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Playaway multidisciplinary art workshops, The PACE Centre

Following our successful Creating music through technology project funded by the Sobell Foundation in partnership with Decibels last month, Eloise Garland and I were invited back to The PACE Centre for more fun last week!

This time round, we were contracted to run six 90-minute sessions as part of Playaway, a non-profit charity which runs a two-week specialist holiday playscheme for disabled school-age children every summer.

Our brief was more flexible. We no longer had an obligation to work with the Subpac vest, and Playaway asked us to use their theme this year, which was Space. The sessions needed to be self-contained, as we were working with a different group every day. We took advantage of this by playing around with the layered structure of the workshops as we went along.

Otherwise, the aim remained the same: to explore emotions, personality traits and moods through music, and then feed the new appreciation into visual art.

Given the theme, Space Oddity was a natural choice for the visual art segment. It was released 50 years ago – in the same year as the first moon landings – and to make it even more special, there was even a cover from a real-life astronaut. It had a pleasant ambience that I believed the children would take to.

Again, I had to show them first how it would be done! In the photo below, I’m actually painting a tiny figure disappearing into the Milky Way while the video is playing.

Because I knew the song quite well, I was able to disperse with the Subpac and properly get into my stride. In other sessions I’ve also painted a lone astronaut floating in space towards the Moon, and a metallic comet hurtling through the sky!

Next, the children discussed imagined characteristics of certain planets with Eloise – Mars, Jupiter, Neptune – and created short, basic compositions with various instruments based on each, led by Eloise on the violin.

Thus primed, the children were able to return to Space Oddity with a newly enlightened perspective and paint more imaginatively and freely while, again, Chris Hadfield did his acoustic guitar riff on the big screen.

The results were astonishing in their variety and confidence! The children clearly showed an aptitude for independent thinking and for owning their feelings.

Sadly, I’m not able to join Eloise in the second week of Playaway due to a prior commitment. I’m certain though that my replacement, illustrator Tim Reedy, is more than capable of generating his own cosmic fun with the children – and I look forward to seeing them all again very soon.

Review: Scored in Silence, Ovalhouse Theatre, 21st July 2019

It’s just her.

Chisato Minamimura in an austere white tulip dress, floating like a ghost in the darkness while she sign-mimes the stories of Deaf survivors of Hiroshima.

Her, acute and precise, neatly echoing the white-on-black linear animations projected on a gauze screen before her. The animations themselves are scenes from 1945 – a barber’s, swaying rice paddy fields, a plane preparing for the big drop, piles of dead bodies.

Sometimes grainy clips of the actual survivors fade in on the screen, retelling their experiences in Japanese sign language with English subtitles.

There is no music. Any sounds are part of the story’s fabric, conveyed via vibrating woojer belts worn by the audience.

Within the theatre’s intimate space – there is no raised platform – audience and performer alike are transported, as one, to the terrifying moment when the first A-bomb was dropped: terrifying only in an enlightened 21st century context, not that of surely the pilots carrying out the deed, or the deaf lives torn asunder by the blast.

There was no television or social media in 1945. Deaf people living in Hiroshima did not have access to radio, the telephone, or word-of-mouth. They did not know or understand what had happened to them, or why they were being treated like a lepers’ colony in love and in work for years afterwards.

In the absence of such knowledge, imagine how intense the trauma of seeing those dead bodies, naked and melted beyond gender, must have been. Adults and children, babies. The utter destruction of all that lay before them, killed by instantaneous, 2000-degree heat.

These stories are only now making themselves known through Scored in Silence, nearly 75 years later. I am incredulous how much power a 50-minute performance can have to educate us, yet here it is.

There can be no better storyteller than Chisato Minamimura, patching stories, nuclear science and news together in a poignant contemporary quilt of one place made infamous by political greed.

The Ovalhouse run being so short – it ran for just three performances – my hope, and belief, is that Scored in Silence secures many more bookings, not just nationwide but globally. The survivors deserve it.

