Statements in Semaphore: an evaluation

IMG_9566.JPGWomen’s struggles. Women’s pain. Women’s compassion and resourcefulness, and the coded messages they send out to the world every day through their clothes, their language, their actions.

I cannot call this post an objective review of Statements in Semaphore or its accompanying exhibition, A Series of Events (Part I), which ran for almost a week at Platform 1 Gallery in Wandsworth Common – because I have made my own emotional investment as one of its contributing artists.

But I can tell you my impressions of what the project was about, and what made my work with fellow artist and sign language interpreter Susan Merrick, who initiated and led it, so invaluable.

Statements in Semaphore aims to highlight the rights of women; particularly, marginalised women. It began with Susan visiting the National Archive building in Kew and discovering the voices of suffragette prisoners and women ‘hidden’ in its archives during an art residency – before climbing the roof to make literal semaphore signals, filmed by an accomplice (for want of a better word).

In the two ensuing years, a socially engaged art practice exploring power, access, language and control in perpetually exciting and diverse ways has emerged. From initial workshops that involved women being photographed from behind making semaphore signals, each of which were printed on giant fabric banners and displayed in public spaces, Susan has reached a point where she is able to create ‘safe spaces’ for creative conversations with women whose voices are often ‘unheard’, so she can invoke thought, debate and awareness around contemporary women’s issues, and link it to her archival research.

As an experienced and qualified sign language interpreter, she felt compelled to add Deaf women’s voices to the mix. They are, after all, twice as likely to experience domestic abuse as hearing women, primarily because the Deaf community is so small and gossip is rife, placing them at increased risk of abuse. Deaf women also experience language and communication barriers in accessing support services, exacerbating their isolation.

In order to empower Deaf abuse survivors to speak for themselves in their own culture and language, Susan resolved to get a Deaf artist running the workshops instead, and invited me to take it on. That I had previously been involved with DeafHope, the anti-domestic abuse charity run by and for Deaf women, was sheer coincidence. I accepted without hesitation.

My workshop, which took place inside Platform 1 Gallery at Wandsworth Common station, was just two hours long. It consisted of a 15-minute ‘brainstorm’ of words the survivors associated with their experiences of domestic abuse, and then a hour 45 minutes making small-scale, mixed-media effigies that were pegged, like washing on the line, above our heads. Immediately afterwards, Susan made a 360 camera clip of the gallery space with the same associated words fading in and out as the film progressed.

In another workshop, I was filmed conversing in BSL with my partner in crime on the steps of a former Victorian hospital for women and children, as if on hidden camera. This became one of several ‘documentary’ pieces looping on a laptop screen in A Series of Events (Part I), the partly obstructive imagery of Platform 1 trains thundering past heightening the sense that you were prying into a confidential dialogue.

Platform 1 Gallery isn’t a large space. For that reason A Series of Events (Part I) felt more like an all-white sanctuary than an exhibition, the perky upcycled or vintage furnishings dotted around giving it an elegant intimacy. That was Susan’s direct invitation for visitors to sit down and chat with her about their life experiences over a cup of tea or coffee.

On the one day I was able to visit the completed exhibition (single-parenting commitments kept me away), I found it very moving. There was a sense of the outwardly pristine finally unveiling signs of women’s oppression, like gilded houses occupied by victims and their still-active perpetuators. You had to engage directly with the effigies, the documentary pieces, the 360 film clip (now accessed as a virtual reality installation), the vintage clothing that Susan had strung up like a giant textile cobweb, in order to identify the coded messages.

Susan extended the theme to the train platform. At 12 noon and 6pm every day, she’d venture outside to make semaphore signals, but her performance had no fixed content. Over time, she also lined up vintage shoes, some of which she walked briefly in; quietly knitted an ultra chunky scarf after a particularly affecting conversation; and roped in volunteers like myself and a couple of others to  copy her signals with revolving layers of borrowed clothes. Each of these performances symbolised the myriad ways in which women try to reach out to others for support without endangering themselves.

This was women reflecting upon themselves, simultaneously looking for a means to liberation and self-respect while maintaining their right to be treated as fellow human beings. As a member of the same gender, it made sense that I should respond to the project with two pieces of my own – and one of them was a gilded house.

Reaching (2018) was a 3D cardboard house model sprayed metallic turquoise on the outside with white tissue roses jutting out, while Selfie (also 2018) comprised a framed 300mm x 300mm largely blue monochrome self-portrait with (obviously) a mobile in my hand, drawn on manilla paper.

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Reaching seems to have left a huge impact on many people. Given the deceptive appearance of the exhibition – although I am obviously touched by the public’s emotional reaction, I am not surprised.

