|Note to Self by Helen Conway|
In December 2014 my father turned seventy and the whole family flew to Berlin for a weekend at the Kempinski hotel by the Brandenburg Gate. The idea of us all proceeding en masse to view the historic sights of central Berlin was a nice one, but we knew, it was likely to end up in squabbles and tears if we didn’t all get some personal time. So, one afternoon, having dutifully escorted my parents around three days worth of Christmas markets and war museums, I was given my parole and I headed eagerly for the Fernsehturm to join a Graffiti tour of Berlin.
My slight obsession with graffiti started when, with other artists in the North of England, I formed the Etcetera group and we agreed to work to the theme of Transition. I used to practice immigration law and decided to follow that interest and went to visit Brick Lane in London with the idea of making art based on the layers of immigrant communities that had passed through that area. I went with plans to work with maps and architectural plans of the area and did not expect that it would be the the graffiti that would capture my heart.
I developed a method of painting my cloth with acrylic and adding graffiti with oil pastel, then piecing strips together. The graffiti was done by way of greatly exaggerated or truncated letters, often rotated mid-word so that while I was writing it I knew what it said but no-one else would read it, especially when it was cut up and reconstructed. The very first quilt made in that style was accepted for the SAQA Wide Horizons which encouraged me to go further. However, by the time I landed in Germany I was feeling I was merely playing with small variations of the same and I was looking for my next ‘leap’ forward with the series.
The tour was led by an English graffiti artist now living locally and we hopped on and off trams as he took us to see both legal street art murals and the more informal tags and throw-ups often regarded as vandalism not art. I took many photographs and loved how choosing edges or angled shots created new art from the existing marks on walls and doorways. I came to realise from his own account of how graffiti saved him from an unhappy childhood in Perth Australia, how much graffiti writing is about the writers creating new identities for themselves. Suddenly I understood what had been merely subliminal before - the reason graffiti seemed like the right way for me to express my feelings about immigration and migration. Both were about people redefining themselves and having different public personas ( as they assimilated) and private personas ( in their own homes and communities).
That insight alone I thought worth the (modest) cost of the tour. But there was more to come. At the end we took a bus ride out to East Berlin to an abandoned margarine factory. There in a cavernous, bare room we were given a small piece of canvas, spray paint, some basic instruction on how to do stencil street art and the suggestion that we try to replicate what we had been shown. Of course, I didn’t. I begged extra canvas, showed them my art on my iphone, explained exactly why I was now practically shaking with excitement, because it had never occurred to me that I could do actual spray paint graffiti on fabric and was given in turn permission to play with whatever I could get my hands on in that room. They talked to me in detail about the different’ caps’ for the spray paint cans and the best paint brands to use and why.
Later that night I sat in the hotel room and ordered some spray paint from a specialist graffiti shop ( who even knew such things existed?!) and as soon as I got home I painted and stitched me a new quilt then, donning a respirator, took a physical and metaphorical deep breath and let loose with the spray paint. The result, Note to Self, was accepted as my first ever entry to the European Quilt Triennial.
The design was not random but was based loosely on a photograph I took that day. The quilt also has writing on it, not totally legible but notes to myself about the courage and bravery needed for me to be an artist. For years I felt bound by the identity of being the ‘academic’ child in the family, the lawyer. Now with my art I am finding a way to form a new identity, the artist. I may have to go it alone as my family will not necessarily want to be by my side as I do it ,but this quilt is a note to myself to remember the excitement and satisfaction of branching out and making art that is unique to me.
As I write on the quilt itself: “Whatever you dream you can, begin. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”