Scored in Silence will be performed at Greenside, Edinburgh as part of the British Council Edinburgh Fringe Festival Showcase on 19th-23rd August 2019.

Creating music through technology at PACE

Over two weeks in May 2019, the deaf musician Eloise Garland and I ran afternoon workshop sessions at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury. They involved primary schoolchildren at Philip Green House, Coventon Road, Aylesbury, and their secondary counterparts at the Bradbury Campus, 156 Wendover Road, Aylesbury.

The workshops were an opportunity to promote Subpac technology in a specialist educational setting, and built on previous collaborative work on a Decibels and Audiovisability Creating Music through Technology R&D project, funded by the Sobell Foundation and Arts Council England (ACE).

This revolved round Laurentia Tan, a medal-winning deaf Para-dressage rider, and her access to music in international competitive dressage – which made Decibels and Audiovisability, a multi-disciplinary creative initiative with music and deaf people at its core, ideal partners.

The Creating Music through Technology project aimed to raise the profile of both Laurentia and Subpac (vibrotactile) technology via film, music, journalism, and visual art made by deaf people. Taking this work to schools like PACE, which is aimed at children with motor disabilities like Laurentia, was therefore a natural next step.

With both sets of children, the workshops took two parts. The first part was a 45-minute school assembly, with a short film of the R&D being shown on a large screen and a briefing of the project. This was followed by a demonstration in which Eloise approached each of the children with the Subpac vest for them to feel – 15 children in the primary school assembly, 10 in the secondary – before I took up the mantle to do a live drawing of a horse with it on, allowing the musical vibrations to influence my mark-making.

The second part was a 30-minute repeat of said demonstration the following week, before the children went back into their group classrooms. Each group – there were three in Primary, and rather fewer in Secondary, allowing more scope for flexibility – had three 20-minute activities each.

The first group discussed the assembly with their conductors (teachers) and LSAs (1:1 learning support assistants); the second group explored feelings in music with Eloise; and the third group, with me, had a go at painting or drawing with the Subpac vest on. (I decided to let them choose their own art materials by way of adapting to their individual disabilities – cerebral palsy is a wide-ranging umbrella term.) When they had finished one 20-minute activity, Eloise, I, and designated staff then swapped places.

The results were very exciting. The children had clearly made mental notes of my live drawing, and created their own movement paintings. Some even managed to evoke the sense of a galloping horse in their abstract marks. You could actually see their confidence growing as they went on – I got the sense they felt empowered by the vibrotactile qualities of the vest. You can see in the below selected images how they responded to my original live drawing (bottom).

I have been an artist and writer for over twenty years, often collaborating with other deaf and disabled artists: most notably as Founder Director of Salon, a grant-funded Deaf contemporary visual arts project that ran for five years. Yet that was the first time I had facilitated, or co-facilitated, an art workshop with disabled children specifically, and as a parent of a disabled child, it meant so much to me: my own daughter is a PACE student. I felt this was crucial to the development of the children’s independent, critical thinking – creativity is after all key to advances in technology, science, and the humanities.

Eloise was very popular in her music activity, getting the children to suggest emotions which she conveyed briefly on her violin. This gave the children much pleasure and incentivised them to ask for more. It didn’t matter whether it preceded or followed the visual art activity – far more important was how their juxtaposition fuelled the children’s imaginations on a multi-dimensional level.

I’m not just saying that! The staff themselves were very moved by the workshops, and I’m pleased to share their thoughts here:

“Very interactive and creative work shown to the children. Allowing the children to explore with different instruments, music, etc.”

“Really interesting and innovative workshop. The music and emotions part was particularly useful for our children who are learning to recognise their own emotions.”

“Innovative, opens the door and gives lots of opportunity for people to live normal lives and access sports and dance.”

“Exceptional piece of equipment presented in an easy to understand way.”

At the time of writing, Eloise and I are preparing to run similar 90-minute workshops at PACE this summer. Although these will be paid by a different charity – and the illustrator Tim Reedy will be replacing me for half the sessions – they are no doubt inspired by the wonderful time we had together, and I am grateful to the Sobell Foundation, Decibels and Audiovisability for helping implement the project.

