Sunday, 14 February 2021

2021 - a year of creative development

I spent about five solid weeks in late 2020 writing two Arts Council applications, one on my own account and the other on behalf of OpenHand OpenSpace, Reading's main studio provider and its only contemporary art gallery. This post is about my personal application. The next post will be about the other one. 


I was successful in applying for a Developing Your Creative Practice Grant. It felt like the right time for me to make a step change. Friends and regular readers will know that o
ur daughter Alice died in 2019, aged 28, after nine years of serious illness with a brain tumour. The caring duties were traumatic particularly in the final months of Alice's life and took their toll on me and Liz. Our emotional energy and creativity were at a low ebb, with caring duties naturally taking precedence over everything else. 

I carry that bereavement with me into a renewed commitment to my practice, which Alice always encouraged and inspired. I feel that now I have both the time and the commitment to pursue my art practice like never before. I want to revisit the socially-engaged core of my motivation for making art; to strengthen my network of connections with artists and art organisations whose work I admire; and to have focused research and development time to create new work.

I intend this year to build a stronger base from which to make well-considered, transformative work that reaches new audiences. Ultimately, by the end of 2021, I want to have built a body of new work that fully expresses what I want to share with the world; to have a stronger understanding of my own practice and artistic identity; to have strengthened my network of artists and galleries; and to have found opportunities to exhibit and create participative projects in new places for new audiences.


My application was based on a month-by-month activity plan to turn 2021 into a year of creative development, involving dedicated studio time, research trips, studio visits, and a short residency. But then shortly after getting the grant we went into another Covid19 lockdown, which has meant the research trips and studio visit elements of the plan have had to be pushed back towards the second half of the year.


Watch the interview here: 
https://www.instagram.com/tv/CJy5hs5lMgG/?igshid=1usnums891fbh


I started with a week-long Instagram takeover of the Chapel Arts Studios Instagram account. (I've been an associate artist there since 2014). This included an online interview, during which I wittered-on for forty minutes or so about my life experiences, painting, woodcut, walking, marching and birding.






 







At the same time, I relaunched my website,  https://peterdriver.art designed by my friend the designer Matthew Luke.

So it has been a time to focus on studio practice. Studio time is always hard-won. I still teach two days a week at Winchester School of Art (all online at the moment), I'm secretary of OpenHand OpenSpace and leading on changing its legal form and applying for registered charity status, and I still want to be at home with Liz and helping our son renovate his new home, three miles down the road from us. So from a busy life I have managed to carve out more studio time and have been experimenting with new directions. 

We discovered this wonderful 1970s vintage wallpaper on the kitchen wall of our son's new house, it was preserved behind the kitchen wall-cupboards. I was instantly transported back to my childhood in the houses of me and my friends on our council estate in Littleport. And childhood memories always include the birds I saw and heard. I was reminded of balmy summer days and the purring of Turtle Doves around the village, Spotted Flycatchers perched on the gravestones in the churchyard. Just two species that have declined dramatically in numbers since those days. The summer population of Turtle Doves has declined by over 90% in the UK since their purring filled my childhood summers. The Spotted Flycatcher population has plummeted to a similar degree over the same period. 

These declines are linked to habitat loss, changes in farming practices, use of agro-chemicals and the massive reduction in the availability of food for these two species. We have ripped-up thousands of miles of hedgerow and paved our gardens or tidied away the plants that provide the seeds that Turtle Doves eat and that feed the aerial insects that the Flycatchers eat. 

I decided to make a woodcut to print over the scraps of vintage wallpaper. The first one will say 'bring back Turtle Doves'. I just need to work out what colour to use and how best to print onto the resistant surface. 

I have started painting again. 

When Alice painted, she used colour as her subject matter. I feel that I want to do that too, as a commemorative act, to carry on Alice's work or to carry the bereavement with me into making new things, in the same way that we carry on her work of supporting Reading Refugee Support Group and LGBTQ+ causes.

These are stumbling steps in painting at this stage, hesitant and tentative. I feel like an imposter, and a dabbler, faced with the prolific and accomplished output of current painters I admire like Tim Stoner, Katie Pratt, Karolina Albricht or Tahmina Negmat. 

