Simon Jenner kindly wrote the following review of the Outside In poetry event at Pallant House Gallery

Reblogged from Survivors’ Poetry Blog on DAOIn the woods, Crow will blast your courage to tell you, you are not a tree

Colin Hambrook’s double launch on Saturday 12th October at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester was – it’s too easy to use such vocabulary –  the most inspiring Survivor event since the 21st Birthday bash last year. Partly it was the event itself, curated by Pallant’s Deputy Director Marc Steene who spearheads theOutside In series of galleries and Outsider-led art initiatives currently on exhibition at The Public in West Bromwich and Project Ability in Glasgow.

Mostly it was Colin’s twin arts on display here. The volume of poetry, Knitting Time (Waterloo Press) astonishes with its harrowing journey, through surviving the attention of Jehovah Witnesses and in this case (as alas in many like the silencing of fine poets Lynette Roberts and – it’s suggested – Rosemary Tonks) their catastrophic effect on his mother. She ended up destroyed by ECT and the wrong kind of care in the NHS.

The book was illustrated in monochrome with the extraordinary polychromatic paintings and drawings on display at Pallant House – remarkable works half-way between Arthur Rackham and Cecil Collins – an extraordinary visionary neo-Romantic like David Jones, but nearer to the 1940s school. What Colin does with these influences and phenomenal technique is by turns breathtaking, touching, terrifying and ultimately affirmative.

Beyond all this, however, and the show of loyalty to Colin (also an original SP Constitution signatory in 1994) from so many survivors or those who work with survivors, was the meeting of minds, ideas, and plans for the future.

Joe Bidder and Hilary Porter were there, on hand to listen to my tribulations and offer advice and a few corrective notes. Dave Russell played a suite of his finest songs just preceding Colin’s final flourish of poems, and in the generous inclusiveness we know Colin for, there was an invitation alongside Marc Steene to make this a survivor-led event with a first half showcasing many survivor poets.

Dave Sinclair (editor of Outsider Poems) opened, followed by Monika Richards who contributed with a reading of poems from her title ‘Ink on My Lips’, a black writing anthology just out fromWaterloo Press alongside Knitting Time. Allan Sutherland read a selection of transcription poetry from his Neglected Voices cycle, concluding a very strong first half. Several other readers arrived from London and farther out – not so easy when negotiating Chichester at the weekend.

Also present and reading her fine work was Victoria Hullatt, from the Big Blake Project at Felpham, also linked to DAO and now to SP. SP’s library is on its way to the project via DAO, when arrangements and due care and process are completed. SP’s resources are increasingly at the disposal of joint DAO/SP initiatives where we hope to stream them for general survivor use.

Survivors and survivor discussions are indeed knitting time together. A new chapter for us is opening, one of collaboration and dovetailing, aesthetic quickening and the chance to secure refuge for archive and a sue for the archive itself, from recordings to library to board minutes.

I don’t quite know what the future holds for SP as an Arts Council recipient of NPO status, but as an organisation – and above all a vision –  it’s repositioning itself where its life will be: back with its roots – its founders and curators; and even more where it has always been, with users, artists, supporters, enthusiasts and witnesses.

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Survey Monkey

Knitting Time is an ongoing visual arts and poetry project, which aims to address personal experience of the links between suppressed grief, loss and psychosis through the medium of art and poetry.

Through this survey I hope to get critical evaluation of how the work has been received. Your feedback is vital in helping me consider how it might progress in the future.

It seems to me that the taboos on talking about grief and psychosis lead to further entrenched mental health problems. Interventions by church and medical practices are as likely to make matters worse, as they are to help alleviate suffering.

My intention in creating this work has been to try to break down some of the barriers and to start a conversation about the impact on our appreciation of the importance of emotional factors beyond the clinical representation offered by psychiatry.

I welcome your constructive feedback.

If you fill in the survey before 1 November your email address will go into a prize draw for a free copy of the Illustrated collection published by Waterloo Press.