We need to talk about Deaf people’s mental health. Now.

TRIGGER WARNING: contains descriptions of attempted suicide, suicidal thoughts, and emotional distress.

In April this year, Daniel MJ Webster ended his life. He was Deaf, and in his late 30s.

However, instead of the specialist Deaf-focussed therapy requested by his GP, the local CCG referred Daniel to mainstream counselling with a BSL interpreter. 

As a result, the UK Deaf Community lost a funny and lively young man who was much loved by many, with his family so consumed by grief that they have asked for total privacy. The specialist counselling service, Deaf4Deaf, have launched a JustGiving page for a MH support fund in his memory. They plan to raise £50,000 for six emergency counselling sessions to be offered to 278 Deaf people with severe mental health problems.

While I recognise that six sessions will never be enough, my hope is for the 278 to be recognised by the UK mental health system and gain access to longer-term counselling support administered by BSL-using professionals.

After all, this is happening against an UK-wide backdrop of mental health service cuts continuing for the ninth year under Tory governance, with 83% of schoolteachers reporting deteriorating mental health in children, and two thousand mental health staff a month leaving NHS England last year.

All of which mean double the barriers for Deaf people seeking qualified counselling support. Not only do they experience cuts in those services; they also experience cuts in accessing them. I am hardly surprised that Daniel’s request was rejected by a CCG. 

When the coalition replaced Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) with CCGs in 2013, for the first time in its history the NHS’ commissioning of individual healthcare services became an open market. The PCTs’ code of practice required them to commission public services only, prioritising duty of care. Consequently, they were treated as de facto investments in the public’s health, with the higher cost reflecting quality of service. They funded Deaf-focussed counselling more willingly. 

That changed with the CCGs. Public healthcare providers found themselves competing for bids with private bodies, who didn’t necessarily value duty of care, weren’t as qualified, and sought instead to undercut their public rivals whatever the cost. This is where the likes of Virgin Care muscled in, complaining about the NHS swiping service contracts from under their noses.

Let me show you a real-life experience of how those changes have impacted directly on Deaf users of counselling services: namely, mine. 

I live with depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have made one suicide attempt in Weston-super-Mare, in 1992. I’d got myself very drunk and bagged a lift to the pier at a stupid hour of night, where I intentionally clambered onto the rocks before passing out. Next thing I remember, I was shivering from hypothermia in a foil blanket, still wishing I was dead, while the fluorescent corridor lights of the local A&E sped past from above. 

I have contemplated suicide many more times since: particularly 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and last year. I haven’t always been mentally ill, because it’s usually triggered by traumatic life events. I have had two courses of counselling with SignHealth, in 2012 and 2013.

I’ve also had mainstream counselling. After my suicide attempt I was referred to my university’s mental health service, where I met a trainee counsellor who’d just cracked how to keep her emotions in check. Asking her to adapt communication was too much of a stretch. So I quit, and tried working through my depression on medication instead.  

My next course of therapy was provided by MIND, who sweetly tried to match me with a disabled counsellor in 2001 following a messy relationship split, and my father’s cancer diagnosis. 

She was certainly kind, accommodating, and very proficient. But her being disabled and not deaf, and my being deaf and not disabled – I know this sounds weird to some of you (it doesn’t to me and my deaf friends), but bear with me – ensured that I spent most of my time explaining my perspective as a deaf person, rather than addressing the actual issue in hand (however easy she was to talk to). 

Twenty sessions later I declared time up, having found love again. In retrospect I wasn’t emotionally ready to move on, and the counsellor hesitated a little at first. Being so professional though, she understood it wasn’t her place to dictate what I should do.

I also saw two Relate counsellors on two separate occasions in 2011 and 2014, both times with BSL interpreting support. Both proved unsuitable because they lacked Deaf insight, and prattled on instead, thinking they knew better. 