You entered the space, saw the metallic turquoise and gold house on the low side dresser with the pretty white roses and, wondering why some of them were singed, peered inside – only to be confronted by dark fake blood and debris splattered across one corner of its pretty floral-print walls and gnarled roots. I don’t need to explain why the roses got burnt as they erupted from the house.

Further enhancing the sense of ‘living space’ was a rail and a floor pile of donated vintage clothing, rows of shoes fringing the adjacent side dresser. These were offered in free exchange for the shirt off your back, as if to give you another crack at a fresh start or a new identity.

Interestingly, within four days of its opening, Susan – who had manned the exhibition from day one – was exhausted after several intense conversations with strangers, and wanted to hide; hence the enormous textile cobweb, part-draping the gallery entrance.

If you have been following my work on Instagram, you will know that for the past year or so, I have been making and posting almost every day very small mixed-media drawings that utilise fine lines, cross-hatching and sometimes experimental use of colour and tone.

For some time now, I have been seeking a way to free up my drawing and my thinking so my work on Statements in Semaphore, however much it diverts from my practice, is a crucial step towards developing a bolder and more experimental approach.

Certainly, I valued being able to avoid following a rigid structure to my work with Susan Merrick. Not only did it allow for childcare responsibilities, but also real scope for flexibility and lateral thinking. I am honoured and proud to have had such rich and fulfilling discourse with her and those who participated in my workshops, and more crucially, feel more emotionally grounded as an artist, a Deaf person and a woman – which is exactly what meaningful, socially engaged art practice should do.

Statements of Semaphore is a project led by Susan Merrick and funded by Arts Council England. A Series of Events (Part II) takes place at Princes Hall, Aldershot on 18th and 19th October 2018. See website

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Home.

Now that I have finished my course of antibiotics and am no longer infectious, I have been able to go home in the past two days. 

The difference between rest at home and rest in hospital is remarkable. I noticed as soon as I came out of my windowless room. 

Whilst in isolation, all I did was potter around, read, write, eat, wash, and sleep. So when I had visitors – I had eight altogether, the last one who came unmasked with a big hug, my first in eight days – I (mostly) had the energy to chat and laugh with them. Reaching a Zen-like state was that simple.

Post-discharge was another story. On Tuesday after lunch, I got dressed ready for my mother to take me home. Even before the official discharge call, doctors and nurses were getting ready for my departure – they had come in unmasked the previous night, and told me the antibiotics dose they were administering would be my last.

(Of course, just to be sure, they also ran a CT scan, and then one more dose of antibiotics, before I got dressed.)

After the blandness of the isolation room, the colours of the world beyond – the unit that brimmed with patients and visitors, and the warm, sunny corridor outside – leapt forward anew. I basked in every one of them.

‘Ward in Arles hospital’ by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Yet the moment I crossed that one corridor, my head began to spin. I got sweaty and couldn’t hold myself up anymore. I had to ask to be wheeled to my mother’s car instead.

I have since discovered how easily my energy saps whenever attending to my children’s needs (especially in the mornings), standing too long, or witnessing any sort of emotional stress. 

When that happens, I sit down immediately and just zone out. That has really helped me conserve energy for the rest of the day, although it hasn’t been easy. 

My children, being so young, still don’t understand why Mummy is taking so long to recover. I guess I will have to keep having the conversations. Both kids’ schools are willing to give extra emotional support, but the onus will always be on me, as their mother, to explain.

I have been very, very lucky. My official diagnosis was Neisseria Meningitidis. I could have lost my CI, my limbs, my eyesight, got into a coma or died. Instead I was walking, just, on my third day in isolation. (Albeit after prising myself into sitting upright of course, with a lot of determined grunting and clutching the bed rails as much as I could with my weakened arms.)

That first time, when I put my feet on the floor, my body felt almost like a leadweight on jelly legs. The next day, I was shuffling more, and my bowel movements were clean. 

(Believe it or not, I had to wear a nappy early on despite not eating for three days, but resolved to flush it all out by drinking tons of water. Come day four or five – it was over. Nurses were very impressed.)

Now I am home, I can see that the road is long – but I know I will get there. Full recovery is expected to be six months to a year. Thankfully I have no chronic health conditions. Historically, I barely have had complications arising from my illnesses; I have a strong track record in recovery. Prognosis is good. 

Although social care has had to be organised piecemeal, I have welcomed every kind of extra support going – schoolfriends’ mothers, a regular carer, my own friends and neighbours. I am sure everything will come together in time. 

Meningitis and I: one Deaf person’s account 

I have bacterial meningitis. This is my sixth day in hospital. 

