This Is Me Exhibition at Overton House

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Welcome to a Barnwood Trust podcast. We join Lidia, Lydia and Victoria in a conversation about the first ever art exhibition at Overton House, which is the home of Barnwood Trust.

Lidia and Lydia work for Barnwood Trust, building connections and belonging for people with disabilities and mental health challenges in the county of Gloucestershire.

Victoria is an artist, and together with Lidia and Lydia they make up the Curating team, showcasing the creative talents of people linked with Barnwood Trust. 

Lydia: Hi I’m Lydia.

Lidia: I am also Lidia.

Victoria: And I’m definitely not Lydia – my name is Victoria. [Laughter]

Lydia: And we are part of the co-curating team here at Overton House.

Lidia: Yeah, we are the co-curating team here at the new art gallery at Overton House, at Barnwood Trust. One of the reasons why we decided to start this exhibition project at Overton House is that, through our work in the community – and particularly linking up with individuals who have received grants through the Trust – we were finding that there were a lot of creative people out there that really wanted to show off their work, and we’re very proud of what they have done, and they were asking us ‘do you know where I can exhibit?’ And some exhibitions are quite hard for anyone to access, sometimes you have to pay, the waiting lists are massive, so we were finding that, actually, we were already linked with a lot of brilliant creative people, artists, that would absolutely love the opportunity to show off their work. So, having moved into a building with all its blank canvasses – blank walls – it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring those two together.

Victoria: I think the whole art exhibition project really stemmed from the fact that there were so many bare walls. That was the starting point, to see if something could be put on the walls, and from that the lead was taken with me having my artwork and thinking about how many other people could be taking place.

Lydia: And I think as well, the amount of people that we get coming through Barnwood Trust wanting grants and how many people are interested in art and find wellbeing from doing art – it’s kind of something about celebrating that and everybody that works here in contributing, enabling people being able to do the art work, being able to see where that goes to and see it on the wall, even recognise the name from having worked with them.

Victoria: And a lot of people get into doing art and various craft things due to their disabilities. Where they’ve been used to their time being taken up with working and not really had the time for a hobby, suddenly they’ve got time, and the hobby becomes a bigger thing.

Lidia: It does. It becomes therapy doesn’t it, and a way to maintain wellbeing. And I’m pretty sure there’s a link between mental health, for example, and creativity, without a shadow of a doubt. I think that’s certainly something that I’ve discovered from being involved in this project, is seeing how closely those two are linked.

Victoria: It didn’t take me really long to come up with the name for my art, I came up with ‘The Art of Distraction.’ You can sit in your chair all day and you can think ‘I’m in pain,’ ‘I’m bored,’ ‘I should be doing this, I should be doing that.’ If you’ve got a distraction in your life, you’re halfway there to winning.

Lidia: Absolutely, yeah. The whole creative process is such a mindful activity and I think it gives people permission to truly be themselves without any judgement.

Victoria: And play! How often do you get a chance to have hours of just playing when you’re a grown up? Whether you’re knitting, whether you’re doing crochet, whether you’re making pots with clay, or whether you’re painting – and I end up with paint up to my elbows when I’m painting – you’re being a child again. It’s fun, and you’re allowed to have fun.

Lidia: It’s so much fun isn’t it.

Lydia: I think as well, there’s not that many opportunities for people to exhibit for free, and I think that’s important as well. The people we’re working with might not have the funds to exhibit somewhere, and here they’ve got the opportunity to exhibit for free and start on that ladder of potentially having this ambition to become an artist and that become their livelihood even, it could be something they do in the future.

Victoria: And not having the know-how either, how to get started. So, if this is a stepping point for anybody, that’s great.

Lydia: Because in the last exhibition there were quite a few people, including yourself, who hadn’t exhibited before, which is crazy because all the art work is so amazing.

Lidia: Absolutely. The feedback we’ve had is that this is just like a professional exhibition in a proper art gallery, which is really brilliant.

Victoria: And for me to come along and meet the other people as well that have put their art on the walls, and the photography, and not just seeing it, meet the people that have done it.

Lydia: Yeah, and their stories.

