A couple of years ago Deborah Aguirre Jones began a project working with women experiencing mental health problems in Bristol, where she lives. Supported by a local organisation, Creativity Works, she invited the participants to make drawings to be given to local women artists, who would make a drawing in exchange. Over a period of weeks, a kind of visual conversation developed between women who never met face to face. It was a bit like having a pen pal, but using the intuitive and ambiguous process of visual art rather than words.
The results were published online and as a book, in which each sequence appears as a folding sheet. All the work can be seen online here: Drawing Together.
The experience was deeply valued by the women who took part and Deborah has done two further iterations of the idea, one involving many of the same participants, the other in a different city. There have been a couple of seminars as well, to reflect on the issues raised by the work. Deborah asked me to contribute a short reflection to the book, which is reproduced below.
Talking to no one is strange, Talking to someone is stranger
Kevin Coyne, 1971
Humans are social beings. We need to talk to each other, to share feelings, ideas and experiences, to find common ground and build solidarity.Our mental health depends on interaction, which is why solitary confinement, except for very short periods, is widely considered a form of torture. We learn to understand ourselves, and others, by talking things through. Without language, we’re borderline human. And yet talking can be risky, even perilous.
You might be in danger, yeah, If you say too much in this world
It’s so easy to say the wrong thing, to put your foot in it, to wound someone or in turn face judgement and hurt. Even the most assured can be tongue-tied in unfamiliar situations. Some need a lifetime to find the confidence to speak; others lose it through painful experience.If we need to talk but are fearful of opening our mouths, we’re cornered.
Art can help us out of that dead end, which is one reason for its existence. It lets us say things we can’t – or won’t – put into words precisely because they aren’t said; they’re suggested, implied, inferred and open to interpretation.Art is a safe place to share thoughts and feelings because everything is deniable. ‘You see it like that? Well, how interesting, but it’s not what I had in mind…’ We can hide behind the idea that the work speaks for itself, which it does, of course; but what is it saying?
Whatever art is saying nowadays, it often seems to say it very loudly. It’s true that artists invented rhetoric, and having the confidence to broadcast oneself can be seen as part of the job: hectoring the world with a bullhorn.But there are other, more intimate ways of making art, and they are sometimes more profound. They don’t shout or draw attention to themselves. They take time, but they repay it with unfolding layers of meaning.
All art is a dialogue between the creator – the person who makes it – and the recreator, the person who sees, reads, hears, feels, thinks and imagines it.What we call art – a picture, story or song – is just a link connecting two minds. That connection is usually limited because the recreator cannot return anything to the creator. It is, after all, one of art’s capacities to enable communication across space and time between people who don’t or can’t know one another.
This project is different. It makes the partners in artistic dialogue equal because each is both creator and recreator, a drawer and an interpreter of drawing. And it is the untrained, nonprofessional artist who starts, who creates a space for sense and who sets its tone. The invitation made to a professional artist, to respond to something made by another, is already a subversion of the normal relationship between artist and public.
But then the artist’s response requires its own answer, like a letter from a friend. It’s not an email or text that appears – ping! – and gets an instant message back. This drawing is on paper and like a letter it must be physically carried from one hand to another.That takes time and it gives time – time to reflect, to wonder, to imagine. Time to get to know one’s correspondent through the images they offer. Time to think through what to share and how to share it.
But first you must decide what’s being said and, since this is a drawing not a letter, that’s open to question. Curiously, though, the ambiguity is not threatening: it’s liberating. No honest, open response to a drawing is ‘wrong’: there can be no misunderstanding. So what goes back, after careful study of each image, is a truthful reply. And that in turn invites a reply…
The exchange of drawings, like all gifts, creates obligations. You must give something in return, not just a picture but, in it, something of yourself. You must give a little trust, a little truth. And so the threads of relationship are plaited and strengthened until, like climbers, we’re ready to trust our weight to them.
There are always people on the margins of society. The strong take their places in the sun, uncaring or unconscious of where falls their shade. Those who can speak, and are listened to, easily take that gift for granted. They may believe that others, if they’re noticed at all, are silent from weakness or choice. Things are not so simple. And even if they were, everyone is still entitled to take part in the endless human conversation: listening in is not enough. It’s a bit like solitary confinement, with the sounds of everyday life drifting through the bars.
Art can be exclusive too; it’s not immune from the forces that shape the rest of human experience. But it doesn’t have to be. Artists have ways of opening up to the margins, of creating a dialogue with people on life’s riverbank. In fact, being naturally curious and working in that safe space in which people do say all the things they can’t say, they may be especially adept at making those bridges.
Talking to someone may be strange indeed, but it’s life, and life is strange.