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Knitting Time is finally on the horizon

Knitting-Time-sun-smallA starting point for the work on show in the Knitting Time exhibition is a collection of poems which explore personal narratives from infancy to the present time. The stories stem from my induction as an infant into the delusionary belief system of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My mum became lost to strange beliefs after the JWs kicked us all out as representatives of Satan come to disturb the flock. One of her beliefs involved the ascribing of animal spirits to individuals and groups of people. As a child I was ‘Mole’ and I still sign much of my artwork accordingly in her affectionate memory.

There are many State-sanctified psychotic belief systems. It just depends how many agree to subscribe to any particular ‘belief’ as to whether it gets labeled ‘psychotic’. If you’re in a club with only one member, the chances are you’ll be in trouble, unless you learn to shut up.

All religious or spiritual belief has an element of ‘psychosis’ about it – not that ‘psychosis’ is necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. In its original meaning the term is derived from the Greek psyche, meaning ‘soul,’ ‘mind,’ or ‘breath.’ It was regarded as the animating principle in life. From that Greek ideology came the modern hierarchy which places the spirit and the mind above matter. The poor old material world is not giving much credo, which is possibly why we care so little collectively about plundering and destroying the earth and for that matter for torturing the ‘mad’ who as a general rule tend to not like what the human race is doing to itself.

Knitting Time illustrates ‘loss’ as a guiding principle for existence and for creativity. I’ve never fitted into the world, which is no bad thing. I was taught from an early age by JWs that the world would end when I was 17 in 1975. And so I’ve spent 38 years living with a sense of mourning the ‘end’ that never came and in grief for the injustices perpetrated against my mum in the name of psychiatry. Psychiatry – like much of humanity and especially organised religion – continues to be as deluded as ever in the way it treats people.

The audio-descriptive sound installation in the  exhibition describe a selection of ten of the works including work made during our workshop programme expounding on personal stories that underpin the making of those pieces. I’ve a history since infancy of getting lost in dreams and hallucinations; of entering a world which is outside of time. Much of the art and poetry here is based on those experiences, which have often been very profound and beautiful.

At the same time as expressing a ‘spiritual’ world, seeing angels and so forth… I’m no believer in the hierarchy we’ve adopted from the early Greeks. As Antonin Artaud put it so eloquently in his essay Shit to the Spirit: “The spirit was never anything but the parasite of man, the ringworm of his worthy body when the body was no more than an animalcule swimming around and having no desire to be worthy of existing.”

And therein lies the dilemma of who we are and why we’re here? Knitting Time is a piece of my dealing with that conundrum.

I hope you find the exhibition thought-provoking and would love to hear your thoughts on these concerns.

Posted in Antonin Artaud, art, mental health, mythology, Poetry, psychology, psychosis | Tagged | 8 Comments

Slipping in and out of breakfast

Knitting Time smallI’m in the run-up to the exhibition now, feeling nervous and daunted, I guess, but also optimistic that it will all come together. And that people will come and give the work some critical appreciation.

I’ve always found exhibiting the hardest part of being artist. It’s like making a journey to the factory where dreams are made.

Outside the Mental Institute

She prays for sparkling rain,
waiting in the earthed place;
no sound or movement
at the end of the moment,
resting on Lethe’s heels.

She picks bones from the dog-tray,
speaks silently to the wedding;
every awakening breath a reminder
of salad days on the empty moon.

She sings of life on unmade weeks;
thinks of love lost in the breathing soup,
whilst looking forward to feeding time
in the factory where dreams are made.

She doesn’t hold on to candles any more;
or conspire flight from Malkuth
during the culling season
when the angels aren’t looking.

She slips in and out of breakfast;
drowses in momentary bursts;
reading slowly to the vacant air
on nights when the jailor sleeps.