Victoria: If you see an exhibition anywhere else in the library or in a gallery, you’re just looking at the actual art, whereas our launch night you met the characters behind the art, you heard their backstory.

Lidia: Their stories, absolutely.

Lydia: And their families, their parents were there, and you saw their pride in seeing their family members and what they’d achieved.

Lidia: Didn’t you say, Victoria, that your family have a slightly different view of you?

Victoria: Oh, they do, they do. My eldest son as we were leaving, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Good on you Mum, you’ve had your moment,’ and it elevated me from being Mum who goes up to the atelier – I’ve gone posh – the atelier at the end of the garden! That was a running joke. It started off being the shed and I said, ‘It’s not a shed, it’s posher than that!’ So, then it was a summer house, and then it became an atelier [laughter]. It just elevated me in their eyes, and even my husband stood and looked at the paintings, they’ve been on my wall for months, but they were just something that Vic did and put on the wall, and it’s good for you.

Lydia: It’s finding an identity as well. So many of us have lost it for so many different reasons, and actually by doing this you kind of find an identity.

Victoria: You do lose it with disability. I was a teacher, my identity was a teacher, and then suddenly I wasn’t a teacher, and now I’ve got another identity and it feels nice.

Lidia: So, there’s something about finding yourself and allowing yourself to be really authentic, and as you’ve said playful and just really explore different aspects of your life, of your personality, of your experience.

Victoria: But to have an exhibition, you’re validated for that as well. It suddenly becomes more than just doing it in your own home, or more than just doing it in a group, there’s other people’s eyes seeing it, and there’s feedback.

Lydia: And acknowledging your self-worth as well. By framing something and putting it on a wall you’re actually thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m worthy of this,’ which is huge.

Victoria: Just seeing the faces of some of the other people, they came along, and we were doing framing, to see their work suddenly go from a piece of paper that had been printed on a computer to going in a frame, it was wonderful seeing the transformation.

Lydia: Just seeing the shock! [Laughter]

Lidia: It literally was a ‘wow’ moment. And really inspiring as well. Throughout the whole process I have felt quite inspired to do more, to experiment more, to look at different ways of being creative, to try different forms of art. So, it’s really ignited that passion in me as well.

Lydia: It is a brave thing to put yourself out there, because your art is basically your soul.

Lidia: It’s so personal.

Lydia: You are putting that on a wall and letting people see it and writing an artist statement and explaining it and letting people into your personal stuff.

Lidia: And opening yourself up for being critiqued – good or bad – art is quite a personal thing.

Victoria: Delivering those painting on the day I brought them all here was scarier than my driving lessons, scarier than my driving test, scarier than waiting for any exam results, because suddenly, as you say, I was opening it up to other people seeing them, and you’ve no idea whether anyone is going to look and think, ‘A chimp could do that,’ but in a way I didn’t care, because art is about making people think, and if people think ‘I hate that one, I could’ve done that,’ you’re still making people think, even if they’re not saying ‘that one’s wonderful.’

Lydia: I think that’s quite important to remember with the actual process of, it’s not just about putting it on the wall, but for artists we’re working with it’s a process of meeting them, getting to know them, finding out what their art work is all about, and then putting it on the wall, because it is such a big thing.

Victoria: I’m a bit tough-skinned, as you know, and not everybody is, so yes there is a lot of nurturing that’s going to be involved along the road when we’re doing this and encouraging people.

Lidia: I think we, as a co-curating team, have the ability and have demonstrated that we can actually be quite nurturing for anyone that’s quite nervous for coming in to exhibit. And like you say, everyone’s individual, everyone’s got their own path that they’re taking, and I think it’s important for anyone to know if they’re thinking of exhibiting that it needn’t be this huge daunting task, that the co-curating team are there to help people as much as they need really.

Lydia: And then it can be fun.

Victoria: I’m not just saying it, but I really waited on a decision on whether to do it to see who I was doing it with, and doing it alongside you two, I’ve been absolutely fine because we’ve got humour involved. We can take the mickey out of each other [laughter], and we can get along with people. If anyone was doing it and taking it very seriously in terms of ‘Oh yes we’re going to put on an exhibition,’ it wouldn’t have worked, and it wouldn’t work with anybody. It’s got to be quite low-key, encouraging people and saying well done and pats on the back the whole time.