How much I have had to tolerate, and for so long, before I could properly express myself as a Deaf person with mental health issues, is as jaw-dropping a memory today as ever. I am capable of communicating in both oral English and BSL: yet I cannot avoid that being affected when I’m describing emotional trauma – however hard I try to maintain clarity throughout.

In that context a mainstream counsellor, even one relying on a perfectly competent BSL interpreter, would misunderstand their Deaf client far more than is necessary. I’m sure the last thing any qualified mental health professional with integrity would want to do is add more stress.

Yet that is exactly what I’m getting from the UK mental health system today. Despite the advances made by the DDA and its successor the 2010 Equality Act; despite the 1998 Human Rights Act; despite more Deaf people and BSL allies becoming qualified counsellors – I am struggling more to access it than before.

It’s not like I’ve shied away from discussing my problems either. Look: just one person can save a life. I am only here today because one person decided to get some fresh air at five o’clock in the morning in Weston-super-Mare, all those years ago. Just one person. It breaks my heart that no-one was there for Daniel Webster in his hour of need. So if I can save one Deaf person’s life with this blog, then it will have been worth my sharing something so raw and intensely personal. It is the least I can do. 

After a quick succession of traumatic incidents in late 2017, and again in early 2018 triggering flashbacks, I started visiting my GP once a fortnight. They’d log issues as they arose, prescribe antidepressants, and refer me to a psychiatrist (for diagnosis) and SignHealth (for counselling). The last two times I did that – in 2012 and 2013 – I was seeing a Deaf-focussed therapist within a few months. 

This time round, the referral has taken 15 months. BSL Healthy Minds, the counselling service run by SignHealth, assessed me for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and depression only yesterday.

That happened because I wasn’t prepared to be accepted for mainstream counselling with BSL interpreting support, just like Daniel Webster. When I complained to my GP about my referral to them for assessment, my CCG interjected that I had to go down that route first before they could agree to the alternative – just like Daniel’s CCG.

Determined, I raised the issue in an email to the mainstream provider. They wrote to my GP, who wrote to the CCG, who wrote back saying they’d already rejected my request for BSL counselling, in February 2018. My GP then wrote to the mainstream provider, asking them to support my request in writing to the CCG, and posted me a copy of their letter.

Again I emailed, this time addressing both mainstream provider and BSL Healthy Minds, begging them to please make my request a priority. I got my daughter’s social worker to post her own written support – thus triggering a cross-party alliance of social services, GP, mainstream provider and BSL Healthy Minds, all badgering the same CCG to change their blasted minds.

Now, I have to wait another 28 days before I know if I can have 20 sessions with BSL Healthy Minds – even though I have a high score in all three areas assessed: depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. And I was diagnosed with PTSD by a psychiatrist in May last year. Tell me, how is this my CCG making my case a priority?

Clearly, my deafness has never been the problem. It is society’s attitude to it that is: the same society that flusters when they realise they have to find another way to communicate with a Deaf person. The same society that aggravates my mental health issues, and those of many others, like Daniel Webster. They know, only too well, that communication is a two-way street.

They have simply chosen not to make it so.

Click here to donate to the Daniel MJ Webster Deaf Mental Health Fund

If you are a Deaf person with mental health problems and you are at crisis point, you can email the Samaritans for 24-hour support on jo@samaritans.org  Otherwise, ask BSL Healthy Minds for a referral to their psychological therapy services on therapies@signhealth.org.uk

You can also self-refer to Deaf4Deaf here.

BSL gallery tours

For the first time since 2015 I have been working a role that I often enjoy: BSL gallery tours that mainly, but not exclusively, focus on fashion and contemporary art.

These tours are aimed at Deaf audiences and last between 45 minutes and a hour, including Q&A and opportunities for audience participation.

So far, in recent months I have had the pleasure of covering Azzedine Alaïa the Couturier at the Design Museum (25th September 2018), Rachel Maclean’s The Lion and the Unicorn at The National Gallery (25th January 2019) – both in London – and Royal Weddings at Windsor Castle (25th May 2019). Feedback has been positive so far, with some attracting new Deaf audiences, and I plan to do more when time and family commitments allow.

