As the UK begins to emerge from the national lockdown, a new exhibition at Firstsite – part of its 10th anniversary year and reopening celebrations – provides the opportunity for us all to pause and reflect on our experiences and considers the important role art and creativity can play in community wellbeing and building resilience following the pandemic.
In June 2020, the North East Essex Clinical Commissioning Group approached Firstsite to make a project that recorded the COVID-19 experiences of NHS key workers. Working with a number of artists, including Alec Finlay, EVEWRIGHT and Roland Carline, people in frontline roles in the health and care sectors took part in a series of workshops to explore their experiences of the pandemic and the subsequent effects on their lives.
Art for Life is the fascinating and poignant result of these workshops – which guided the participants through language, poetry, calligraphy, listening and discussion-based exercises– and reflects key themes that emerged from them, including the significance of nature, walking and touch, as well as notions of time and diary keeping; innovative ways people found to measure time during a period when every day had a tendency to feel the same.
Alongside new artworks made by contemporary artists Alec Finlay, Hannah Devereux, EVEWRIGHT, Hayley Newman and Roland Carline, Art for Life also features specially-selected loans from the Arts Council Collection – with whom Firstsite is a National Partner 2019-22 – and a variety of pieces made by the keyworkers who took part in the initial workshops. There will also be artworks made by NHS art psychotherapists who generously gave up their time to support the sessions.
Several of the artists involved suffer from the long COVID or have lost family members during the crisis.
One of the most heartrending images in the exhibition is EVEWRIGHT’s Mother’s Touch, a photograph the artist took during some of the last moments he spent with his mother, before she died of respiratory failure on 10 April 2020.
EVEWRIGHT says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has forced humanity to talk about death again and come to terms with new ways of dealing with loss in its raw naked state. This artwork has been a way for me to start the healing process. Even now when listening to the doctor giving me the bad news about the death of my mother from that very low emotional point in my life, I was able to start to rebuild again. In a way to show such a work exposes my underbelly, it is an on-going process of healing for me.”
Artworks offer reminders of new experiences which visitors may have shared, or indeed missed. On loan from the Arts Council Collection is Barbara Walker’s painting depicting African-Caribbean barber shops in Handsworth, an area of her home city, Birmingham (Boundary II, 2000). This large-scale painting playfully reminds us of our mutual longing for a haircut during the lockdown and celebrates the social interactions that take place in environments such as this.
Alec Finlay and Hannah Devereux’s photographs of landscapes involving bedding seek to highlight the connection between the vulnerable body and the vulnerable landscape and Hayley Newman’s watercolours of pillows and lungs reflect her own experience of having the virus. Hayley says “Drawing, painting and listening to the radio was part of my creative rehabilitation, an imaginative remedy taken while sitting at our living room table. I took great pleasure in making these, as they were the first sign of recovery after the acute phase of the illness.”
Alongside the collection of artworks, the keyworkers recount their experiences of Covid-19 via a series of films which play in the space. Stark and emotional, the films give an insight into challenges faced, but look to the future with hope – this hope is also reflected in the large rainbow painted on the wall over the entrance to the show.
Firstsite Director Sally Shaw MBE says: “Art for Life offers us an opportunity to reflect on all the things that became important under lockdown and the different strategies and coping mechanisms we have used to find our way through a world which changed almost overnight. Among the heartbreaking aspects of it, there are lighter moments that show how people discovered newfound creativity and used their lockdown time to try something different.
As we move out of, hopefully, the last lockdown, Art for Life may provide a cathartic experience for many and offers us all a space to reflect, connect through shared experiences and be inspired by our community’s strength and resilience throughout this challenging time.
Designed to provide a creative record of this historic period, we hope this exhibition will also continue conversations and provoke creative solutions to important issues highlighted by the pandemic – from the crucial roles key workers play in our society and the importance of community and human connection, to the steps needed to achieve equitable access to healthcare and create a truly inclusive society.”
Ed Garratt, Executive Lead for the Suffolk and North East Essex Integrated Care System and Accountable Officer for the NHS North East Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “We are extremely grateful to Firstsite for their work to record the experiences of health and care staff during this extraordinary time in history. The physical and emotional toll on staff has been immense, but it has also been immense for other frontline workers and for many people in the communities we serve. Accepting the challenges we have faced and those we still face, the losses we have suffered and the lessons we have learned, will all be part of the recovery process and art can help us to do that, whether we create it ourselves or view the work of others.”