Tuesday, 29 September 2015

ARTIST PROFILE: JOHN EXELL

CENTREPIECES AND I


John Exell, one of Centrepieces' longest serving members, describes what the charity has meant to him. 

'Buddy-Buddy' by John Exell
I have been with Centrepieces since its creation at the Crayford Mental Health Day Centre.  Most of my life I have been interested in art.  I have been ill with severe mental illness since the age of 19, I am now 66 (2015).  I started to go to the Day Centre when I was unemployed and looking for work, during the recession of the early nineties.  After 5 years of this, and the lack of money, my mental illness returned with a vengeance, and my world caved in on itself.  In their wisdom, my doctors said that I would never work again.  I was 46.  This was in those happy days when people still believed in mental health day centres, those with severe mental illness weren’t expected to work, and recovery meant getting over a serious night’s heavy drinking session.
  
I visited the Day Centre more often, and took up art and writing more seriously, thinking that I may be able to make it as a writer and/or artist, and anyway, I enjoyed it.  In 1999, Centrepieces was formed.  It started as an odd collection of artists, based at the Crayford Day Centre.  Its formation gave my art more of a focus.  I soon learnt that making it as an artist or writer was extremely difficult, but I liked it, returning to work was out of the question for now, so I kept it as an extended hobby.  I saw it as an aid to my recovery, and, hopefully, to help make me fit for some sort of work again.  I also used art and writing as therapy. I am now retired, and doing art and writing helps keep my mind and body going, as well as being an enjoyable hobby, and it helps keep senility at bay.  Also I know that others like my work, so I am doing a service to people, and putting something back into society.  


We did various workshops and classes, and did artwork at the Day Centre.  I partly treated the Centre as a studio.  I developed a skill in sculpture, which I practised and also taught others. Centrepieces gave occupation, structure and meaning to my life.  I often went to the Centre six days a week, doing my artwork.  I also did various voluntary jobs at the Centre.  Centrepieces co-existed with other service users at the Centre, who were not particularly interested in art, but we got on fine together.  The government’s policy to day centres changed, and to keep in line with it, service users were not allowed to treat the centre just as a place to go, they had to do something there, so many users stopped coming.  I also did creative writing; the mental health charity, Survivors’ Poetry, brought out a collection of my poems in book form.  I also taught it at theCentre.  Employed there were psychiatric staff, who were a great help to me.


'Salamanca Skyline' by John Exell
Then we were told that the Day Centre was closing altogether.  We managed to find a new home for Centrepieces, which was a God-send.  It is in the grounds of Hall Place, the local Arts Centre and Museum.  It is idyllic.  It is now solely Centrepieces; the rest of the service users now go to the local MIND charity in Bexleyheath.  But we are now on our own:  we don’t have the financial support of the local mental health authorities.  We have now become a registered charity, and somehow just manage to hold our heads above water.  The change is an immense benefit all round.  The one drawback is that there are no psychiatric staff there, but we all pull together and help each other.  Some of us are key holders - I’m one - who keep the place open.  More artists are joining us, which is very good.  We sculpt, draw, paint and write.  Several of the more able help to run the place.      


'City of Towers' by John Exell
The Lodge, as the place is called, is a true joy.  It is wonderful to wander around the grounds of Hall Place. They have a river with ducks and geese.  During the summer months they sell delicious ice cream.  It is a joy to sit in the courtyard of the Lodge, with friends. We have a pet wild robin, who is getting bolder and bolder with us, and more trusting.  I sculpt in the courtyard, teaching others my skill, and also learning from others.  Inside we have a large circular drawing table which we all sit round and draw.  I also teach creative writing there.  


When we were told that the Day Centre was closing, we never dreamed that we would be so lucky as to find this place; now there is a danger of us in taking it all for granted.  I’m now living almost outside the psychiatric system, which is very good.  I did it in my thirties, and it worked, just relying on friends to guide me if necessary.  I hasten to add that I still take my medication.  In all, the move to the Lodge is very beneficial: very beneficial indeed.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

MIND art workshop, September-October 2015

MY MIND'S EYE


Dawn Tomlin describes the benefits of the class run on Mondays at Centrepieces, specifically created for users of Bexleyheath's MIND mental health charity.


MIND papier mache art display

















In 1994 I began my teaching journey. My vibrant and eager 4 and 5 year-olds were inquisitive explorers of the art world and approached art with enjoyment and without fear. Art was an important way to express themselves as individuals, a way to explore and learn new techniques and develop skills, but, most importantly, it was a natural way for them to relax, as well as find their own individual direction in the world of creativity.