She washes her footsteps;
spills seamlessly into far-off intimacies
and treasures each jewel-like drop
those water-skin memories

fragile as a leaf skeleton.
(c) Colin Hambrook 2013

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World Suicide Prevention Day 2013

Tomorrow is World Suicide Prevention Day organised by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP)

There are various events happening around the UK to remember loved ones; talk about suicide and break down taboos. There seem to be quite a few cycling events – which I would have jumped at getting involved in, once upon a cycle.

I’ve been reeling over the past few weeks after hearing of the suicide of a friend and lover who was a big part of my life during my twenties. I hadn’t seen him for more than ten years but last year wrote a poem for him, which I had been considering sending him… sadly it’s too late now. He left this world on 4 August 2013.

Breathing In
For Kraean Fever

You led me to a field of breath
with all its intricate possibilities
for addressing the quandry
of being alive; this forever moment
forever here, forever gone.

I followed your promise of liberation,
down through the rhythm of breath,
absolved by its motion from the nostrils;
into the lungs and further
to the depths of the belly; the centre.

You never learnt to breathe with kindness;
sadly, fell into dangerous cavities
made foolish by a cool intelligence;
and a weapon-like facility for reason.

Years’ later you said you had never been loved
in the way that I loved you:
a pasture ripe for forgiveness,
straining for air under an implacable sun.

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Leonora’s Death Bird in the Valley of the Shadow of Elisabeth Frink


Leonora’s Death Bird in the Valley of the Shadow of Elisabeth Frink [c] Colin Hambrook

As the deadline for the Knitting Time exhibition approaches I am making final adjustments to detail; colouring drawings; making linocuts and finishing a series of large oil paintings. I’ve relished the opportunity Knitting Time has given me to make big paintings again.

Leonora’s Death Bird is part homage to the work of Leonora Carrington. She made her paintings of fantastical landscapes glow from the inside out with a visceral luminosity I’ve never seen any other painter be able to emulate. My painting, to a minor extent, references her vision of a world inhabited by strange half human, half animal creatures.

Leonora Carrington famously always refused to talk about any interpretation she placed on her work. Interpretations change over time and people will always see what they want to see; so in that sense the artists’ interpretation lacks validity. However, historically I think the precedent that artists of note have taken to not talk about their work as a personal narrative, and to only let it be talked about in a generic, highly stylised language, has simply served to undermine its appreciation. And maybe that is why ‘artists of note’ often seem to lack any creative spark. You see the same idea regurgitated rather than sense that they are creating something that really means anything to them.

I personally like to know the artists interpretation of the making of an artwork and of what it means to them from the viewpoint of an autobiographical journey. That was the thing I really liked about seeing David Hockney’s retrospective at the Royal Academy last year. The audio guide conveyed his passion for what he did, as well as giving a descriptive narrative of the works, making it memorable.

I really appreciate it when people take the time to ask straightforward, probing questions – as I experienced on holiday last week where I showed some of these images. The interest various individuals took, sparked some wonderful conversations, which is really what it is all about at the end of the day.

And that is why I’ve gone to some lengths to work with sound artist Joseph Young to create an audio piece which shares something about the making of the work and context of the narrative it tells – as well as describing the work itself. I think it is an innovative approach to creating an audio-description, which is specifically meant to both be an additional artistic experience for an audience as well as providing a way in to seeing the work for people with a visual impairment. Joseph and I have worked hard on finding a balance, integrating three aspects of the narrative: what’s in the image, what was involved in the making of the image, and story behind the image itself.

Once the exhibition gets installed at the beginning of October, I’m intending to share the audio-artworks I’ve commissioned Joseph to make on this blog.