But pushing down the familiar imposter syndrome, which seems to be endemic among council house kids, I carry on. It begins with mixing colour - maybe just two colours plus white and seeing how many distinct tones and hues they can make. This is an approach I learned from Daniel Preece at the Slade evening courses in painting I attended before I went to art school. Daniel is inspired by Euan Uglow and I have to admit some of that approach feeds into what I do.



































Another thing that seems to stay with me is the desire to reuse and incorporate discarded byproducts of previous works. I have this box of painted canvas strips, which were still on the edges of some second-hand stretchers I bought. I plan to stick them to a board in strips and use them as a surface for a new painting about colour-play.

I will post updates about my progress over the coming months. 











Saturday, 5 September 2020

I am for an art that loves everybody

Over the last few weeks I have been reflecting on my practice. Looking back to the blog post from 2014 entitled 'Searching for the grit' I realise that this examination is a cyclical process. Here I am again, trying to work out why I make art, who it is for, and what I want to say. I came across a poor quality photo of this acrostic manifesto I made in my first year on the BA Fine Art course at Winchester, in which I grappled with the same questions. With a big nod to Claes Oldenburg's 'Ode to Possibilities' (1961), I came up with this:
Despite the manifesto's brevity and apparent naivety, it covers all the bases. Looking back, it pretty-well characterises my work for the last nine years. The March (and prints) for Optimism and the psychogeographic walking practice, are all seeded in this manifesto. The attention to birds and words, the generosity of freely-distributed woodcuts and zines - these are all in line with the sentiments I articulated back in 2011. I want my work to 'make a difference' - a little contribution to changing the world, maybe one person at a time. I shared this old photo on Instagram, explaining I was revisiting the basis of my practice. A good friend from my studio said 'hang on to those'. I mean to. 


But it's all well and good stopping for a chat when I buy the Big Issue. Isn't it more urgent to address the societal conditions that enable homelessness and poverty to persist, both here in the UK and beyond, which look set to worsen over the coming years? Well yes, and that's covered by the manifesto too. I have long been convinced that all artwork is political, because being an artist is to take a political position. It stakes a claim on our time and resources and puts them to use for a mainly non-commercial end. Artists are either complicit with the current systems of power and distribution of resources, both within the art-world and the 'real' world, globally and locally, or they are agitating for change. As we are learning from the Black Lives Matter movement, silence is violence. 



The status quo is not working. Society is set up with an unsustainable dependency on growth, which enriches a tiny number while oppressing and exploiting huge numbers of people and trashing, negligently, the biosphere that keeps us all alive. Inequalities of wealth and opportunity, corruption and greed blight our societies. Fear and hatred of 'the other' are manipulated by power-seeking people to keep the population feeling divided and powerless. In my experience of the UK, we are a more divided society now than ever before in my lifetime. I take a position against ignorance, against exploitation, and for the human. I don't subscribe to misanthropic, malthusian tropes about humans being the virus infecting the planet. I believe a better, fairer, sustainable world is possible, that the global population of humans is stabilising, and that there are sufficient resources for everyone if we use them fairly. Life is a constant shifting of the balance between species and habitats and nothing we do will bring about the global harmony we might imagine, if we're hoping for stasis. Change is one of the constant factors of the natural world. So let my artwork express life and change in all its ridiculous complexity. Let it confront prejudice and abuse of power. Let it present love and generosity, in opposition to fear and mean-spiritedness. Let it appear foolish and mischievous as it punches you, gently, on the nose. Let it dive into the world as a journeying pilgrim, discovering its overlooked corners and bringing you along for the journey. 


If those are the heady reveries of my worldview and values, what are the specific issues I'm grappling with as an artist?  My job as an artist is to create work, and more work, and more work that expresses my values and experience. For me, it starts with drawing and ideas in equal measure. These are necessary ingredients but not outcomes in themselves. I enjoy the hand-made and analogue qualities of woodcut printing, and it's distributive potential. And my time-based, durational walking practice is at the core of what I do. I hope there is a sense of love and generosity embedded in all that I do, even when it involves a provocation or rebuke - but I am seeking the grit that creates the pearl that I can pass on to an audience. I want the work to embody my values in a way that can transport people to a transformational experience. 


I am aware looking back over my work that it has sometimes tended towards the safe and familiar, the birds and the trees, without any of the transformational grit I want to communicate. The poetics and mischief of a performative practice should never feel safe and familiar, it should be unsettling and discombobulating. So I will focus on the work that asks questions and provokes responses. I will avoid the comfort zone of making nice prints of pretty scenes. I will aim to connect my core values into my practice as an authentic expression of myself, including the contrasts of light and dark. For me, that will always involve supporting and promoting the work of other artists, whose work I love and who are on similar journeys. 

