Anne Teahan documents the artistic process of three artists making Art from the memories of an institution. On the one hand the work speaks for itself. On the other Anne provides an honest and sensitive account of an artist grappling with the frustrations and joys of being a disabled artist making disability art.
I recently participated in a residency as one of a team of three artists. Initially called the Disability History Project and subsequently renamed Tales from the Boarders, it is now a touring exhibition, documenting and exploring the memories of children in care spread over the last century. The project touches Disability in two main areas.
Firstly, as subject matter, it recounts the history of Great Stoney School in Ongar, which started as a reforming alternative to the workhouse, evolved into a special needs school and closed down in the 1980s with the abolition of the GLC. It might be seen as the history of a century of attitudes to education and children, but through the lens of children dealing with multiple problems and challenges, ranging from extreme poverty to disability.
Secondly, the Disability in the initial title merged artists and the subject matter they explored. Two of the artists underwent a selection process which invited applications from disabled artists only. So I will look at the residency from both the artistic and the disability project angle.
The Disability History Project involved many participants including: Epping Forest Museum, the long-serving former headmaster of the school and the arts charity Theatre Resource, serving children with special needs and currently occupying the old school building. A diverse array of funding logos included The Arts Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and Renaissance East. At the core, were the former children and staff of Great Stoney School. The aim of the project was to untap and document their memories, as source material and inspiration for three bodies of art.
The project was kicked off by a reunion day in the old school building. People connected to Great Stoney School's past, were invited to share memorabilia and start the process of being interviewed and recorded. They included: the reforming headmaster, cooks, cleaners, house parents and most importantly, adults who had spent part or all of their childhoods in care. The oldest, now in her 80s, came to the school in the 1930s; the youngest left in the 1980s when the residential cottages were sold off to developers.
We (the artists), met for the first time at the reunion, met former residents, saw diverse school photos of line-ups, sports days, outings etc and got the feel of the school building itself.
Over the following weeks and months, Carien Kremer, Epping Forest Museum's social historian, sent the artists a fascinating range of documentation based on childhood and adult memories in the form of audio and text interviews and photos. We received the same source material, but worked on it separately in our studios.
I also drew a couple of mute objects from the school's past: a dinner knife, an unidentifiable container (was it a flour or dry bleach shaker?) containing fragments of 1960s newspaper. And I spent three days at Great Stoney School paper-casting then hatching the skin of the old school bell. Both Damien and myself took photographs of the school building and Jon recorded voices at the reunion.
Our task as artists was to turn the varied, fragmented and ephemeral research, into art work durable enough to tour for three years: to be packed, unpacked and displayed at many venues.