Audiovisability: the project that drove my creativity

For three months last year, I was an artist and writer with Audiovisability, supporting their research and development (R&D) project funded by Arts Council England.

The project revolved round deaf Para-dressage rider Laurentia Tan, a multi-medal winner who has been competing in Paralympic and global sports events for ten years – and yet has never won gold. It came about due to her growing frustration over barriers to participating in individual freestyle, the only dressage test set to music.

My role was to shadow her in a variety of ways – online discourse, information-sharing meetings, interviews, flying to Cologne for a weekend – and combine that with my own research and development, eventually writing a report accompanied by my own drawings. The result can be viewed here, with a shorter version on Disability Arts Online here.

Laurentia has cerebral palsy. It was for that reason – among others – that Audiovisability’s creative director, Ruth Montgomery, invited me to take part. I am, after all, a parent to a child with cerebral palsy who has explored that road through my blog and my Kindle book, My Daughter and I, which can still be downloaded from Amazon UK. Besides Laurentia and I had been wanting to meet for years – almost since my daughter Isobel was diagnosed at age one in 2010, just after the sportswoman had entered competitive dressage.

Audiovisability therefore facilitated a precious moment where, Laurentia paid us a personal visit and lent Isobel her latest silver medal, won at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, to wear for a photo opportunity. I can’t overstate how significant this was for my child’s self-confidence, for her younger non-disabled brother to witness this, and how proud I felt that day.

Meanwhile Ruth sought to both bring the R&D to a wider audience through a variety of creative disciplines, with music at its core, and use it as an unique opportunity for the artists to build on existing skills and expertise.

So not only did Laurentia boost her music literacy through a combination of music lessons and collaborative discourse – but as one of the contributing artists, addressing a subject that I knew very little about enabled me to spawn a new writing language; which in turn, also pushed my drawing into a more innovative, almost allegorical style.

Given the almost polarised demands of the two strands – bombarding my mind with structural, grammatical thought for long periods of time (even when taking a coffee break!), and then switching to freeform drawing – it was possibly the most challenging and intensely creative task I’d taken on.

Nevertheless, it provided an invaluable opportunity to drive both forms of creativity to new places, transforming my art and my writing as a whole. This new development will be crucial in realising an ambition that I have of producing illustrated children’s books in future.

I am privileged to have worked alongside such a wonderful bunch like the Audiovisability crew, and I look forward to more collaborative work with them. Indeed we are planning for workshops, funded by Decibels, to take place at the PACE Centre in Aylesbury later this year, which will explore similar dressage music themes with their students.

May I extend deep thanks and appreciation to Ruth Montgomery, fellow musician and producer Eloise Garland, sound designer Chris Bartholomew-Fox, German dressage coach Volker Eudel, film director Louis Neethling and most of all, Laurentia Tan and her mother Jannie, for their kindness, patience and time.

Behind Closed Doors: WOW Exeter 2018 and Deaf abuse survivors

I am taking the train to Exeter St David’s on a beautiful day. The peaceful cumulus straddling the giant expanse of blue outside my window reflects my thoughts: assured of my place of safety and comfort, but not resolutely clear.

Today I’m joining a 2pm panel discussion about domestic abuse, Behind Closed Doors, chaired by Jude Kelly as part of WOW Exeter 2018, and I’m keen to share some of my Deaf survivor experiences.

The risk, in doing so, is inherent. I have PTSD and depression, both of which were triggered by cyberbullying following previous ‘outings’. (You can see my first one here.) I have young children to protect.

I belong to a 156,000-strong, intrinsically expressive Deaf/BSL Community that thrives on open communication and gossip – ensuring a high concentration of British Sign Language (BSL) users who know both me and my ex-partners, especially if they’re Deaf. (I expand on the theme here)

So if I don’t divulge certain details, focussing instead on information that doesn’t ‘date’ the abuse at a specific point in time – you know why.