Questioning my practice online in this way feels like quite a vulnerable position to take - but that is also part of my job. My practice is a process of constant trial and error working out these issues from different angles, using different media, surprising people with incongruities that may challenge their unexamined beliefs (as well as my own).

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Getting back in the saddle

It is impossible to describe what it feels like to lose a child. Alice's illness with a brain tumour was the dominant presence in my life all the way through my journey back to art school and establishing my practice. Her death had been approaching relentlessly for a decade and everything else in our lives happened around the edges of that. All my artworks, including the public artwork March For Optimism, and the ongoing distributive woodcut 'I'm Glad You're Alive!' are all responses to the world that squeezed out round the edges of the fact of Alice's impending death. 

Alice died in the Duchess of Kent Hospice, Reading on 6th June 2019. Over a year later Liz and I, and her brother Joe, carry the loss daily. It is like learning to live in a home with the back-wall blasted away. We are functioning and doing things day to day when they seem possible. I returned to my teaching job at Winchester School of Art last October and in my more lucid moments have probably contributed a little to my students' recent degree successes. I'm immensely proud of all of them.

Artistic output dwindled to a trickle over the last couple of years, as the creative urge has been at a low ebb. But the stuff that squeezes out around the edges has included my book, A Walk For Stanley, published a month after Alice's death and some paintings and drawings which have found appreciative audiences (buyers!)

During the Covid-19 Lockdown all teaching, tutorial and assessment activity was conducted online. I wanted to make something to encourage my students so I created this simple woodcut:


I made an edition of 110, giving them to my students as part of an art exchange and selling the excess for £15 each. I passed all the proceeds to two local charities: Reading Refugee Support Group and Sue Ryder, Duchess of Kent Hospice. Both charities are close to our hearts because Alice volunteered for RRSG and was cared for at DOK for the last six weeks of her life. The sales raised £480 each for the charities. 

Another nationwide response to the Covid-19 crisis was #portraitsfornhsheroes, initiated by portrait painter Thomas Croft. Artists offered free portraits for NHS workers, who were putting their lives on the line daily to tackle the impact of the pandemic. I ended up doing two such portraits. Mine were made as woodcuts and I think the recipients were happy with the results. This one is Kerry, a trainee pharmacist (and Joy Division fan). 



A third lockdown project came in the form of an online auction organised by ArtAgainstCovid in the North West. My friend the artist and curator Kezia Davies was involved in organising this and I was happy to donate a print. It was bought by a collector in New York who did well to get this for the bargain price of £70.






So Lockdown has seen me getting 'back in the saddle', getting back to the studio at OpenHand OpenSpace. I am making new work and developing plans for future projects - watch this space for more news about them soon. 

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Only The Sunny Hours: contemporary photography with a Brownie 127

I put four photos into an exhibition curated by Cally Trench. Only The Sunny Hours; contemporary photography with a KODAK Brownie 127.  At OpenHand OpenSpace, Reading, 20-24 June 2018.

I'm very grateful to Cally for including me in the project.  I haven’t often used photography in my practice and it has been an interesting experiment for me. 

Greenham Common: towards the control tower - Dartford Warbler [Peter Driver 2018]
My four photos were made on Greenham Common. I am fascinated by the place, its history and what it has become.  Because of its history and particularly the activism of the Women’s Peace Camp it has been used as subject matter by a number of contemporary artists over the last twenty years or more [for instance Margaret Harrison, and Jane and Louise Wilson's ‘Gamma’].  My work involves making drawings, prints and photographs on the site.  And thanks to Cally I have discovered something about the quality of the photos from a Brownie 127 that adds to the poetic sensibility of the work.

People of my generation and older will recall that during the Cold War, in the 1980s, when NATO powers were locked in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, the British Government agreed to site United States tactical inter-continental nuclear weapons in Britain. From 1983, over ninety ground-launched Cruise Missiles, with nuclear warheads, were sited at RAF Greenham Common, which was used by the United States Air Force. 

