud and I’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.

But this is kind of the nub of the thing isn’t it?

My statement in my last post about ordinariness. It is precisely that which is appealing, certainly to me when I look at objects, garments, art, music… that ordinary, human voice.

Over the last two and a bit years since the Arts Council gave me the money, I see enormous changes in myself. I am certainly more confident. I do see that I have something valid to say. I no longer care tooooo much if people disagree. Is that arrogant? Possibly.

….or is it the opposite?

I used to be so conscious of myself, how I looked, presented myself to other people.

I have seen some photos this morning, which I will post here. They show me to be exactly what I am: a middle aged, overweight, face pulling woman who waves her arms about. I laugh a lot.

After my mother died, I hardly had any photos of her really, she was the one who took the photos, she hated photos of herself. That is a shame, because we would have loved to have more. So part of my reaction to this is to not care. The people looking at them that love me, will carry on loving me. I don’t care about the rest.

Also, I really feel they give you a flavour of what the night was like.

Oh man I had a good time!

Thank you so much to those who came, and those who couldn’t that sent such lovely messages.

Thank you to Dawn Harris of ArtistsWorkhouse, her wonderful gallery space!

Thank you to Dan Whitehouse, without whom it wouldn’t be very musical at all! I borrow him, and steal his skills, to make me look so much better than I am!

And thank you to Matthew Rea of stinkingdaisy.co.uk who took this batch of photos… I expect there will be more from others later on…

Rainy Days and Ordinary Mondays

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The Sitting Room: Andy Jenkins, Elena Thomas, Lloyd McKenzie, Ian Sutherland. Photo by John Stranks at The Maverick Open Mic Showcase, Stourbridge

Actually I quite like rainy days.

And Mondays.

It wasn’t always that way though.

I really like the way Facebook pops up “On this day…” every now and again. On a rainy day such as this, I find myself probably spending too much time on a variety of social media. But the rainy days also make me contemplative, so a prompt to what has happened over the last ten years is actually beneficial. I am moaning about the usual self-imposed self-employed cash flow problem, but realise it is short term. That actually I made my choices for very good reasons. I am now time rich and cash poor. But I am not homeless, I have food and clothes. I do what I want most of the time. I have a lot of choice in my life that others don’t. I know that I am privileged and fortunate. I know that I am ordinary.

I had a brilliant job for about ten years, in which I got to spend time with other people’s children, (as well as my own) being creative, laughing, exploring, adventuring, thinking and questioning. It was a very special place to be with some very special people. For a while the three months of awfulness at the end blinded me to all this. This morning a memory from 2009 popped up:

“Elena Thomas……has had a lovely time drawing in the garden with year 5…. counting pairs of mating frogs…. and telling James it’s not sperm, it’s frog spawn…”

Joy!

Also this week I am reminded of trips around the world with my art to see amazing people and see their art, and see and hear wonderful life-changing things.

Art has the power to change things. Enabling children to think like an artist for a while is a powerful thing. Not just allowing but encouraging discussion of sperm and spawn in a place of beauty and nature and humour is something I will remember forever. Some of those children I taught hold large joyful places in my heart.

“Wow! Mrs Thomas! You’re like a REAL artist…. like….like…. Dick Van Gogh!”

It is however, also right that now I don’t do it. It is right now for me to be making things myself, saying and singing the things I want to say. Life is short. I am older. I have less energy and patience for that, but boundless energy for this.

This week I embark upon the reprise of nine women… in a real gallery space. It has been two years getting it here, almost. The work feels bigger, the songs seem more important. While women are being belittled and objectified by the “Leader of the Free World”, these women I have invented, borrowed, studied and written of become more somehow. While wrapped in tissue in boxes, these women have become more important.

My performance of the songs also is more, I am no longer apologetic, looking for an excuse to make it right to sing them. Quite the opposite. I now feel it is important to sing them… and to do it unashamedly and to the best of my ability.

I have moved on, grateful for the opportunities afforded me. So what I can’t afford a new macbook just yet. Poor me! So what we haven’t had a holiday for years – don’t need one! I’d like some new boots, but it doesn’t matter, I have old ones. I’d like a really good microphone and a new stand… so what? I have friends I can borrow from until I can. Those things are no longer important.

