As I write this I’m not sure if I’m going to post it but I need to collect my thoughts, analyse what lies beneath my severe depression and inability to lift out of this state for any length of time. Read more
Historically I’ve not often reblogged posts by other writers — in fact it’s probably only about 3 times in all the years. And that’s because I wanted the focus of this blog to be me. But now, with the “rebranding” and relaunch as My Autistic Dance I feel I want to expand what I publish here to include links to other posts that are insightful and illuminating, and principally about autism, such as this one by my dear friend Sonia.
The context for my poem Perfect storm is the research for my Arts Council Funded project – The Museum for Object Research. It isn’t about any one person or conversation, but more about my growing understanding of the ways in which I am disabled – despite being a competent human – by ingrained assumption and the double empathy bind.
The Brain Dancing Festival, a celebration of creativity in autism, is a series of creative events in Oxford, organised by the charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire. An important part of it is the art exhibition at The North Wall which continues until the 2nd of April.
Neurodiversity can be thought of as brains dancing to different tunes, each of us with our own personal rhythm driving the pulse of our lives. It’s a celebration of the richness of difference, an acceptance of the value this adds to all our lives.
As an autistic woman myself I am committed to the goals of the neurodiversity movement, in particular the idea that everybody has something to offer, that our very differences are a source of creative potential.
So it was with a great sense of excitement that I accepted an invitation to attend the private viewing of Brain Dancing, an exhibition featuring works by artists either on the autism spectrum or having family connections to somebody autistic.
I’d never experienced a private viewing before so I had little idea what to expect. I’d seen several TV and movie scenes resembling cocktail parties that people attended to be seen but something told me reality would be somewhat different.
I arrived a little late, a result of the combination of parking the wrong side of the city and the bus services being disrupted by a traffic accident-related road closure. Walking in through the door I was greeted by the welcome sight of man bearing a tray of drinks.
I looked around; I was glad to see that my decision to dress casually fit in with the relaxed atmosphere. There were probably between 40 and 50 people there, most of whom I didn’t know, but I found myself by happy accident standing next to someone familiar, Stu Allsopp. I said hello and we chatted easily for a few minutes between the introductory talk by Gita Lobo, manager of the exhibition’s organiser, local charity Autism Family Support Oxfordshire, before a video presentation started.
After a brief fight against the technology we were treated to a short film that described the work of the charity and showed a few of the children and families being helped. It was a strong, clear message of respect and acceptance, providing support to young autistic people and their families to help them fulfill their potential.
I had realised while watching the film that I was standing directly behind my good friend, participating artist and curator of the exhibition, the wonderful Sonia Boué who had tended the invitation to me.
She told me I had missed meeting her fellow artists from Magdalen Road Studio, Katie Taylor and Kate Hammersley, who had been looking forward to seeing me; it was lovely to hear that people had been keen to meet me but disappointing that I’d not got there early enough to see them. But as compensation I did receive an invitation to the private viewing of Kate Hammersley’s upcoming exhibition at Wolfson College.
And so to the exhibition itself, a varied sampling of artistic expression demonstrating the creative influence of autism. I decided to work my way around the exhibits starting by the door where I had come in. After all, having a structure to activities is reassuring.
I began with Sonia’s works. First was the iconic handbag recalling Barcelona in a Bag above a painting titled Departure, a multi-layered and fascinatingly-textured painting: I spent some time examining it closely, becoming lost in the minute detail of its strata. I found myself wanting to touch it and experience the different textures more directly.
As I moved on through her pieces I felt drawn into a narrative: the sense of depth and history left behind in Departure, through exodus and exile–destierro–via internment and subsistence living to a new beginning and new life in a new land.
Next were a selection of beautifully observed landscapes by Rosalyn Goh. I was especially attracted to one featuring a river flowing between tree-lined banks, the sun glittering off the disturbed water as it rounded a bend.
She captures the essence of the water so well. There is something exquisitely tranquil about her paintings. They capture scenes that you can imagine yourself in, encountering such perfect moments during a walk through the countryside.
The third artist, Janet Millikin, showed works in two very different styles: bold, abstract works alongside intricate geometrical drawings reminiscent of technical drawings. Looking closely at the abstract pieces it was apparent that the inked intricacy was common throughout.
I found myself staring long at the picture above, enjoying the way that the shapes and colours inspired dragons and other fantastic beasts, emerging like cloud-beasts. There’s an intriguing contradiction between harmony and aggression; a softness with hard, sharp edges.
