Steve Nash recalls the experience of setting up Harrow Weald’s first contemporary art show in 2009, and previews this year’s exhibition, which continues to 2 October.
While there are, of course, notable exceptions, largely speaking we look to the West End to satisfy our cultural needs and aspirations and – let’s be honest – we’re extremely fortunate to have such a wealth of events and venues on our doorstep. However, I thought, along with a couple of fellow artists, including my wife Victoria, wouldn’t it be great to host a local event to rival the West End’s dominance? Something of similar excellence, but that is also eminently accessible to a whole host of local talent, showcasing a truly eclectic mix of art forms from traditional disciplines through to conceptual and installation art? Ridiculously ambitious? Maybe – but enter James Mercer, Vicar of All Saints’, Harrow Weald, into the mix.
James holds the impressively pragmatic view that the church should be an accessible and welcoming space at the heart of the community of which it is part – and, as a result, All Saints’ became the venue for Vision/Division, in September 2009.
Obviously, for such a venture to take place, the one thing you require above all else is a whole host of contributing artists, with as many diverse disciplines as possible. At first this seemed a tall order; it was surprisingly difficult to know who was actually out there. Artists, tending to be somewhat insular in their nature, are not necessarily as visible as you might wish them to be. The annual Harrow Open Studio event, though, offered a fine place to start. One conversation and artist led to another, and, ultimately, pointed us to a small gallery in Vaughan Road, Harrow. There Vics and I met mixed media artist Claire McDermott, through whom we were introduced to others who would eventually contribute. In total Vision/ Division featured the work of 52 artists – a number that we could only have dreamed about when first exploring the idea of a local art event.
That the exhibition was to be held in church did not restrict the selection; there were no preconceived rules as to what might or might not go on display. In fact, James was adamant that, providing the work was not gratuitously offensive, he would welcome any content that offered a critique of society, including the church. As far as he was concerned, he and the church were interested in creating a forum for debate, reaction and conversation. If controversy arose, that was something to embrace.
The theme of ‘Vision/Division’ was intended to encourage artists to offer work that offered hope, both present and future, while acknowledging the reality of a sense of brokenness and separation within society. The title was not prescriptive; rather it was intended to challenge artists to produce something a little different from their usual perspective. Vics and I both did so.
Vics produced an installation-cum-painting, which consisted of a tarmac road with various life/career decisions etched en route. It stretched the entire length of the church, from front door to pulpit, culminating in a cut-out painting of a smartly attired female devil, sitting nonchalantly upon a black tarmac cross. It was a take on a classic legend, in which Robert Johnson was given the ability to play the guitar to phenomenal effect if he ventured to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil. In Vic’s piece, instead of selling your soul in exchange for something you covet, the installation alluded to the challenge we may all face when we come to crossroad moments. Do we play safe and make those ‘presumed sensible’ decisions to gain security, salary and pension – or do we take a chance, buy a guitar and hit the road? Conceptual installation art at its best.
Bearfoot Dance and Drama company interacted with the exhibition work, delivering insight into the diverse lives and competing hopes, aspirations and failures of individuals whose stories underpin our society: rough sleeper, soldiers, drunks, city slickers, ambitious undergraduates, teenage mums with babes in their arms, hoodies with asbos… all portrayed as dynamic organic statues. The contrast between the haves and have-nots was evident, juxtaposing poverty and exclusion with wealth and ambition. I, for one, have always been challenged by the sight of rough sleepers outside Covent Garden being stepped over by opera-goers dressed to the nines with ridiculously expensive tickets in their hands (and I have been amongst the latter). It was satisfying in Vision/Division to offset the inevitably bourgeois milieu of the art exhibition – clearly taking itself very seriously – with ‘down-and-outs’ sleeping rough beneath and between the exhibits. In fact, so wonderfully in character was one of our rough sleeping actors with cap in hand, that she was even offered gifts…
And now we are doing it all over again. The event now has a name – 9daysart – and its own website (www.9daysart.co.uk). In addition to the art exhibition there is a whole variety of supporting events and performances, offering a festival of the arts and performance in Harrow Weald that lasts (yes, you guessed it…) nine days. The theme this year is Distance Travelled / Time Taken, incorporating the idea of ‘journeying’.
The success of our 2009 venture has encouraged over 50 artists to submit work for 2011. They include painters working in a realistic and figurative tradition, artists portraying native and ethnic influenced work and others working in pure abstract. There will also be work by print makers, including traditional etching and litho techniques, along with digital manipulations and photography, plus a wealth of ceramic, sculpture and 3D work. In addition conceptual installations will be placed within the church building and its extensive grounds. Our objective is to feed and challenge and inspire imagination in a venue that we hope will prove welcoming and accessible and, perhaps, a little less intimidating than some West End venues.
The Bearfoot Dancers will be with us once again to challenge and to provoke, and our website gives all the info on extra events offered throughout this year’s festival. These include recitals by local choirs and writing groups, a workshop on theatrical make-up from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s leading exponent, plus an evening of romantic music from film and theatre. On the evening of Friday 30 September, a guided critical tour of the exhibition will be provided.
The aim of 9daysart is simple: a high quality artistic festival, in the community, for the community, by the community.