However, I will not be cowed. My perpetuators know that I am one of very few Deaf women not just prepared to speak out – but able to, because I have the ability to articulate myself well to a mainstream or hearing audience. But you know what? If they try to stop me, they cannot profess to be an ally of the Deaf/BSL Community when they practise what we seek to overcome.

Since beginning my work with fellow Deaf survivors – both in a professional capacity, and more informally – I have come to realise how vital their contribution is to everyday discourse about domestic abuse, and yet how lacking it is. As an artist and writer who values freedom of expression in her work, that speaks most deeply to me.

And there are honestly others who recognise this too. In 2015, I was invited onto a panel discussion at the Women’s Aid annual conference, where I became the only Deaf survivor addressing a packed room directly. Later that year, I gave a 45-minute presentation at the NHS Safeguarding annual conference, in which purple became the token colour.

Again, I was the first Deaf survivor to speak out there. 350 people fell completely silent.

Earlier this year, I collaborated in a workshop with DeafHope survivors as part of Statements in Semaphore, an Arts Council-funded project led by Susan Merrick. (You can read more about the workshop here.)

In two hours, I had become a fan of the survivors. The dignity and composure they showed, as they worked patiently on their effigies, reminded me of our unbroken spirit, and evoked memories of how I felt after completing my own course with DeafHope some years ago.

It also made me very sad. These women were resilient because they had to be – but how many of them could stand up on stage and address a hearing audience? For Deaf women, the usual disincentive to come forward is aggravated by, again, communication barriers.

Visible though the survivors’ art is, it exists only as anonymous messages. Their experiences, and what they do afterwards to ensure their safety, remain hidden.

Within the wider society, our position is vulnerable. 90% of all Deaf and hard-of-hearing people come from hearing families, the majority of whom don’t sign. Having a deaf child doesn’t guarantee increased deaf awareness, ensuring that the communication barriers between child and parent become their own institution.

Being clueless in the matter, if they’re not inquisitive enough, parents will then turn to medical advice to ‘solve’ the problem instead. Some will, unfortunately, start abusing their deaf children as a way of deflecting their guilt – thus setting the tone for future toxic relationships.

For people like that, the very idea of calling out domestic abuse in adulthood becomes an insurmountable challenge. I am very lucky to have had loving parents (communication barriers notwithstanding), and an understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship – but even I have faced enormous pressures to not come forward.

Sharing my experiences briefly with a compassionate audience at WOWExeter today, I am assured of their support. There are four other people on the panel besides me – chair and WOW founder Jude Kelly; Elizabeth Langley and Karen Atkinson of SPLITZ; and Sasha Nathanson of Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE). It’s a lovely panel, with courageous stories of their own to share, and Jude is kind and accommodating. The 45-minute discussion is even-handed, with a few more minutes for audience questions. My PTSD inhibits me a little when I give my background, but I push on nevertheless, and hope the audience gets the message.

However afterwards, when the BSL interpreters are gone and people come up to congratulate me, the barriers remain. I wonder then how I can advance from this?

I am not Dr Christine Blasey Ford. Even within my own community I don’t have an international movement backing me with #IBelieveHer on social media. I do not have the time or the energy, for practical reasons as a single parent and carer of a disabled child, to campaign for better support for Deaf survivors.

I can write and make art, and use both to effect change. I can get others to do the same, collaboratively or otherwise. I can continue representing Deaf survivors at mainstream events. But I cannot do that alone. There needs to be a Deaf collective, not a one-woman band, for real change to take place.

The onus is on you, dear reader, to share this blog as widely as you can. Make sure it reaches Deaf survivors and their allies, and encourage them to join ranks with me. We may not be able to hide the emotion pouring forth from the sign language we use, or even avoid their symbiosis altogether. But if we can be emotional together, the more powerful our message will be.

The cumulus is passing. It is time.

(Edited on 16th October 2018 for clarity.)

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.

IMG_9497

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

#dailyartchallenge

Since I began convalescing, I’ve had the opportunity to revive my passion for drawing. I did this via a challenge that I set myself this time last year, which is – simply, to draw something every day. This is much harder to do than you think.