Continuing on my circuit of the room I next came to a set of photographic prints on canvas by Richard Maguire whose work I had encountered before online. He has a great eye for composition as well as a sympathy for his subjects that brings out unexpected impressions.
I am particularly drawn to water and the play of light in reflection and refraction; two of his photographs featured scenes with water and I was captivated by my exploration of the elemental nature of the scenes.
The next course in my feast was Tom Eyre and a varied set of works including an ocular pumpkin in a simple style of embellished line drawing, a sculpted wolf mask that evoked friendly play rather than ferocity, and an abstract swirl of colour.
It was this last painting that I felt the strongest reaction to. It could have been a Dante-inspired scene of souls carried within a storm of fire, or the noise, heat and raw emotion at the heart of battle: I sensed powerful turmoil in its chaos.
Finally I came to two display cases containing jewelry crafted by Joanne Turner. I’m drawn magpie-like to anything shiny and these pieces were a delight. The delicate patterning of the surfaces of the links in her chains reflected from the spotlights as I moved my head, almost hypnotic.
There was an organic feel to the various works, accentuated by the slate plinths and occasional simple wooden blocks. Deceptively simple in form, they held a depth of character in their surface textures; rather than being polished to a mirror finish they revealed subtle patterns hammered lightly into the metal.
Overall it was a wonderful evening. Between the pleasure of meeting friends again, the stimulating conversation and my enjoyment of the artworks on show it was a most successful viewing, and I cannot thank Gita and the other organisers enough. I highly recommend this exhibition, and would urge you to visit the charity’s website (link at the top of this blog) to find out all about the work they do.
On Thursday I was in Oxford with my great friend Sonia Boué, attending a conference at Oxford Brookes University. The conference, under the aegis of Oxford Human Rights Festival, was titled Art & Science Vs. Conflict in the Global Present.
It was a conference I’d been interested in attending since I first heard about it a month ago, and on learning that Sonia would also be there it didn’t take me long to make up my mind and book my place.
The presentations covered topics including the effects of conflict on art and culture, the use of art as therapy for conflict-related injury, and the ways in which art and science can help victims of conflict. A common thread was the ways in which we are all affected by loss due to conflict. I’ll not repeat what was in the programme: you can read that on the conference website here.
We learned of the loss of artifacts from Nimrud due to museum looting during the Gulf Wars and the deliberate destruction of the site of the palace by Islamic State: the loss to Iraqi national cultural heritage in particular. This was in contrast to the preservation of bomb-damaged buildings in Belgrade, the scars left by NATO attacks keeping alive memories of that recent conflict in which ethnic divisions in the former state of Yugoslavia tore the nation apart.
In other presentations we saw the products of people working through bereavement and trauma suffered through conflict. Stuffed toys sewn from the uniforms of those killed on active service, boxes of mementos: ways in which families could memorialise their loved ones that were creative and personal. And we saw examples of artworks created as therapy by those suffering combat-related PTSD. Some of those were shocking in their raw depiction of despair, hopelessness and isolation, a reminder that the mental scars of conflict are often deeper and more painful than the more obvious physical injuries.
We were given a fascinating insight into forensic anthropology, from the recovery of remains to the attempts to identify victims of conflict. It’s hard to imagine working day after day, week after week, sifting through a mass grave that might contain hundreds of bodies. Putting bones together, identifying evidence of trauma to try to determine the cause of death. Working against the odds to attempt to put names to the victims: in cases such as the Rwandan genocide whole families, whole villages were murdered so even if DNA can be extracted there is nobody left to whom it can be matched. Most will never be identified.
The missing–those taken and killed by repressive regimes–were memorialised in some deeply moving performances. Christine Brault spoke about the more than 4000 First Nation Canadian women and girls who have either disappeared or been found dead over the last 30 years. We the audience picked poppy petals inscribed with their names, announcing their names and pinning them to her shirt. One that I picked was Kiowa Oakes, aged 1: I choked a little as I read out her age and wondered how anybody could harm a baby.
Veronica Cordova de la Rosa sat behind a desk in a manner reminiscent of a news reader from years ago and simply read a list of names from among the 27,000 missing victims of violence in Mexico. For me her performance brought to mind a wartime radio broadcast of those missing in action.