It’s the same illness that made me deaf as a baby. Just my luck. At least now I’m an adult and it’s been caught early, I can fight back more easily. 

I have been told by a doctor doing the rounds that I do not need rehab because I can walk, although mastering even short distances will take time. I’ve been doing self-care almost from day two – washing, cleaning my teeth, keeping myself mobile as much as possible. 

My appetite is returning, and I take care to eat balanced meals as far as possible. I keep drinking water in abundance. My body is very efficient at recovery, and I want to keep it that way.

You’d think that after six days in isolation I’d be clawing the walls. Not so. I’ve never felt more serene in my life. I have not felt depressed once, although I did have a good cry when I received a beautiful handmade card from my five-year-old son. 

It helps that I don’t have my CI processor with me, and haven’t heard a pip for six days. That chaotic Monday night – when an ambulance finally came, after four 999 calls by four different people – I’d struggled to think strategically. 

I hadn’t eaten for two days, and all the water I tried to drink came straight back up. Coca-Cola stayed down the first time, but not the second. It hurt to move. The daylight stung my eyes. The headaches – oh, how they banged. After only just managing the morning school run, I went to bed hoping to sleep it off – but when I woke up three hours later, I felt worse. 

So I texted the mother of one of my son’s school friends and asked her to accommodate him for the night after school. I hadn’t packed a bag. She sweetly offered to buy him a change of clothes and a toothbrush. 

That was the easy part. My older child, a beautiful girl who has cerebral palsy, was a whole other matter. I tried asking a carer that we’d had before, but she had full commitments. I tried my daughter’s school, again to no avail. 

By this time, I could barely lift my arms or keep my eyes open. Hours sped by. I looked at my watch and realised my daughter needed collecting in 15 minutes. 

By the time I reached my mobile – which lay on my bedside table – half a hour had already gone. 

My mobile burred constantly with text questions. I could only manage two or three words of reply. All I wanted to do was to lie in bed and leave everyone else to sort it out. My only wish was for somebody to call 999. 

(I have since learnt that my daughter’s school contacted her social worker, who arranged emergency overnight respite care, while the father of my children arranged to have them for a few days. He has since taken a week’s compassionate leave. Both children are aware of the situation.)

Afternoon shifted into evening. It felt like my world was at a standstill. The view from my bed stayed the same. In my CI processor-free state, I saw no passing car lights reflected on the walls. 

Night descended, and everything went monochromatic grey. There were no lights on in the flat. I felt panicky – but only momentarily: I was so ill. 

It’s funny how when the paramedics finally poked their torch through my bedroom door, my memory goes thin on detail. The bedroom light was switched on, and I recoiled like a vampire. A woman moved directly in front, casting her features in blackness. A local friend came in with them to help with communication. How had I managed to text her?

So many questions! They plonked a heaving nappy change bag on my lap, and asked if that would do. I said yes, because it had my make-up in it, and my keys. They threw in some other stuff – a book to read, my mobile and its recharger – and off we went. 

The ride to hospital was agony. I felt every rattle and bump as if it was to my naked bones. I clutched my hooded puffa coat to shield my eyes from the searing fluorescent lights. 

I think I stayed in a side room in A&E for two nights before being moved to my own room in Ward 10 (the Assessment and Observation Unit), where I have remained since. 

From experience I knew my hospital didn’t have the best track record in booking BSL interpreters, so I insisted on written notes. I was also lucky to have my mother around as I went through an elimination process to identify my infection. 

Soon after arrival in A&E, doctors started talking about a lumbar puncture. They said it was to rule out meningitis, but gut instinct told me otherwise. So when diagnosis came – via a short note – I simply rolled my eyes and said, ‘Well, at least we know what it is.’ I was more disappointed that I had to stay in hospital for a week due to the antibiotics. 

Upon moving to Ward 10, it felt odd, but not scary, to see staff in pale blue masks, aprons and gloves. (I was in isolation, after all.) Notes became virtually everyone’s only means of communication. 

Even personal visitors had to don the surgical get-up. My mother cut a dash in hers. A friend hoping to visit got turned away by the hospital reception, who didn’t know Ward 10 policy (it’s open all hours). 

I got used to it. I became intrigued by how the masks drew attention to the character of the eyes, and it was fun seeing how people adjusted to writing notes. 

My older sister, who came with her daughter, virtually wrote letters, which were marvellous to read. Others wrote one or two words at a time, usually due to poor English. 

A couple of nurses seemed to grow an affinity for me – notes can feel so personal. When I asked for ReadyBrek at breakfast, the woman taking my order wrote on a napkin, ‘We don’t have that. Would you like anything else dear?’ 