I like to think I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m fat, 56 (just), and I don’t look as good as I think I do, but that’s the kind of body dysmorphia that works for me. It means I am happy to post pictures of myself as exactly that. I’m happy to post youtube video of me singing in a pub in the Black Country. It isn’t all about me. It’s about doing it because I am able to. I was the only woman doing it that night. There should be more. Maybe doing it as fat and 56 and not as good as I think I am is the way to encourage other women?

Maybe ditching one life in order to become something new is a way to show other women that it’s ok? That waiting to be thinner and prettier and less spotty and less wrinkly and more elegant is never going to happen. Do it now. Do it in an ordinary way. Ordinary is great. Ordinary is fine. Ordinary is powerful. We are all ordinary.

We are so privileged in the UK, even post brexit, post truth, post Trump and post May… Acknowledge the privilege and do something ordinary with it I say. Most of us can manage ordinary. Imagine the results if we all just got up one day and decided to do something manageably ordinary? It would be revolutionary!

So get out there, look at frog spawn with children. Teach. Write songs. Bake. Draw. Sew. Make something. Talk. Laugh. Sing. Be the most ordinary you can and rejoice in it. Ordinary can change the world.

Not a music CD, but a CD of music?

You learn all the time, as you go along don’t you?
The things you learn this time get absorbed and used more easily next time… And next time throws up a whole new set of problems….

When I got the funding to record the songs for the nine women installation two years ago I had no idea what might happen to them after… Had I known, I might have thought more carefully beforehand and taken certain things into consideration when trying to balance the budget…
I ended up self funding a publication run after the money ran out, because I wanted a lyric book… And I part self funded Laura Rhodes to do my video.

Two years on, in the process of getting ready for the second launch of nine women, other costs are incurred that wouldn’t have occurred to me before… In this case, some of the incidental accidental obstacles have proved useful in that they delayed me from making potentially expensive mistakes…

I, as a self employed person, as usual, am owed a lump of money. Nothing new there except I was going to use some of it for a run of 200 CDs of the 9w soundtrack. The delay in payment and the bloody awful nature of the 3 company websites I looked at meant I couldn’t order them. But then subsequently decided not to anyway, that it would be silly to get 200 CDs to sell ten if I’m lucky, to have them stuck in the loft. So online was the next thing… But not knowing anything about the process, panicked a bit…. Then in my usual fashion asked Dan a stupid question. Not that I knew it was a stupid question until after I’d asked it!
The thing is, we realised in conversation, this isn’t really a music cd… Well not in the traditional sense… So the iTunes route may not be appropriate… We don’t quite know what is yet, so we will holdback on that and think about it.

In the meantime, for the exhibition, Dan suggested I do a small, DIY limited edition run of CDs … Signed and numbered as art duplication usually is! Genius!

Then, as he says, we can think about the online thing slowly and carefully and do it properly, because you can only do it once… You can’t take it back once it’s out there… This is in effect my first solo release. It’s good work, and deserves to be treated well.

It will also, if we get it right, pave the way for the next sound work I do… Establish my own, unique, unusual selling point pathway. This work isn’t like anyone else’s. So let’s see what we can come up with….
Watch this space as they say….

A Curious Narrative

The Curious Narrative

Hints.
Secrets.
Tales of foreboding.
Keeping the secret in plain sight.

Heredity.
Genetics.
Memory.
Family histories.
Family hysteria.
Everyone knew about Aunty Margaret didn’t they?
No.

Remnants of stories.
The beginning.
The middle.
The end.
But never all three.
Pick ’n’ mix ’n’ match.

Huge assumptions.
It’s obvious!
No it’s not.

Whispers.
Hand-me-downs.
Itching and scratching and never quite fitting.
A child among adults
Never understanding…

Until…

That moment in adulthood when at last the penny drops.
The shoe falls.
The switch is flicked.
Can never now be unseen.

The Goldilocks Vibe

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Ok I’ll admit it, there is a bit of a Goldilocks Vibe going on here. But that isn’t totally out of whack with the thinking… maybe.

But this isn’t yet nasty enough for me to like what is going on.
At the moment we have odd chairs, stitching, fabric scraps. Its getting somewhere, but not quite as I want. Yet.

I’m not sure if the streaks of stitches are too abstract. I know what they are, but does anyone else?
Do I care?

well… sort of… because I hate that whole the-artist-has-to-explain-it-before-you-can-possibly-understand-it thing. That is elitist and leaves no room for the viewer. I like to leave room for the viewer. I like the stories I get told… they weave themselves in too.