Posted in art, Birds, mental health, psychology, sound art | 1 Comment

Blue Black Feather: some thoughts on the audio-description of the drawing and its link to poetry

drawing of a fantastical landscape occupied by a Jay and a Crow

Blue Black Feather [c] Colin Hambrook

I’ve been revising how to make the audio-artwork to go with the exhibition. I initially scripted descriptions in two parts – giving a straight description of the drawings followed by the context of the making of the image and the narrative it tells. Now, with input from Joseph Young I’ve opted for combining the three facets of the audio-description. I’ve had a go at incorporating the details of the illustration with descriptions of the making of the images, drawing on narratives in the poems being illustrated and the personal stories which were the starting point.

I enjoyed sharing the following script for a creative audio-descriptive piece in the Knitting Time workshop at Pallant House this week:

I had already started this A4 coloured drawing when I decided it would be an apt illustration for the poem Blue Black Feather. It conveys a love of nature in a dream-like landscape made up of birds, faces and human figures, which inhabit a series of hills and pastures. It pictures the encroachment of urban life on the landscape in a series of simply drawn tower blocks which run down the left-hand side of the drawing. It just needed two birds and so I drew a Jay dominating the right hand side of the foreground and a smaller crow further up and on the left, with which it is communicating.

The poem relates to a story from the mid-eighties of when I found  a perfect blue-black barred Jay’s feather. Living in North London during the early 1980s was a depressing time. All my efforts at getting somewhere to live were being thwarted at the same time as all social housing was being sold off. Ideals of community and social awareness were fragmenting. I squatted a housing association property. For a time our eviction notices were thrown out of court by the judge because the housing officers were so embroiled in corrupt deals. Everything, seemed bound up in corruption.

I got very excited by the jewel-like quality of the feather. In my fragile state of mind this piece of treasure seemed to be auspicious sign; an omen of better things to come. It glowed, like something from the garden of Eden. On an impulse I showed the feather to a fellow passenger on a tube train. I happened to be following one of the sillier fashions of the time, wearing striped pyjamas. It was a trend started by the Boomtown Rats who I’d seen play a couple of times.

So, when the woman who I’d shown the feather to announced that she was an off-duty police officer, it was not wholly unsurprising that she’d assume that I’d escaped from Friern Barnet, the nearest mental hospital. She took me aside on the platform, clearly debating with herself what she should do and whether or not she could be bothered to take me all the way back to the police station. She wavered – especially as I had nothing on me to identify who I was. On grilling me about where I was going she asked me if I was harmless or not. She realised I couldn’t cause much damage, armed with a tiny feather. And so she then asked if I’d go back to the hospital of my own accord; making me promise faithfully that I would do so. And so I agreed, escaping the psychiatric system by an edge once again.

At the centre bottom of the drawing is a prominent ball shape across which a skeletal figure is draped. And to the left of the figure is a large cross-hatched shadow which is draped from the bottom corner of the picture, across the bottom tower block and up into the fields above. There is sense of underlying fatalism within this drawing. The frightened expressions on the faces in the submerged figures are expressive of a search for meaning and purpose in a random brutal urban environment.

Posted in art, Birds, mental health, psychology, sound art | 5 Comments

Bird Song: audio-description

black and white line drawing of a sparrow

Bird Song

I’ve begun the task of writing descriptions of the illustrations for the book and adding some personal reflections which put the poems in context. I thought I’d share the first of these, which relates the drawing of a sparrow I’ve made to illustrate the poem Bird Song.

An  A4 portrait black and white line drawing depicting a side-on view of a sparrow, which takes up the whole of the central two thirds of the picture. The bird is very carefully and delicately drawn, with a great attention to the detail in the feathers and the markings on the feathers. It is a male bird as defined by the dark markings around its eye and beak and down the extent of its wing feathers. It sits on  a short branch, which comes towards the viewer into the foreground of the picture.

The sparrow looks upwards with a fragile, slightly quizzical expression on its face, which emphasises a sense of its innocence. Surrounding the bird is a mesh or web of delicate markings resembling a lattice of small interlacing branches. Many of the larger branches are shaded with small dots creating a grey cloud-like shadow around the bird, which seems to pulsate in the background.

