How does an artist introduce themselves to an entire village? This was one of the many questions which rattled through my head as I drove down to Dover early on the morning of Saturday the 13th of September. Feeling a little awkward like a nervous new member of a family, I carefully selected what items I should display and clothes I should wear.
Who am I going to meet? What are they going to think of some artist from South London who has come to St Margarets Bay to learn about the memory of local life during WW1? What is the appropriate activity and attitude? Not wanting to sound like a paranoiac, but if you believe first impressions count, then this was an important moment for me.
So after an email back and forth on what sort of workshop was right (with DMAG colleagues) the decision to hold a Magic Lantern Slide Painting workshop was chosen. To be presented at the annual Home front 1940’s weekender in September 2014.
I then designed a poster to advertise the activity. This action revealed some interesting truths; when trying to search online for images relevant to WW1 in St Margaret’s Bay, expecting to find a wealth of choice, I found nothing! Only one seemed nearly right; a picture of the Bleriot IX plane flying on top of the cliffs of Dover, which causing further discussion over historic accuracy.
Alongside this dialogue was an equally complex discussion regarding evaluation and feedback. How should feedback be gathered from participants? Is it up to the artist (who may already have their hands full engaging the people who show an interest)? What questions can you ask people who you don’t know very well, and at this stage, what is appropriate? Is there a risk the evaluation will interrupt the process of engagement? Are they separate things, or can an evaluation be creative?
I suddenly felt I had accidentally stepped into deep water without having even done a single days work! However, not one to be easily disheartened, I kept my chin up and set off to join in the fun at the Pine Gardens.
As promised, fun and friendliness was in abundance at the Pine Gardens 1940’s weekender. I was made to feel very welcome by everyone I spoke to; especially the Chair of the Bay Trust Alistair Gould and the local artists group smART (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dover-Smart-Project/144262325748583) who I shared the tent with. Visitors were interested to see what I was up to, talk about their families connect with the area and what knowledge they had of WW1 history.
The nostalgic sounds of 1940’s music drifted over the gardens, and the whole event had a very peaceful, pleasant and enjoyable feel to it. As an outsider/newcomer I definitely got the sense that people felt very passionately about their history and were there to contribute to a communal celebration of the past rather than for profit or some other shallower purpose.
I invited people to have a go at painting a slide, using one of the books (‘Ariel Wonders’) or WW1 images I had printed out as a starting point. I had printed out a list of the names of each of the men from the village who had given their lives in service during WW1. I wanted to try and paint a slide for each soldier, somewhere placing their name, as a silent tribute.
However Magic Lantern slides are 8.3cms in width making it quite a challenge to fit longer names in the space given, without a very steady hand. I realised by the end of day one, I had been a little over ambitious. In order to give those taking part less restriction, by the second day I encourage people to paint what they wanted, just suggesting a tribute to WW1 in a subtle gesture or visual reference. It is always difficult to know how much creative control to try and give over the structure of a collective project. Sometimes the simpler you make taking part the better. Giving people the freedom to express themselves how they see fit is important.
People who took part drew planes, poppies, zeppelins and a few bombs. There was interest in the embroidered postcard which are part of the museum collection. Most people we spoke to had moved to St Margret’s Bay after WW2 thus did not know anyone who had lived here before that time. A fellow magic lantern collaborator Frog Morris joined to help on Sunday, which being the busier day was most appreciated.
This workshop was also a first attempt at making contact. What we produced during the weekend will not necessarily be part of a final product. I see joined-up as a journey, or a chain of perhaps many seemingly unrelated experiences, which in the end will make sense (I hope!). Ideas need to be tested out and be able to change, or become something totally different. Otherwise artists would not take any risks at all.