Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Henri Matisse and the hieroglyphic of happiness

All images by the Back on Track group, photos Gemma Lacey.

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

September 2014

The hieroglyphic of happiness

"There are always flowers from those who want to see them." (Henri Matisse)
Happiness is often elusive, but can seem very distant indeed at times of personal crisis. Our new project with the Back on Track group will record moments of happiness as poems and as visual marks. The work will be particularly inspired by the artist Matisse and the British visual poet Bob Cobbing. The workshops are with members of the Back on Track , Arts for Health programme and will be run by visual poet Philip Davenport and artist Gemma Lacey.

Today the first workshops took place, the first marks were made, first poems written. Already some rich results have come from these early explorations, as the group get to know each other and friendships are formed with one another and with the materials we are using.

We are making murals for the new mental health centre in Blackpool, The Harbour. The pieces will incorporate words, images, hieroglyphics and marks. They are poems for the eye, made of shape and colour as well as language. The emphasis as always will be on enjoyable, stimulating workshops that are also gently challenging.

A site visit to the nearly-completed building by Gemma, Sarah and Phil gave us our first viewing of the large corridor that will contain the work. It is a wonderful space, large and airy and full of light. Now the delightful task of filling it.

September 2014

Colour her name with pride

"Creativity takes courage." (Henri Matisse)

Many of the makers involved in this project have gone through a period of struggle with their mental health. To make anything at all, they have to quieten the critical voices in their own heads and push past fear, doubt, under-confidence, together with some physical limitations. This makes the pieces very precious, because they've been won from (sometimes massive) adversity.

We're following the trail of Matisse, whose later work is full of colour, light and memories of the sea. In this session we set out to build an imaginary undersea garden, first in words, then a series of marks, then a cluster of cutout shapes.

One of our group has an aquarium in the house and she explained: "When life becomes overwhelming I find my peacefulness watching the fish. I love their colours and their movement. Even the sound of the oxygen bubbles passing through the tank is beautiful." As she described this sanctuary, her voice shook with emotion - and suddenly this undersea garden of ours became more than an exercise, more than a distraction. The intensity of her reaction pulled the other members of our group into it and they set to with energy and sparking imagination.

We aim to make a series of pieces that embrace living, but also acknowledge the fragility of the makers and the viewers. Art that's uplifting - combinations of bold, simple colours and occasional lines of text - with some space for peace to enter and maybe a little shadow.
Many of the people involved have no art training and so the work has a naivety that some find it hard to accept. "It's like Playschool for adults," commented one of the group, sadly looking at the page she'd been working on. It can be humiliating to try a creative activity when our expectations of ourselves are high and our judgements are harsh. One way around this is to embrace naïveté and allow limitations to become strength. This is one reason that Matisse is our guiding spirit.

When the French painter Henri Matisse hit 70 he was no longer able to paint. A series of cancer operations  left him in a wheelchair, unable to stand, unable to wield a brush for any length of time. It was, to put it tres mildly, frustrating for one of the best painters of his generation. Famously, Matisse invited a new technique to sidestep this mishap - cutting out pieces of coloured card and pinning them to his compositions. Picasso went to visit Matisse after the illness and was both delighted and annoyed (Picasso was a competitive creature) to see the old man busy making again despite the best efforts of cancer and old age.

The shock of bright colour in the cutouts, sometimes intertwined with text and cartoonish drawings, massively influenced 20th Century graphic design. Many of the cut outs became murals and we've used these as a start point for this new mural project, which is a search for  The Hieroglyphic of Happiness. Matisse's resourcefulness and determination in the face of adversity is as important to this project as his technique.

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