collecting stories live in ink

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When I took up ‘residence’ under the imagined light of a cut-out paper chandelier in an allotment shed in 2004, on a project called FEAST (curated by Clare Patey and Cathy Wren, for London International Festival of Theatre) I didn’t imagine that this was the beginning of such a long and fruitful path, story collecting and drawing in conversation with so many people.

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There is too much to say about this process, which has evolved into a systemised practise that combines my favourite work zones: words and images – with content that fascinates me: people – and the apparently ordinary stuff we do, like peel the potatoes, go for a walk, have a baby…

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People queue up to tell me of their experiences, and every single one has qualities both unique and universal. I take between 10 and 15 minutes to listen to and then write and draw each story. Enough time to laugh, cry and draw, but not to judge or even to ‘think’.

collecting food stories on Soutwark Bridge
collecting food stories on Soutwark Bridge

Each narrator gets a same size copy of their story to take away and savour later.

I keep the originals, I have a very full archive box, over 1200 drawings at last count.

When I work on this for several hours I go into an altered state, this listening and drawing put me into a kind of trance, and it takes a few days to recover. It is meditative and intense, and even if sometimes the stories themselves seem trivial or anecdotal, they usually contain a metaphor of great value.  Often the story the narrator chooses to tell is a metaphor for themselves, and as such operates on other levels besides the literal. Certainly the capturing of the sense of the story and rapidly finding the accompanying image have pushed me into new territory, fuelled my love of poetry and set off in me the committed wish to write.

I’ve had a few story collecting gigs in the last couple of weeks: at Southbank Centre’s Festival of Love, I was allocated the type of love called Philautia, or self respect.

I was very busy both days of the weekend at the Festival Hall, and collected 70 new stories, all wonderful to hear and to draw.

Then as part of a project called The Edible Garden, put together by Project Phakama, in which I was one of a team – artists, actors, musicians, chefs and dancers, we worked together to create a musical in an old peoples’ home, devised and performed by BTEC performing arts students from a sixth form college.

Stories collected by me from the different generations of participants helped form the core of the piece, and I once again took up residence in a shed to collect more stories from residents and audience members at the end of the show.

story shed, at Project Phakama's Edible Garden
story shed, at Project Phakama’s Edible Garden

The next of these adventures for my ear and brush, will be in Actual Nature!

I have a residency from now till late autumn with the wonderful Fermynwoods Contemporary Art, where I will be looking at how people in their local region (Northamptonshire), think about and use their woodlands. Corby is unusual in that it has a great big tract of forest right in the middle of town! I am looking forward to hearing… about what? Imaginary bears, real fungi, foraged delights and secret assignations? The plan is for this hike into the wilderness to emerge at the end in the form of a book. A semi fictional guide to the forest. Rustling and whistling with leaves and voices, burnt out cars, charcoal drawing and birdsong!

Also, following on from a limited edition book made in 2011 as part of a residency in Margate; Pie Days and Holidays (in collaboration with Marine Studios), a book of the London food stories is next in the pipeline, to be published in collaboration with the Bookartbookshop, for that I’m looking forward to an excuse to plumb the depths of that archive box, and choose maybe a 100  favourites for deluxe production.

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