Between 1981 and 2000 a Women’s Peace Camp was maintained at Greenham Common by a changing cast of many thousands of women. They were protesting against siting nuclear missiles on the base.  Some of the women camped around the perimeter long-term (the longest-serving protesters camped there for nineteen years); others visited as often as they could to offer support.

Throughout the duration of the peace camp women were routinely evicted, assaulted by police and military, abused by passers-by, arrested, imprisoned, and vilified in the press.  Undeterred, they maintained their protest.  In December 1982, 30,000 women came together to surround the entire base in a hand-holding chain entitled ‘embrace the base’.  The women staged a continuous range of non-violent actions, chaining themselves to the fences, blockading the entrances, cutting through the fences and invading the silos where the missiles were stored. 

Greenham Common: missile bunkers - Ring Ouzel [Peter Driver 2018]
There are many documentary sources for the study of the Greenham phenomenon, including Sasha Roseneil’s sociological study, Disarming Patriarchy: feminism and political action at Greenham (Open University, 1995), and the film ‘Carry Greenham Home’, by Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson.

Many people, probably the majority of people at the time, disagreed with their stance and certainly disapproved of their tactics. But, love them or loathe them, the Women’s Peace Camp stands as one of the most significant acts of durational dissent in British history.  Their achievement was to bring radical feminist direct action and civil disobedience into the public discourse. Greenham left a global legacy of activism, inspiring people and especially women, worldwide to new forms of critical engagement, protest and direct action. The Peace Camp and its repertoire of creative forms of resistance became the inspiration for later campaigns - including the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass  environmental protests, and the Occupy Movement.

The Cruise missiles were eventually removed in 1991 as part of arms reduction agreements between Gorbachev and the West, and the base was decommissioned.  It isn't possible to demonstrate any causal link between the protests and the decommissioning but with hindsight, public opinion about nuclear weapons has changed and has been informed by the courageous protests at Greenham. 

Greenham Common: remnant of the fence - Woodlark [Peter Driver 2018]
The commons were officially re-opened to the public in 2000. The two-mile length of concrete runway was broken up and the huge site has now largely reverted to natural heathland habitat. It provides a haven for wildlife alongside cyclists, joggers, grazing cattle, and dog-walkers. Several endangered bird species have returned to nest on the site.

About a dozen pairs of Woodlark are now present.  Wheatear and Ring Ouzel stop-over on passage to and from their upland breeding grounds. And for me, the most notable returnee is the Dartford Warbler.  A species that was on the brink of extinction in Britain when I became a birdwatcher in the late Sixties, at the age of eight. 

By this time last year numbers of Dartford Warblers had risen to over three thousand pairs in Britain, with eleven territories on the Common – a massive success story.  Unfortunately, this year, the picture is different. The horrendous cold snap, dubbed ‘The Beast from The East’ almost wiped out some local populations of Dartford Warblers.  The harsh weather came right at the end of the winter when birds were on the brink of perishing from starvation.  Repeated surveys on Greenham Common have found only one breeding pair this year.  Personally I have seen one bird all year.  It’s a similar picture on the Thames Basin Heaths on the Berkshire/Surrey border.  This is a major set-back from which there is just a glimmer of hope for another slow recovery.

So my work holds together these two themes of the social-historical significance of the site and its current ecological importance.  I see the act of birdwatching and drawing on the site as a way of responding to what it once was, and now is.

I think it's important to recognise a risk for my work that I could be co-opting the history and the activism of those fierce and defiant women in an effort to make my work seem more radical or interesting, by association.  But the urgency and power of direct action will always be more discomforting and demanding of a response than any artwork in a gallery.

My work alludes to the traces and memories of things that are no longer there and the fact of my presence to apprehend that absence.  There is a kind of poetic dissonance created between the different times and their different uses of the site.
The work also carries my memory of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation  I grew up in the ground-zero zone around RAF Mildenhall in East Anglia, and the nuclear threat was as an ever-present, but generally unacknowledged backdrop to my childhood and adolescence.  Those memories remain part of my relationship with Greenham Common. In a way, this makes the act of birding on the site a celebration of human survival just as much as it celebrates the return of the Dartford Warbler.  I am interested in presenting the social history, in a tangential rather than didactic way, reflecting on it, inviting others to do the same and in their own ways, to consider what implications there might be for their own lives and comforts.