Also mentioned, in another presentation, were the estimated 140,000 who disappeared in Spain and its territories under Franco from the start of the Guerra Civil in 1936 to his death in 1975. It is hard to believe that the Spanish government to this day continues to do next to nothing to even recognise the atrocities committed under Franco. No process of Truth and Reconciliation as happened in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid, no efforts to prosecute those responsible who to this day continue to live openly.
There was so much I learned at this conference and I can only give a brief taste of it here. I left with conflicted feelings myself: there is so much violence in the world in so many forms and at so many levels that it would be easy to resign oneself to the belief that it is inevitable. Lives and culture are lost and damaged by conflict, but it also pushes some to wonderful acts of compassion, imagination and creativity through which people can come together and healing might begin.
Since first hearing about the exhibition Unravelling Time at The Abbey in Sutton Courtenay near Oxford I made up my mind that I would visit to experience it for myself. And when this turned into an opportunity to meet in person my online friend Sonia Boué, one of the artists participating; well, there was no way I would have missed it.
The big day dawned and my excitement was bubbling over, manifesting in rubbing and flapping my hands, bouncing up and down, and standing or walking on tip-toes. There’s just something about the way this feeling wells up inside that physically lifts me so I become unable to keep my heels on the ground!
It was a beautiful sunny day for the hour’s drive from where I live to Sutton Courtenay; I parked outside the walls surrounding the grounds and walked up the driveway through the trees. At first sight the Abbey is a modest building, the east elevation providing few clues to what will be found inside. I followed the path around to the south to get a more complete feel for the place in its surroundings.
There was a strong feeling of peace about the place, a pervasive calm silence that lent itself perfectly to opening the senses and reflecting on the experience. I had wondered about being dominated by the history of the building but instead of intruding it provided an understated background warmth: it fit into the environment as if it had grown there, and was pleasantly human in its scale and proportion.
I walked back to the entrance, pausing in the archway to snap a photo of the welcome notice before entering the central courtyard, a beautiful space enhanced by symmetrical planting. On this balmy autumn day it had a Mediterranean feel emphasised by the vine and fig tree in the north-west corner.
It was through this tree that I first caught sight of Sonia, seated on a bench by her installation and deep in contemplation (deleting photos on her phone to free up space, as it turned out). I don’t know if I made some sound or if it was the movement that caught her attention as I approached; she rose to greet me with an expression of pure delight and (after checking that I accept–one of the great things about meeting other neurodiverse people is that they are often conscious of such things that may prove unwelcome) we shared a warm hug.
How apt the exhibition title, Unravelling Time, as time from that point ceased to function in the normal fashion. Instead we chatted and Sonia guided me through the exhibits in a single perfect moment. I glanced at my watch a couple of times to check that time’s flow continued because I had no conscious awareness of it.
Since our journey through the exhibition began with Sonia’s own assemblage, Refuge, that is where I will start my exploration of the works and my responses to them.
The suitcase sits on the ground under the sheltering canopy of the vine, yet the effects of the outdoor environment are visible in the peeling paper lining and the patina on the mirror. This place is only a temporary rest, a chance to recover before moving on. The gathered twigs evoke an empty nest, the home left behind. Gazing into the mirror puts the observer right inside the piece, surrounded by the trappings of an itinerant existence. A clothes hanger sits in the suitcase lid, but I must presume that what it held is being worn: possessions reduced to the clothes on your back and what you can carry.
Finally, two paintings. The smaller one next to the hanger and a larger one suspended from the vine above. The hanging of the painting echoes a domestic scene but that illusion is broken by the realisation that we are not in an enclosed space but directly beneath the skies. The larger painting shows a background of a texture and colour that puts me in mind of dense vegetation, a rich yet ominous natural world imprisoned behind the linear order of man-made structure. But that structure shows imperfections: it is scarred and blasted. What might at first appear to be a refuge is revealed on closer inspection to be a place of fear, darkness, even death. The smaller painting is a reduction of the larger one; reduced in the sense that it portrays only the clean regularity of constructed objects. This is how home is remembered; the larger painting shows what became of it and caused us to flee. It’s not in the suitcase: we don’t intentionally carry it and yet there it is. A haunting memory of trauma.
From here we moved indoors to the Great Hall with its high timbered vault of a ceiling and dark, almost black, oak panelling. In the middle of the opposite wall was a fireplace and stretching out from it, most of the way across the room towards us, was Kate Hammersley’s Time Transfigured. My first impression was of a giant ball of yarn unravelling as it was swatted across the floor by some curious cat. As we walked alongside the intricacy of the dry bracken, its zig-zag arrangement recalled lightning bolts and the crystalline tracing of ice on a window pane; ice out of fire. Approaching the fireplace the woodsmoke scent of the ashes became apparent, something that reminds me of the warmth and comfort of home and hearth.