Check out these works so far.

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Day 21. Picking up where I left off.

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Day 22. A mixed media drawing done for a friend.

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Day 25. A 15-minute coloured pencil study, following the outline drawn with an ink-stamp roller by my six-year-old.

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Day 28. Study of a local terrace in soft pencil.

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Day 30. Drawing an Underground station in biro without lifting the pen off the paper.

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Day 31. Portrait of my late father in soft pencil.

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Day 32. Drawing my left hand in pen with my non-drawing hand (right).

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Day 33. Mixed media drawing. Who needs yellow?

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Day 41. Doodling wet diaphanous folds in soft pencil, a la Man Ray.

Day 43. Mixed media drawing – my rather Japanese take on Erwin Blumenfeld’s 1937 photo, Lisette, Paris.

Day 44. My first quick sketch of a swimming pool.

Day 45. Coloured pencil study of rabbit ears.

Day 46. Fine pen drawing of a local building next to Sainsbury’s.

Why do it? However well-practised I am at writing, there are days when emotions, dimensions, perceptions materialise that cannot be encapsulated by the written word, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps they are repressed feelings, or I just haven’t found the word to describe them. Perhaps they’re simply beyond language. I need to reconnect with my surroundings, make another form of expression integral to my life, and increase my appreciation of others.

There are scientific reasons, too, for making art.

For me, it’s also a way of enriching my writing, and it may even contribute towards an illustrated book in the future. My drawing and my writing always went together when I was a child. (I have fond memories of my religious knowledge teachers giving me lined textbooks with blank inserts to draw on for the Bible stories that I was tasked to write every week.) I see no reason why the two shouldn’t meet again.

Let’s not treat this as a sneak preview of my next book though. I’m not making a commitment to one just yet; it’s early days.

For now, keep an open mind, and enjoy the drawings as they are.

Convalescing.

Today marks just over six weeks to the day I left hospital, and the contrast in energy levels is interesting.

In isolation, I didn’t have much to see or do. My hospital room had no windows, no art on its walls; flowers were banned. 

Plain seclusion shut me off from the everyday pressures of paying the rent, the bills, paperwork, housework, and putting away toys – leaving me to pursue the simple pleasures of reading, writing, looking, or sleeping.

It’s crucial to note how encompassing my weakness was. It’s made me realize just how much energy we use up each day, how much others can demand from us – how easily we set ourselves up for a fall.

Resting in hospital, I was able to gain enough energy to near-resemble my old self in conversation with family and friends. Virtually the only noticeable physical weakness was in mobility, once I put feet to floor and started pacing round (initially after mammoth grunty efforts to sit up on the bed, of course).

On Day 3, any steps I managed were the length of my littlest toe; by Day 5, the strides were bigger, but pacing once or twice round the bed nevertheless sent me to sleep. I thought only this kind of exercise needed to be offset with ample rest. So I closed my eyes lots, read lots, wrote lots.

Over the course of my eight days in hospital my energy did grow, to the extent that upon discharge I could dress myself, pack my bag, and walk – just – out of the ward.

Once home however, the focus of my energy shifted. Having had to use a wheelchair to get to my mother’s car, I needed her as a crutch to get me to the front door.

img_1800Incredulously, I watched my feet move as if on a Zimmer frame, while mentally racing ahead with the usual zip of a parent in her 40s. Forcing my mother, 25 years older than me, to slow her pace in line with mine felt genuinely weird without an option.

I soon discovered how quickly emotion – any kind of emotion – also depleted my energy. Anger, upset, excitement, desolation, frustration, joy: all these required raw energy to form the appropriate facial expression and body language – something that asked far too much of me in my delicate state.

My countenance was already a little pinched and pale from the loss of appetite when I got ill. (I’d say I lost half a stone – no big deal, but being already slim, it showed in my face and wrinkled jeggings.) I now had to have my own death mask to match; I could barely move my lips without getting tired.

At least, on the few occasions when I was required (and able) to do so, it made my signing a lot clearer.