“… the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey; indeed, we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity. We value them for themselves, and because we do, we believe knowing and practicing them is fundamental to the healthy development of our children's minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization – ours included – the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term ‘education’. We know from long experience that no one can claim to be truly educated who lacks basic knowledge and skills in the arts.” 
                                                                   
National Standards for Arts Education

As adults, many of us tend to lose the ability to create freely when producing art. Pablo Picasso (b.1881- d.1973) once said, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.’ In my mind’s eye, I see everyone as artists, but the self-belief and innocence of childhood has to be found again so adults can explore, enjoy and express themselves without fear. This is the outlook that I hope to nurture and develop within the MIND art group at Centrepieces; I believe we are all artists in our own right.

'Dudley', backdrawn mono-print and
oil pastels, by Jeremy Taylor
Centrepieces successfully began a learning partnership with MIND in Bexleyheath in November 2014. Each term, we meet on Monday mornings at 10am for an hour-and-a-half, for 8 weeks, when a new art medium, technique and related skills is introduced to the attendees. This is a new journey, one that we are all participating in and learning from together, teacher and artists alike. To date we have covered collage, mono-printing, clay tiles, organic sculpture, paper sculpture, papier-mâché, mask making and, most recently, Modroc modelling (plaster gauze).

In the Centrepieces MIND art group, each artist grows both as an individual and as a group member. Since teaching in these sessions, I have seen a positive effect on the artists’ mental health and social inclusion skills. Artists become more self-aware as their confidence grows, and their self-esteem in turn becomes stronger. Communication skills also improve, as well as the social and emotional skills needed to participate in group sessions. Pleasingly, there is also an increased resilience to the challenges involved in adapting to new social situations, particularly in overcoming obstacles when things do not go quite according to plan during the classes.

 Organic sculptures
The feelings of stability that the artists gain as the term goes on not only strengthens the bonds within the group, but also the artists’ friends and family. I have been fortunate to meet some of the parents, spouses and children of our MIND artists, and they have greeted me with positive feedback concerning their relatives’ well-being since attending the sessions, largely prompted by the new skills and knowledge they’ve gained. Not only that, in turn the artists have been passing on their new insight and knowledge to their friends and family.

For us here at Centrepieces, that’s extremely rewarding all round.

Modroc hands















Images copyright: Dawn Tomlin

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Laura Bacon: August Artist in Residence

TALES FROM THE RIVERBANK


Throughout August, sculptor Laura Bacon constructed an organic sculpture (below) in the grounds of Hall Place. As part of her residency visitors were encouraged to work with her, as Centrepieces trustee Guy Tarrant reports.


















Hall Place seems to be fast becoming a central point for arts activities in the borough. With ongoing community exhibitions in The Stables Gallery, lots of creative events in the gardens, high profile exhibitions in the House gallery and, of course, our own Centrepieces Lodge full of local artists, it really seems to be the best place for an artist to be.

Hall Place has decided to add another interesting dimension to this set-up with an exciting new initiative involving an ‘Artist-in-Residence’. To anyone unfamiliar with this activity, it involves bringing in a successful, established sculptor to create an artwork in response to the immediate surroundings. In this particular instance, the environmental sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon (left) has constructed a large, woven, abstract organic form, which flows over the wall by a stream, down the bank and into the water.

Ellen follows in the tradition of English ‘Land Art’, started in the 1960s with artists such as Richard Long, and followed in the 1980s by sculptors like David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. The idea with this type of art is that it uses natural, vernacular materials in keeping with the local landscape; it also seeks to highlight ecological issues and concerns. Ellen intends to raise awareness about sustainable chalk stream rivers such as the River Cray, and indeed the artwork is being supported by the World Wildlife Fund, as it’s in keeping with Hall Place’s intentions to show artwork which touches on local themes.

What’s really good about this residency work is that it allows visitors to Hall Place to get involved. Often, as is the case with Ellen, the sculptors are usually very well established and their occupancy allows people to chat with them. This residency, like most others, also sets aside time for the public to work alongside the artist and a chance to discover new techniques and approaches.

Myself and fellow Centrepieces artists John Exell and Alex Spendley (left) took the opportunity to spend a day with her, helping to construct structural pieces for the sculpture. It was fascinating and illuminating: we got a chance to extend our knowledge of weaving with willow, as well as an insight into Ellen’s sketchbooks and notes. Most importantly, though, we got to talk with her at length about her methods, and it’s this element in particular that was the most revealing. I would say to any local creative, who has any level of seriousness about their work, to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the residences of visiting, high profile artists.

Even if their style does not particularly suit your tastes, learning how contemporary artists develop and sustain their skills is one of the most important lessons you can learn. 

A highly recommended experience.

Images copyright: Dawn Tomlin

Laura Ellen Bacon's website: www.lauraellenbacon.com