This is a piece that contains both connections and contrasts. Fire, that living element, evoked by the red-brown fronds; flames represented by fuel, travelling out from its seat of ashes. The complex recursive detail of the bracken represented something living despite being dead and dry; the fireplace is where it belonged, destined to become a mere pile of ashes, and yet it had come out into the room, its questing tendril exploring the space.
Moving on to one of the windows, affixed to the wall at one side was Traces by Anna Morris. A set of three small curved rectangles of board, each about the size of a sheet of paper folded lengthwise, the geometry similar to a set of modern wall lamps. Contrasting their contemporary form, the surface detail presented the essence of the Abbey. Rubbings captured the textures of the ancient timber, the painted rendering of the walls, the countless impressions of its history upon the fabric of the building.
Three photographic prints by Jonathan Moss were next to receive our attention. Symmetry was a very strong element, from the perfect squares of the prints to the images themselves. Visual reflection stirring mental reflection. The first, by the side of Traces, featured the walled garden with its old brickwork and white-painted timber-framed glass house hosting rows of vibrant green crops; the upper half reflected perfectly below as if by a supernaturally still pool. Another showed the creosote-dark planks of the end wall of an outbuilding reaching up and drawing the eye skywards: a sense of grandeur transcending the humble nature of the construction.
Through the French door to the garden and Madi Acharya-Baskerville with her work, Drift-in-land. The sinuous bend of a tree trunk provided the frame over which was tented a fishing net bearing numerous items of flotsam and artefacts discarded or washed up on the shoreline: magpie decoration. The net itself caught by the tree, bearing its haul of shiny, colourful objects: trash and treasure. The tent suggesting shelter conflicted with the net as a trap, its adornments lures to draw in the unwary. But also the tent with its decoration as a shanty-town dwelling, scavenged material assembled to provide some small refuge from the elements, some personal touches of home. And that too causes reflection on the trap of poverty.
We walked on through the trees, past an extensive woodpile under a canopy: fuel for the winter fires. Opening a weathered door, we entered the walled garden. What an exquisite space! Protected by the enclosing walls, tidy rows of herbs and vegetables for the kitchen occupied beds between the narrow, neat grassy paths. The smell of rosemary: I rubbed the leaves between my fingers and inhaled the comforting scent. In the west wall was a bricked-up archway; affixed to those bricks were the two painted panels of Ellen Hausner’s Through the Wall. Blending with the brickwork at the edges, these panels opened holes through the wall, hinting at a space beyond and drawing the mind of the viewer into that space. Directing me to pierce the physical barrier of the wall with my imagination, to think beyond the apparent limits. I was reminded of the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories: travelling through an everyday, commonplace object to the realm of fantasy. And also Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in which the character Door possesses the ability to open portals between the mundane surface world and the rich, hidden realm of London Below.
Following Sonia through the garden I observed how she would trail a hand, touching plants, stones, a wheelbarrow. Making with her fingertips the same sensory connection to the environment that I make visually. Where I observe the textures and imagine the sensation of feeling them, Sonia takes a direct approach: this is evident in her artistic performances as sand or other material flows through her fingers.
Completing the circuit, we re-entered the Great Hall by the same door we had left it, this time following a passageway past a laundry area to a welcoming sitting room named the Hearth. Tucked into a corner by a gothic double-arched window were Helen Ganly’s three reliquaries on the theme of the medieval Empress Matilda, granddaughter of Norman king William the Bastard and child bride of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V of Germany. The first was a square black box, its lid apparently bejeweled. Opening it (carefully) revealed a hole through which could be seen a portrait of Matilda in historical style, illuminated by some unseen artifice. Two further boxes opened to reveal scenes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, this impression reinforced by beautifully ornate capitals and alliterative Latin words that we were only partly successful in translating. These boxes were situated on a drop-leaf table in the fashion of an altar; despite my lack of religion I felt that I was meant to kneel before them.
Hung on the wall opposite the windows was a framed work by Les McMinn, A Study for Stained Glass, which offered such a wealth of detail upon detail–colour, shape, texture–that my eye was drawn all over, peering deeper and deeper into the individual elements and being rewarded with still more. I felt the need to step back from the piece to gain an appreciation of the form of the whole: seeing a lowercase ‘a’ emerge from the collection of amorphous shapes provided my link with the Library that inspired the work. A host of fragments, each unidentifiable yet carrying a wealth of information, were brought together into a simple letter, the basis of all our written communication.