Greenham Common: fire plane - Wheatear [Peter Driver 2018]

I have great respect for the Women’s Peace Camp movement that stood opposed to an unassailable global power at Greenham.  I recognise my work's inadequacy to address such issues, or to affect any change. But I hope it can point towards what can be achieved by people united in common cause and collective action.  If all else fails it could just highlight the changing fortunes of the bird populations, as a gesture of helplessness.

If art is able to achieve anything in the world then I hope the work can operate as a small beacon for the forms of resistance that we're all going to need in the impending future.





Sunday, 10 September 2017

'Imagined Futures' at K6 Gallery 1 September - 1 December 2017

I was delighted to be approached by K6 Gallery,Southampton back in June, about showing some work in their unique public exhibition space. K6 Gallery is located in two decommissioned K6 model telephone kiosks in the centre of Southampton. Here's a link to the gallery webpage: http://k6gallery.com/exhibitions


photo: Kate Aries





This show is the product of a focussed period of work. Everything was made specifically for this site to work within the physical parameters of the phone boxes but also using the windows to engage people passing by.

Photo: Kate Aries

I often find it difficult talking and writing about my work - and I feel that my works should be able to speak for themselves. I am interested in the idea that the viewer is a participant in the creation of meaning. The work should be able to stand alone without me there to explain it. Explanation limits the power of the work to create new meanings.

Photo: Kate Aries
Unusually for me, this collection of work is clearly subject-specific in its content. It addresses a particular area of public policy.

Now I don't claim to be a political artist. I am not necessarily in favour of artists trying to promote a specific 'message' because that can be very problematic and potentially fatal for the work. But the very interesting artist Susan Hiller has said - " my work isn't about specific political or ethical positions, yet like all art it is the result of them and allows or even provokes the formation of new positions". I think it is interesting to consider how all art is the result of political and ethical positions. One way to consider any art work is to ask whether it supports the status quo - the current hegemonic settlement - or if it is agitating in some way for new perspectives.


The work addresses the subject of primary education policy.  I wouldn't claim to be an expert on this subject or to have any more knowledge than anyone who reads the newspapers or takes a general interest in public life.  But it is something I am concerned about. I think the signs are that we as a society are failing our children by imposing on them a curriculum that is skewed towards what is measurable. This in turn feeds a rigid and highly stressful testing and assessment regime. In a survey of primary school leaders earlier this year, 80% of them reported increased levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues among their pupils. They attributed this increase to the national testing regime.



I am equally frustrated that the main opposition parties are offering no alternative and that their education policies seem to have been reduced to throwing free food - often inedible food - at children rather than addressing the fundamental problems with the curriculum, inspection and assessment which have been raised by the teachers unions.

The concept of Imagined Futures comes from the simple premise that everything in our environment has its origin in somebody's imagination (particularly so for the theists among us, but for everyone else this is true at least of our human-made environment). Imagination is the genesis of every progressive idea, invention, design and object we encounter.  As such the present world is the product of multiple imaginations and the same is true of the potential future world.  My point is that if education policy restricts and withers the scope of children's imaginative play, that in turn restricts and withers the kind of world those children will create, produce or endure - and their role in it.

Photo: Kate Aries



There is a stack of free woodcut prints in the show. It's a limited edition of 400 prints and I hope visitors will all take one. The print incorporates the text 'Imagine Better', which I hope carries something of the ideas in a way that is open to different interpretations - it might suggest that imagination can be improved with practice; and that we might imagine a better way of doing things.




Susan Hiller suggests that as artists we are involved in the social construction of the visible world. It is what we do. And we are able as artists, in our small way, to change how things are seen or to provoke new thinking.  If there is a goal in making this body of work then I think that is it - and what I have produced probably misses it. There is a kind of knowing tension at play between contributing to a public debate and the pathetic impotence of shouting inside two phone boxes. But whether it's impotent or not, I am really grateful for the opportunity to say something.

I am grateful to Liz Driver, my wife and partner in the production of the four banners in the show. She did all the practical bits of the banners that involve skill with a sewing machine and also helped me shape my ideas through discussion of the content of the show.

K6 Gallery is open all day every day and my show runs until 1 December 2017. The curators  are Alex Batten and Eloise Rose and they are both a joy to work with. All the prints are limited edition woodcuts on Somerset Satin. They are for sale on the K6 website while stocks last: http://k6gallery.com/shop

After the p.v. launch on 1 September.