Is the fact that these are recognisable, familiar, but slightly peculiar chairs with stitches on enough?

Where am I going to get the nasty from? Maybe the song. The song is coming along…

I have the mantra “Avoid Tautology” in my head again… I must remember to keep my touch light…

I do have another oddly shaped chair at home … four… that would take Goldilocks out of the picture… or maybe let her stay?

Animal

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Art is not therapy¹

It is more animal than that²

During a rubbish week of illness, death and injustice, I get myself, finally, to the studio.

This is not escape
This is not soothing
This is not relaxation

This is animal activity – this belongs to the fight/flight/fuck variety of responses

So don’t be fooled by the apparent slow and measured activity.
I am angry and sad.
This is the way I respond to the world.
I’m writing and drawing…scratching ink furiously into paper.
Jabbing my poisonous needle into the fabric…pursed lips…hunched shoulders.

I am powerless to prevent the inevitable. So I try to insert it into my work. I attempt to assimilate it, to make some sort of sense. I am not assigning it to the gods.

The activity I undertake is not distraction. It does not serve the purpose of diverting my attention.

This art is focussed, frustrated fury.

It works through; it acts out; it filters,sorts and files; it absorbs the facts and spits them back out.

No.

This isn’t a gentle thing
This isn’t ladylike and modest.

It is hard work.
Exhausting.

But the world has to be dealt with, and this is the way I do it.

 

 

¹But it might be Therapy

²Dan Whitehouse told me. He is a wise man

Survivor Guilt

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I’m making myself write this blog post.

I have nothing to write about, because ironically, nothing kills art quite as quickly and thoroughly as applying for funding for art.

The chair in the previous post hasn’t yet made it to the studio because I haven’t yet made it to the studio. There’s no wifi there, so “Going Up The Portal” with Sonia Boué means doing so from home.

We are, frankly, sick of The Portal.

The sooner the damn submit button gets pressed the better!

(Any minute now…)

When the button is pressed, we will have six glorious weeks of peace before we hear yay or nay… during which time I will have: a solo exhibition of nine women, complete with two workshops and a performance; A CD to master, do art work for and get reproduced; A recording session with The Sitting Room;  several rehearsals……..

But, although this is all art, it isn’t making new work, it isn’t getting to grips with the thoughts swimming around in my head, that have been hastily scribbled into my sketchbook, just in case they get forgotten.

Sometimes, by the time I get round to it, the things hastily scribbled are no longer relevant… my mind has moved on…

…………..

In another part of my working life, I discover I am learning things that I should have learned years ago. I’m learning in a deep and meaningful way about how other people work, think, learn. I have taught for over 25 years. I don’t do so much now, but the things I have learned over the last six months would have come in really handy and would undoubtedly have made me a better teacher.

I’m also learning that some really excellent art and design teachers I know are leaving the profession, or are close to collapse. This cannot go on, and I don’t know how to help, or what to do. I managed to escape it, and did so with my mental health barely intact. I have recovered, although certain sorts of stress get me too close to that edge again.

And I have discovered that some of us have a thing in common – Survivor Guilt.

This is totally wrong, it isn’t our fault, but we feel it anyway. We have deserted the children when they needed us, and our colleagues who needed support.

Not Quite Right…

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To the casual onlooker it is a fairly ordinary looking chair.

It has a story though, like any object that has hung around for a while.

This ordinary looking chair sits in our hall and is rarely sat upon, but is a receptacle for coats and bags in passing through to the sitting room. I’ve cleared them off to take this photo. It isn’t sat on very often because it isn’t comfortable. While all the comfortable chairs have worn out, got saggy bottoms and broken arms, and stained covers and tears in the fabric, this one remains untouched by time. I know that it was probably made in the 50s or 60s. It sat in my mother-in-law’s house before ours. It didn’t get sat on there either, but was an occasional corner-of-the-dining-room chair. Extra visitors were given it, as they are here. Just Christmas then. It has had various covers, most of which still exist under this William Morris remnant. A triumph of style over substance. It is an imposter. It looks ok, but it isn’t. Even the cat won’t sit on it.

It has, in my head at least, the personality of a frosty Aunt. It looks respectable. It is undoubtedly middle class, middle aged and white. It doesn’t know how to relate to the rest of the family, doesn’t know what to do with itself. But we feel duty bound to keep it. The Last Chair.