One unexpected development during my hospital stay is the visual hallucinations. They are not a high; I was never delirious or psychotic, despite a temperature of 38C initially. 

Rather, they are an inner cinema, there the instant I close and cover my eyes – an effect of the antibiotics and painkillers I am taking. 

In the first two days, they appeared as crisp HD digital animations that evolved constantly. I have managed to note down a few tableaux, which I’ll describe here. 

Ancient Egyptian cartoons, reworked in contemporary colours, projected as a film on a screen inside my eyelid. Handsome young bearded men in neck-ruffs, their sumptuous 16th century costumes becoming a profusion of flowers and foliage as you peer over their shoulders. 

Twisty camera angles of the kind you see in CGI sci-fi battles, swooping down to a strange, dark red, toad-like creature that opens its mouth to reveal a small circular stage with Italian commedia dell’arte characters, dressed in white and yellow, posing and smiling benignly. 

Tall, full-bodied digital roses, their deep pinks extending to the stems and leaves, being scanned top to bottom as if by a film camera on an adjustable base. A dazzling multi-coloured starry night sky, that turns into twirling rainbow fairy dust that then flings itself abundantly and diagonally back like luxuriant fireworks high up. 

Constructing these tableaux would be years in the planning. I don’t think they would work as paintings, but rather as immersive sensory multimedia installations, involving creative lighting, sculpture and rich textiles stitched to a level of craftsmanship equivalent to the Renaissance. I’m not sure I could do them in my present weakened state. 

Sadly, as I get better the visual hallucinations fade, blur, or solarise, a bit like a television struggling to produce a good picture. It’s all par for the course. 

Interestingly, the last clear tableau I got was of a gentle linear drawing of a bejewelled Buddha, floating in front of a watercolour patch of blue sky on parchment paper, opening and shutting like a door. Scrolling down I got a sense of being underwater – though the parchment backdrop remained – with huge sploshes of Yve Klein blue paint seeping, then indigo. 

The parchment then became a mini-photographic studio backdrop, with a simple road being pencilled in from the crease, and a toy pewter VW Beetle driving down it. Instead of the HD digital sheen, that scene had the look of 1990s TV footage, and got me thinking about the evolution of art through the centuries. 

Now that the visual hallucinations are fading I am enjoying my book (Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, if you must know) and my writing is flowing again. (I posted this in a hour.) I hadn’t realised how rare it is for me to get away from it all due to the vigours of single parenting and just potter around, hence my serenity. 

Now I must sleep. I need all the energy I can get for discharge day tomorrow. Thankyou for reading. 

New blog 

I’ve started a new blog, where I give my definitive views on a variety of topics, touching upon politics, art, film and culture. 

It’s a way of flexing my political muscle that I’m not able to here or on my other blog, The Mostyn-Thomas Journal

Check it out. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of her death, this week’s topic is Diana, Princess of Wales. 

https://mostynonpolitics.wordpress.com/2017/08/31/diana-princess-of-wales/

LISTEN, EVEN WHEN YOUR HEART IS CRYING: feedback

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An excellent review of the film in The Limping Chicken can be viewed here.

Comments on Listen, Even When Your Heart Is Crying:

‘I was confounded by your film. You handled a number of issues sensitively and intelligently. I also liked the way it was constructed’
‘Visually rich and colourful, as well as profound…I liked the bits where the subjects were viewed from behind frosted glass, like the way you feel when you’re dealing with raw grief. Sort of frozen and detached from the world’
‘A broadcast breakthrough’
‘A wonderful and refreshingly honest film. Thankyou for letting us in’
‘I would like everyone reading my status to spend a valuable 25 minutes watching this unforgettable film’
‘Absolutely spot on on all levels, beautifully filmed…the shining stars were the children’
‘I think you have opened up space for discussions that are so badly needed. I think previous generations (for whatever reason) saw talking about this stuff as a sign of weakness. They put on a ‘brave’ face, but never really dealt with many issues. It was something considered ‘private’, swept under the carpet. But actually, sharing experiences like this helps us realize how common these emotions are. It’s part of a process that so many of us relate to. You hit the nail on the head!’
‘I feel oddly “healed” after watching your film, almost as if I am able to finally close a door’
‘A breath of fresh air’
‘Life-affirming’

See the film here

Many thanks to the crew and Neath Films, my mentor Caroline O’Neill, and all the contributors 

HuffPost blog: why I wore purple

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Prompted by #DEAFPurpleThursday – an initiative by DAWN designed to highlight the plight of deaf domestic abuse victims by wearing purple for one day on 23rd October 2014 as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month – I came out as a survivor on Facebook. This is my story.

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/melissa-mostynthomas/i-am-a-deaf-survivor-last_b_6067412.html