The sparrow symbolises a lot of thoughts and feelings in relation to childhood memories. My mum conferred a love of nature and the bird-life in the garden was very important to us. The chirpy little sparrow was our favorite. We’d put bread out and would love to watch these shy, innocent birds hovering around our offerings.

Mischeviously they would peck the aluminium tops of the milk bottles left on our doorstep by the milkman. “Look mum”, I’d say “They’ve been at it again”, and we’d share a smile at their daring do. I think we shared an intuitive connection to their fragile natures. We would delight in counting the numbers of male and female birds we could spot at impromptu moments when a ‘quarrel’ of them would come to visit.

The decline in numbers of sparrows in our London garden in the late seventies seemed to parallel the worsening of my mothers health and wellbeing. The disappearance of the birds was inextricably linked, in my mind, with the irrevocable changes in society wrought by the rise of Thatcher. It seemed that the world fast became a harder and more corrupt place with the influence of American Economist Milton Friedman’s free market ideology, that was so important to the Thatcher government. From the late-seventies their policies spelt an end to the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that had been a marked feature within society since the Clement Atlee government of 1945. After 35 years of common ownership of all essential utilities and industries, we were subject to policies that established a framework of private enterprise and competition. The idea was that we learn to rely on market forces to ensure the ‘survival of the fittest’, rather than attempt to work together to achieve a fair society. However the political appropriation of the phrase, first coined by Herbert Spencer and then used by Charles Darwin as a synonym for the idea of natural selection in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, published in 1869, was incompatible with the meaning both scientists intended in their search for an understanding of evolutionary theory. Darwin had intended the phrase to be a metaphor for how life adapts to its immediate, local environment, often working collectively to achieve common aims. The political interpretation that Darwin was vindicating the actions of the rich and powerful over and above the needs of the weak and those less well-placed was in fact a fallacy.

As the 1980s dawned, in my mind at least, there was a direct association between the increase in Corvids in London parks and gardens with the harsher pragmatism of the dismantling of the welfare state. The crows, magpies and jays replaced a lot of the smaller more benign birds. The families of finches, tits and sparrows decreased dramatically within a short space of time, never to return in the same numbers. The decline of the sparrow, especially, who my mum and I identified with so readily, was especially symbolic as indicative of our own predicament.

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Freedom in colour

Time flies. Not long till the workshops at Pallant House now and am throwing myself into colouring a lot of the illustrations for Knitting Time. In this coloured version of Freedom I tried to capture a sense of the changing seasons as well as something of the change in light at twilight.

black and white drawing of an Oak tree on the left side of the landscape and a male and female figure on the right side, merging into a landscape of oak leaves

Freedom [C] Colin Hambrook 2013

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black and white drawing of an Oak tree on the left side of the landscape and a male and female figure on the right side, merging into a landscape of oak leaves

Freedom [C] Colin Hambrook 2013

The book is fast approaching completion now. It’s been pretty exhausting but I am pleased with the way it’s shaping up. The drawings are coming together and I’m beginning to think about putting some colour in the cover image. The knitting-boat was the drawing I made specifically, although seeing the layout artist Alan Morrison yesterday he suggested one of the other landscape images as a possible contender.

‘Freedom’ is much more complex – and it might work well as a cover, although it doesn’t immediately evoke the title. The poem describes the merging of ego boundaries – specifically my mother’s and my own – and the drawing is built around imagery from the poem.

Who was it stole her from the cradle under cover of dusk;
squeezed her through the gap between here and there?
to be kept under stones on lost days of Oak and Elder, Hazel and Beech.

There is a melancholy in the elemental quality of the imagery

Held by the pull of gentle hills, she resembles a slow fire
in an autumn wood, following the sound of the streams’ murmur.

But ultimately it ends on a positive note with a final resolution to find a space where it is okay just being me.

ever-inching towards the place of midnight
where, with deft hands, she will mould the spell
and become herself once more, free from promise.

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