Lidia: I think some of that may have come through having personal experience as using art as therapy and going through that process, and actually knowing what it feels like.

Victoria: My youngest son was studying art at A Level and he came home one day absolutely in terrible state and wouldn’t talk, and I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ and he said, ‘I did a painting that I thought was absolutely lovely, and in front of everybody’ – and this is a true story – ‘the lecturer ripped it in half and said ‘that wasn’t the brief that I gave you’.’ Now to me, I would have sacked them, you don’t have a brief for art, art is art. What someone manages to achieve is what they want to achieve, you can’t have a brief.

Lydia: It’s almost the one thing that you don’t have a brief for, it’s the one thing that anybody can judge it in different ways, but it doesn’t matter because it’s yours.

Victoria: Otherwise Picasso would have been laughed out of the room [laughter].

Lidia: And that rings true of experiences that I had at school, is very much you had to fit in this box and anything outside of that box just no, don’t do that again.

Lydia: So many people have that experience, and I hear so much of people saying, ‘I can’t draw, I can’t draw,’ or ‘I can only draw stick men.’

Victoria: Or ‘I’m not at all creative.’

Lidia: Exactly, exactly. In fact, I believe everyone is creative in their own way.

Lydia: And anything can be art, or a form of art, or a form of creativity. I’ve got a friend that bakes and that’s what she loves doing, and that’s her creative outlet is baking, and she is creative, but she thinks about the colours she is using, and the recipe is actually a form of being creative. Shall we talk a little bit about what we learned from the first exhibition?

Lidia: Yeah. What have we learned, positive or negative, from the first try?

Victoria: I think the fact that it is the first try, considering it is, we should be very proud of ourselves, because it worked. There were little things that were said to me about some of the art being too high up for people in wheelchairs, especially for someone with problems with their neck who didn’t want to bend back to look upwards. But that is a good lesson to be learned, bearing in mind the environment this exhibition is in.

Lydia: We’re almost really lucky actually, because there are people who are seeing the art work that are disabled. Just because, like you said, the environment that we’re in, but they are people who are very honest and open, and someone else you might never hear that, but actually here we’re hearing it and we can learn from it. And that’s quite exciting because I think from that, I mean already we’ve had conversations about how we can make this exhibition more inclusive, so I think it’s quite positive actually, the fact that we’ve got people around us that are going to say what works and what doesn’t work.

Victoria: And I think it’s also opened us up to thinking about how we can go in the future with multi-sensory things and dealing with people that might have problems with their eyesight, with their hearing.

Lidia: Definitely, yeah. It has been a massive learning curve for all of us involved really, hasn’t it.

Victoria: And probably a learning curve for the Trust as well, in that they had to put their faith in us doing it and they didn’t know what was going to happen, and they’ve learned that three people can get together and put their heads together and make a success of something.

Lydia: I think also, just by doing it with a group of artists that haven’t exhibited before was a learning curve as well, because you get to see how people are learning and how you can enable them to get the most out of it, whether that’s learning new things or the experience.

Victoria: And how individual everyone is. We’re not disabled people that are providing art, we’re individuals who happen to be disabled that are providing art. And all coming at it from very different personality, very different experience, different backgrounds.

Lydia: I think actually, when we had the private viewing, which was like a celebrating of what we’d achieved, I think that was really important to have that.

Lidia: I’ve seen our confidence grow as a working group. So, I’m thinking as we move forwards, we will be more confident in actually executing the ideas that we’re coming up with, have more faith in ourselves and others have more faith in us as well, that we can actually pull this off and make it work.

Victoria: We learned about buildings, we learned about tanked walls and all sorts that we never knew before [laughter]. And in learning that we also learned that we needed someone else on board, which was Rosie, who gave a lot of help, especially when she wasn’t feeling well.

Lidia: She was so the right person for the job wasn’t she. One of the things that was one of the main things I took away from the first exhibition and of the launch night was I was so overwhelmed with the impact that the whole project had had on the individual artists and exhibitors, it blew me away, I could not have predicted for that kind of response, that ‘wow’ factor that we were talking about, and this experience potentially could be absolutely life-changing for somebody, to be involved in something like this. We’ve seen that happen in front of us.