But… I’m thinking that all of this might make it into something else. It might just become art. In my head, I think it already has. I have spoken to my husband about this, and I think he was fairly noncommittal about it being something else. I think, if I take it to the studio to do something to it, he might miss it.  Just like the frosty Aunt, who, after her death, you realise was far more interesting than you thought… and you miss her.

Morphing…

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The last few years as an artist have provided little signposts and milestones along the way. Small moments of clarity or change that have propelled me to the next level, next challenge…

I remember when I first started calling myself an Artist.

I remember when I put “Artist” on my passport application.

I remember when I put Artist on my car insurance form, then changed it back to Educator (Art) because the premium shot up! Apparently knackered, strung-out, depressed and overworked teachers are a better bet than a content self-employed artist behind the wheel… are we really that flaky?

I remember when I started writing songs it was an add on, and I was apologetic, and had a hard time trying to explain to myself, let alone other people, why I was writing songs. And a harder time working out how singing them was part of my practice.
I remember when I got over myself and stopped apologising.

That was only about 18 months ago.

The songwriting and singing is now part of my practice and I am comfortable with it. It just is. I don’t give a shit about explaining it to anyone. You don’t have to listen, and you don’t have to like it.

Last night, at a friend’s new event, the No Covers Club in Moseley, we did a couple of songs and my friend said “Plug your event!” “What event?” “Your exhibition!” “Oh that! Really?” “YES!”
So I did. I said to the crowd, that as well as being a singer-songwriter, I am a visual artist, I make installations with music, and that Nine Women included a performance with Dan Whitehouse (was there a small hum of approval? I think so..…) I also said if people wanted more info I had a few cards. I ran out of cards and ended up telling people to search on Facebook!

So now I have decided that my Facebook artist page, which for the last eight years or so has been titled Elena Thomas – Art and Textiles, should now be titled Elena Thomas – Art and Songs.

Self-acknowledgement of the shift, and that the division is now more equal.
That feels like a milestone worth celebrating don’t you think?

Five Words

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It seems I’ve only blogged twice in the last month. I’m not surprised really. My brain, at least the wordy part of my brain, has been used up and sucked dry by the Arts Council application process… more on that if we get it!

It is the least artistic thing an artist can do. It’s relentlessly stressful. It takes weeks. Days and days of unpaid work, speculating basically, betting on yourself that you can do it and they’ll give you the money to do it. I can’t imagine any artist who works full time at another job being able to do it… that search for numbers, information, statistics… that construction of the clear and concise narrative is a real knack. It takes dedication and hard work, concentration and time. Most of all time. It is made worse by the process and platform you have to navigate, but I’ll not go into that here. I’m too tired.

Now, I don’t want this to be moany really. I do get a certain masochistic pleasure out of getting it right. Time will tell if we have got this one right. The Arts Council are a marvellous institution, and I’ve already had a fair bit of money from them for various things. I’m just saying that when they say yes, you’ve probably already worked loads of hours unpaid in order to reach that point.

I get quite nerdy about words… definitely “archive” rather than “bank”… and “critically” rather than “purposefully”. And, despite the fact that I usually can’t work out the Indian restaurant bill, the balancing of the Arts Council budget does give me a bit of a thrill. I know.

The application platform is not good for the visual mind… imagine trying to type your application on an old typewriter through someone else’s letterbox using two bamboo canes. You can only see two lines at a time, and you can’t compare one part of the form to the other unless you print the damn thing off at regular intervals. I said I wasn’t going to moan, sorry.

Anyway, my point is that I’m knackered. I can’t make work, although desperate to. I have the words of a verse whizzing round my head, but can’t seem to pin it down. I’ve not done any housework, or much cooking. I’m having trouble making conversation even on a very basic “hasn’t the weather been cold?” level.

I can’t wait to press the submit button, just so I can get six weeks peace before the result comes in!

In that six weeks, I have a few gigs, the nine women exhibition and performance at the end of March, so a fair few rehearsals. The songs are developing, and I want to work on them more.

So just as a bit of light relief, I post a link to The Sitting Room performing “Five Words” at Arena Theatre Wolverhampton. In honour of Arts Council England, I feel I should rename the song “33 Characters (Including Spaces)”