Zoning out at moments of potential stress became a regular practice. I distanced myself from certain individuals who basically asked for high drama, intentionally or otherwise. When in my first week out of hospital my son dropped to the floor with a tantrum, I sat motionless and in equitable silence until he had finished. I am thankful that he no longer pounces on my bed at a ridiculous hour.

In the early days of my convalescence I made the most of watching the trees sway from the French doors in my sitting room until I got a little colour separation. 

When ex-hurricane Ophelia swept past without affecting my region, I had time to watch a neon orange sun above the evergreens cast an Instagram-filter glow on the afternoon, with rays of the same unearthly colour superimposed on my sitting room floor. I couldn’t stand for long; could barely hang the washing out or load the dishwasher without getting woozy.

Instead, I took to drawing, knitting (in five days I made four-fifths of a enormous and completely improvised jumper), and reading – the obvious benefits of which externalized superfluous pressure, and could be done from my bed.

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If I over-exerted myself, once I sat down, I couldn’t get up again or reach for my mobile. Glaring at it didn’t help: both it, and the surface it lay on, seemed to dolly away beyond arm’s length, like James Stewart staring down the belfry in Vertigo.

For school pick-ups, I leant heavily on parents whose children were classmates with my son to take him home for a few hours, while my social worker booked carers two hours every day for a fortnight.

Getting the children up in the early mornings was the worst. My mother had to drive 20 minutes to mine at 7.30am daily so to assist in my daughter’s hoist transfers and walk both children to school for a while. I had people cooking and freezing meals for me. Making even a basic omelette wiped me out.

As soon as I was able, I started venturing outside my front door, inching further each time. On my first attempt, I got to as far as three doors down before sensing the need to turn back – and reached my front door handle just as my legs almost gave way.

On another occasion, a neighbour in long shirt-whites came to my aid when he caught me nuzzling a hedge on a different corner. I was fine; just a bit embarrassed. Cognitive Melissa didn’t quite have the patience for the traumatised physical being on the street who insisted on slowing down like someone twice her age.

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 In succeeding weeks I have, of course, progressed through taxis to quiet shops for midweek essentials to Saturday dips into the shopping centre. I even achieved a short accompanied trip to London for some theatre and a budget spa treatment, although sometimes I still cannot bear how oncoming crowds and multiple steps alter my peripheral vision: a psychological effect of my dehabilitated balance.

An more unexpected after-effect of my illness is the incapability to book dates. If someone says they’ll pop round tomorrow noon, I’m clear. But if they send a wordy text giving me a choice of Thursday or Saturday or they could give both days a miss and come in for twice the time the following Monday would that help? – my mind just fogs over.

Likewise, date listings extending beyond the first, or even the second, week turns into meaningless words and numbers. I can only log one day at a time. It reflects my own efforts to gain fortitude, step by toe’s length step.

I often think of John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, recounting his meningitis experiences at the age of seven in a 2014 autobiography. Of course, his was a particularly traumatic illness that robbed him of his memory for four years and left him with a permanent spinal curvature. But on a much lighter scale, I get the mental struggle to process vital information.

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In one interview, Lydon speaks of the value he now places on retaining memories, and the shock he experienced when his hospital stay ended after a year and he found himself in an unfamiliar environment under the care of two adults he couldn’t remember meeting. (That environment was his home, and the two adults his parents.) Somehow he’d grown a sense of belonging in the hospital; in his amnesia, he thought that was home.

Now that I have had bacterial meningitis a second time (albeit my first as a fully-grown adult), I understand why Lydon has become the straight-talking anarchist we know and love. Because I don’t have time for bullshit either. I must keep my life simple, if I am to recuperate properly. If someone gets difficult, I’ll zone out. If I get stressed, I’ll say so (and I have certainly found being open about my illness helpful).

Most importantly of all, I must make time for me, the passing clouds, the smell of the dewy grass that I lie in on a sunny day, my knitting, my drawing, my books, and (when I can manage it) my writing. Because they are what complete me and my convalescence, and my children deserve it.