Victoria: Especially when Lydia’s offered to follow up and get in touch with galleries and that kind of thing for me, I didn’t in my wildest dream think I’d have my pink paintings on someone else’s walls, so the thought it could go further on and go onto someone else’s walls and other people see them is lovely.

Lydia: I think that’s something that is quite important as well, is to keep the momentum going.

Victoria: Otherwise I think you could feel very flat once your work has come off the wall and someone else’s is up there, and you think ‘What do I do now?’ So yeah, I think it is good to keep something going.

Lydia: Yeah, years later to just think ‘I remember that time when I exhibited my art work’, but I think if you just keep it going then yeah.

Victoria: I do wish on the night, either we had or someone from Barnwood had taken a lot more photographs, I don’t think there were anywhere near enough, unless they’re out there in the ether somewhere and I haven’t seen them.

Lydia: I think that was one thing, like you were saying, because it was our first try I think there was almost a feeling of being a little bit nervous, and so if we’d been more confident with it then we might have been saying, ‘Right we want loads of photographs, we want the Echo to come and for it to be advertised everywhere!’ But I think when you do something for the first time there’s almost sometimes it’s kind of healthy to think, ‘OK, let me do this in a way that feels comfortable for me.’

Victoria: I suppose in the future as well we’ve got to consider whether people would want their photos taken, whether they would want it publicised. That’s coming back to individuals again and not classing everyone as the same.

Lydia: By doing it, you only learn these things by doing it, don’t you, by actually practically doing it you kind of hit these walls and you think ‘Oh I didn’t even think about that,’

Victoria: The best thing that’s come out of it is all of the ideas we’ve had in our heads and talked and written about, we know that they’re possible, and this isn’t a one-off, and we know that this could run for years, and even if I’m not still coming, or even if you two aren’t working here, it’s something that we’ve made a start with. And other people have seen it’s a success and I just don’t see why it shouldn’t run for years. I think in terms of the benefit of art for people’s wellbeing it’s not just the artists that get something from it, hopefully everybody does. It’s certainly has made the building feel less sterile, it’s made it feel more homely, it’s given people conversation, it’s given visitors something different to look at if they’re sitting waiting for someone to come into the room.

Lidia: It’s made the space more welcoming, and it’s been quite thought-provoking.

Lydia: I think some people have been inspired themselves to get creative, which is going back to what we were talking about. There’s a lot of people that have the creativity that makes them feel fearful, and actually to be able to inspire some people to think, ‘I’ll do a little bit of craft,’ it’s great.

Victoria: And because we vary the themes, I wouldn’t normally stop and look at black and white photography, but the photographs and self-portraits in the kitchen I think I could stop and stare at all day, they’re wonderful. So, it opens the people who are exhibiting, it opens their eyes to something different to look at and something different to appreciate.

Lidia: That’s another one of the unexpected outcomes of this exhibition, is other artists appreciating, you hadn’t before considered black and white photography. There have been so many little gems that have just popped up through this whole experience.

Victoria: And to have the singers, that was the icing on the cake as well.

Lidia: It was lovely wasn’t it.

Victoria: How I didn’t cry I don’t know, because the last time I heard that Maori song we were in New Zealand on our way back from Australia and the coincidence of suddenly being plonked back in the middle of Gloucestershire and that’s the first thing you hear at an art exhibition, it was just one of those spine-chilling moments [laughs].

Lidia: So that was the Sing For Joy community choir, I think they’re based in Gloucester. It was quite a moment wasn’t it.

Lydia: And representing a different kind of creativity, which again has a lot of wellbeing properties.

Victoria: As well as gaining from the fact that my art is on the wall and other people have looked at it and appreciated it, which feedback is absolutely lovely, I’ve also benefitted from the fact that at last I’m able to use my brain again, other than just doing cryptic crosswords and reading non-stop. The two-o-clock in the morning moments of scribbling down on the back of an envelope ideas for what I could bring and what I could think to do next time and what further projects could be, and it’s just lovely to start really planning things and thinking.

Lydia: Having passion, passion for something.

Lidia: Absolutely, re-igniting passion in people, it’s been a wonderful experience all round.

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