Also in this room, on the mantlepiece, were two in a series of 11 photographs by Paul Medley entitled Hidden Histories. These photographs, distributed through the Abbey, showed a set of moments featuring a couple in the very settings where they were displayed. These frozen instants of time together suggest a narrative: we read feelings and intentions into the poses and expressions, and taking the series as a whole we feel the satisfaction of piecing together the story of these two people. But a question hangs over our interpretation: we have assumed that the sequence in which we encountered these photographs is the same as the sequence in which the events occurred. How different might the story be if we assemble them in a different order?
We made our way back across the courtyard, passing Claudia Figueiredo’s Celebration 2, an enigmatic ring of wood embellished with blue and gold under the fig tree where I had first encountered Sonia. That ring, formed by branches growing into each other, was a remnant of a tree that had stood in the Abbey grounds for over 200 years. Its complete circle mirrored the path we had taken, the passage of time and distance returning us to our origin: an endless cycle.
Again entering the building, this time via the kitchen door, we crossed the passageway into the Root Room, the site of the final installation on our tour. Water Maps – Gower Peninsula was an audio-visual collaboration between Ann Rapstoff and Vicky Vergou. A video showed the patterns of flowing water as they change along its course from spring to sea; the magical way in which the incident sunlight forms patterns as it is reflected and refracted. Meanwhile the sounds of running water and breaking waves provided a background, with occasional spoken fragments that were presumably intended to evoke associations. For me this was the least successful of the works. I found the audio to be at odds with the characteristics of the flowing water that was seen on the screen: it did not match what I expected to hear based on what I was seeing, and I found the spoken words distracting. Some of this is no doubt a consequence of the dominance of my visual thought processes.
In an afternoon filled with countless impressions that had my mind serving up image after image as it raced through associations of ideas, sifting and finding patterns, there is a stunning contrast with the calm I felt in the company of Sonia. It is unusual for me to feel so completely at ease, so entirely unselfconscious. As a result it was an afternoon of relaxation and pleasure, of exchanging thoughts and observations, of mental stimulation amidst serenity.
I don’t recall asking a single question–that’s not something which comes easily to me–but conversation didn’t stall at any point. I can’t emphasise enough how natural our interactions felt: a mutual understanding that meant we had no need to divert into distracting explanation.
I’ll finish with my impression of Sonia herself. Contact and connection are the key aspects: she is constantly in touch with the people and objects around her, observing and sampling at a very conscious, direct level (whereas I retain images in memory but rely on my subconscious to conjure forth impressions and associations). This directness was exhibited in her gaze: I found myself to be the frequent focus of her eyes from behind the lenses of her glasses. This can be something I find threatening but instead I felt trust and security. Everything she does is an extension of her self, from her artistic expression to the way she interacts with the people around her. Such honesty of purpose is beautiful to observe and receive; it inspires an openness in response that creates a strong, intimate bond of friendship.
Thank you, Sonia, for being my companion through this amazing experience.
Black and White, words burst forth
From the page. Exploding
Mortar shells dash bright color —
The canvas of my mind
Painted with impressions:
The shapes of others’ thoughts.
There’s something about a good piece of art that speaks to me. No, it’s more than that, much more: there’s something about it that resonates, a positive feedback loop. My initial visceral gestalt stimulates my mind and senses, filtering them through that raw emotion so that the detail becomes imbued with context.
The tone of the piece in its entirety informs each part, marking and tying it into the coherent assemblage. Reductionism is destined to fall at the first hurdle: just as an individual instrument cannot hope to convey the sense of the entire orchestra, so one component of an artwork can only offer a faint hint of the scope of the whole.
As I ingest the artwork through my senses — seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting — it becomes part of me while simultaneously I see myself reflected in it, part of it. There can be no illusions here, no falsehood. We are both laid bare, opened to deep scrutiny, and the further I stare into the piece the further I see into the very core of my own being.
This is communication of the highest order, as far beyond language and words as the works of Shakespeare are beyond the first scribblings of a child. And yet there is a simplicity to this dialog verging on the magical. A conjunction of my mind and that of the artist, synchronized through the medium of the art.
The experience of art is one that transcends language to wash through the mind, and when it is over the signs of its passage remain. The person who stepped up to the piece is not the same one who later walks away.