angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Month: June, 2013

Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

According to the schools and the general public, my talk Crime, Prisons and Offenders – the role the Arts can play is: “brilliant”, “fascinating”, “inspirational”, “thought-provoking”, “intelligent”, “informative” and for many, “the best lecture I have heard”. If you book my lecture you will get to know why.

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I am also offering a new talk which I am very excited about: The other side – Germany, looking forward through the shadows of the past. Years of research into my own anglo-german dual nationality give a picture of an ordinary family in World war II Germany. I also reveal many interesting things that the English don’t seem to know about Germany’s post-war burden of guilt and how they are dealing with it. You can read more about it or book it here

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My mother and her siblings, Berlin 1945

As always my paintings are  available to view, buy or commission here.

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37˚ and rising 76x76cm (mixed media with oil)

And my forthcoming art course on the Island of Skyros from 6-19 July will be truly wonderful for anybody who would still like to book. It is a unique opportunity to learn some of my techniques (Read about them in the article in July’s edition of The Artist magazine) and to spend delightful days bathed in sunshine, warmth, laughter and tzatziki.

Oh roll on Admin Week and get me out there.

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“How do you tame the prisoners in your art class?”

low res 009 prisonPortraits by prisoners in my art class, Cologne Prison’96

I was asked a very interesting question in one of my talks to sixth formers last week. I had just delivered my lecture on ‘Crime, prisons and offenders – the role the arts can play’ describing why prisons aren’t working and what art projects with inmates can contribute towards their rehabilitation. As usual the questions were all interesting, but one in particular struck me. A young man asked me what I did in my initial classes to “tame” the prisoners with whom I was locked in a room. A brilliant question in that it seemed to highlight precisely the misconception so many people have about who prisoners are and what they are like.

I suddenly saw the kinds of characters that most people perceive offenders to be. Muscle-bound, tattooed thugs with shaven heads and thick necks ready to strike out and stab, rape or kill whoever crossed their path. I guess that’s why people found me so “brave” being amongst them with no beeper, no key, no guard. Of course there are a few pretty scary men wandering around the wings and corridors like time bombs ready to explode in your face. But actually when you work in a prison you learn very quickly how far that perception is from reality.

I tried to describe to this young man and the audience that prisoners have their ‘reasons’ for committing their crimes, albeit warped reasons to most people. A man who stabs his girlfriend is no more likely to stab me than I am him. He has a story that led to the stabbing – usually an on-going dispute or a dysfunctional / destructive dynamic that culminates in his lashing out. That’s of course no justification. But the feeling of wanting to is often understandable. I have heard men on countless occasions describing the context, the series of events and the emotions leading up to their crimes. I have no doubt most people feel similar things from time to time, but what makes ‘us’ different from ‘them’ is that we haven’t acted on them.

I have met some truly incredible people who have landed in prison, for very minor or very major crimes. I feel honoured to have heard their stories and to have gained the insights I have into what actually amounts to human nature in all its extremes. There are some really, really nasty people in our prisons, but the majority don’t need “taming” at all. They need attention, understanding, encouragement, education, guidance and dare I say, love.

Searching for identity, through art and dance

Akram Khan’s solo dance production “Desh” has to be one of the most beautiful and moving pieces I have ever seen. It is a visceral exploration of and search for identity; an attempt to bridge the gulf between two vastly differing cultures – Bangladesh and the UK – and a personal quest by Khan to find resolution within his own family and indeed himself. (http://www.akramkhancompany.net/)

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Akram Khan in Desh, Sadler’s Wells, 2013

I had a triple hit of identity issues on Friday. It all started with my being rudely awoken by unexpectedly urgent and slightly panicked questions into who I am and what on earth my life is about.

These thoughts nagged at me all the way to London where I thankfully became distracted by my role as judge for the pastels category of the annual Koestler Exhibition of prisoners art. (http://www.koestlertrust.org.uk/) The building, where I used to work, was once again crammed from floor to ceiling with over 8000 multi-media entries from prisoners in the UK and beyond. Regardless of the level of technical ability, much of the work surprises with its raw and forceful intensity. With their formal identities concealed, anonymous faces with unwavering eyes speak all the louder; they become the language by which these otherwise voiceless people can speak to us on the outside about their situation and themselves.

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Door – Colnbrook IRC, Zelda Cheatle Gold Koestler Award 2011, Photography

Finally, in the evening, Khan’s body transformed the Sadler’s Wells stage into an arena for a hugely emotional pursuit of identity, something we can surely all identify with judging by the snivels and soaked tissues of the audience (not least me).

I too long to find a way of translating my own jolty journey with all its cul-de-sacs and pot-holed tracks, into such a visually stunning portrayal of the conflicts that can arise from a mixed cultural heritage. I have already used all sorts of materials from mud to cake, even my own body, to explore and resolve the questions of who I am.  Judging by my morning’s episode, however, my journey is clearly not yet finished.

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 From the Born and Bound series, collaboration with John Heseltine (www.johnheseltine.com)

Why chairs…?

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Thoughts can fly (2012), 100 x 100cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Re-dressing absence, Stroud Cemetery (2009) Collaboration with Shirley Margerison

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Him undressed (2013) 60 x 60cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Untitled – 3 (2010) Installation in vault. Armchair with cigarette packets

I have just returned from a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy. People always ask if I take my paints, assuming painting is something I love to do all the time. Actually painting is hard work and painting a painting invariably involves being confronted with oneself. So I like having breaks from that. But I can never get away from being inspired. From looking at something and having ideas about what I could do with it. I can’t imagine ever being able to switch off the desire to create out of the raw material I gather.

And so in Italy, I found myself not simply losing myself in the blues of the sea and sky, or even in the Prosecco “Spritz” cocktails, but instead pursuing what seems to have become a slight obsession with chairs. Chairs by windows, empty chairs – we’ll have to wait for the latest paintings to be painted. But now I can see that chairs have captured my imagination for several years.

I instantly loved Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 conceptual piece One and Three Chairs when I first came across it; such profound questions within as humble an everyday object as the common chair. I also remember how when visiting prisoners in their cells in Cologne Prison, the absence of a chair would leave me nowhere else to sit other than on their beds. But I have now recognised that behind my personal interest in chairs hover two stories that instilled themselves as living images in my childhood imagination. The first was the part of my mother’s war time account when she told us that after fleeing their home just outside Berlin in 1945, the Red Army came and slashed open the silk seats of their chairs in search or jewellery or money.

The second was of her father returning from the war, a broken man who sat in the same chair on the veranda and smoked himself into his grave.

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