Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Virus

Virus

Eileen McHugh changed direction when she began Virus. Until then, she had always maintained that she wanted to create objects that could be deconstructed and remade, so it was her intention though rarely the reality that no element should ever be permanently fixed to another. Her pieces had been largely three-dimensional collages, assemblies of at least potentially moveable objects. Her idea was that each new viewer of a piece could, indeed should change it, so that the works existed for one viewing and one viewing only. She began to conceive of devoting her life to the creation of just one piece which then, changed by each new viewer, could form, literally, an infinite body of work. In many ways, she was ahead of her time.

The opinion comes from Charlie Mankiewicz, who was Eileen’s sculpture teacher during that crucial second year in college. I tracked him down quite easily via search engines to a flat in London, Hackney to be precise, where he had lived for over thirty years. He is now nearly eighty years old, still fit and lives alone. His marriage broke up in the eighties, when he had a short-lived fling with a much younger woman. Basically, his wife threw him out. Though they have kept in touch, they have lived apart ever since. Some years after that second year of Eileen’s course, he gave up teaching to become a specialist wood carver and he still works every day, producing works that still sell, but not frequently, and certainly not lucratively. In his own estimation, it’s a living.

Charlie Mankiewicz is London born and bred. He has never lived anywhere else and in fact has travelled relatively little for someone of his generation. He was born just before the end of the war in East London, near Bow. If his name were not Polish, he might be described as a quintessential Cockney. He certainly acquired and refined an accent that would qualify him for the label, but he and especially his parents were always conscious of their outsider status, hence their determination to give him an English and specifically a diminutive Christian name. Thus, he was christened Charlie, not Charles.

His father was Polish and a Jew, his mother Polish and a Catholic. They met on a boat from Gdansk at a time when few of their fellows were leaving the country. Both by chance were travelling abroad to seek work and both had contacts in London, but both also had the eventual intention of reaching the United States, though neither had sufficient funds to complete the crossing. Jobs in Britain were promised via their contacts and they were resolved to save so they might fund the remainder of their project.

The opportunities they had were not great, but better than what they had left behind. Ephraim Mankiewicz was from Warsaw and Eva Nowak was from the south, Katowice. They had not known one another before the journey, but their friendship developed on board ship and they exchanged contact details. Ephraim was a tailor and a family member had a cousin who was in business in London. An exchange of letters established credentials and suitability, and an offer of a trial was made, with no promises. Eva had a neighbour who knew someone who had a restaurant in London and Eva could cook. They both enjoyed making things and they were flexible enough to adapt to whatever they found. On board ship, they exchanged what details they had without really thinking they would meet again. They did keep in touch, however, without ever remembering which of the two of them had been the prime mover. They met occasionally as a way of surviving the stress of London’s blitz and, in late 1943, they decided to marry, possibly because Charlie was already on the way. Ephraim gave up his Jewish faith and became a Catholic.

Ephraim and Eva took married life seriously and Charlie had two brothers and a sister before 1950, all of whom enjoyed a poor, but idyllic family life. Both parents died before they reached seventy, but Charlie tells me he is still in daily contact with his siblings, all of whom still live nearby in Whitechapel, Old Ford and Bow. Charlie did thirty-five years as an art teacher and has a comfortable pension. In the late seventies he left the profession to try freelance sculpting but failed to make a living and went back.

Charlie went to a grammar school in the fifties, during which decade both his parents were running their own businesses. Ephraim was a bespoke tailor near Whitechapel and Eva had her own sandwich bar near Liverpool Street Station. Ephraim’s nearby competitors and colleagues still regarded him as Jewish, so he was part of a network of similar artisans, an association with more upsides than down, since during busy periods work was often passed from one business to another to ensure orders were met, a practice that kept them all collectively afloat. Trade was far from spectacular but was steady. The real family money maker was Eva’s sarnie bar. There was nothing particularly Polish about the food - pie and mash, liver and onions, sarnies, cakes and pastries, even bacon sandwiches which Ephraim did not eat - and it wasn’t large, having seating inside for just twelve. But the takeaway trade was enormous, and Eva employed no less than six staff, who operated happily in a ridiculously small space. The tips were good.

Charlie did well at school and his parents assumed he would take over one or perhaps both of the businesses, but his interest in art started early. His brother did take up tailoring but gave up when the sixties declared its preference for off the peg, whilst his two sisters jointly ran the sarnie bar into the eighties, when they sold out lucratively, the site becoming a doner kebab shop. It’s now a gastro pub serving modern vegetarian. Although Eileen McHugh never realised it, she used to pass the very bar that had been owned by her teacher’s mother and sisters on those Fridays when she decided to go to the Mike Osborne night at Peanuts.

Tracking down Charlie was not difficult, incidentally, because he still has links with the college and anyway Google does a very good job locating people like him, with that kind of name, in that kind of place and in that kind of business. He remembered Eileen working on Virus.

She’d just read Alvin Toffler, he told me. Everyone in the year read it, passed one copy around until all of them had finished it. They didn’t have any formal discussions. They were art students! But I remember many of them wanted to talk about the book, which made the others curious. They used to sit around at coffee breaks analysing it. I sometimes used to join them. I remember sitting with them one day and pointing out they were passing on the ideas like they had become a virus. Eileen latched onto the word, so I perhaps should take some responsibility for what happened.

She had already read the book and we have to remember that in those years people had become obsessed with the idea of resource scarcity. There were television programmes about oil supplies running out in the next decade, about there being no iron ore left and other such nonsense. Now we know it’s nonsense, but at the time we were all full of these ideas.

In Future Shock, Toffler made the point that planned obsolescence, throw away consumerism and mass production were leading to two inescapable consequences. One was resource scarcity and the other was human and societal disorientation, where values were eroded to meaningless ephemera. Or words to that effect… Eileen took up my description of his ideas as being like a virus and decided to make a work of that name to illustrate the concepts. The idea, of course, also fitted her ideas about her work being passed from one viewer to the next. It all sounds so tenuous now and perhaps it was not much better at the time.

I was her tutor and I did point out that the brief she had written, as presented, would probably not stretch to such a work, but she was determined to do it, so I backed her, against my better judgment, it has to be said. I doubt if I would have succeeded if I had tried to stop her. She was a determined type, not at all easy to talk out of an idea, which is why I remember her. It led to a mobile that eventually went down like a ton of bricks with the examining committee.

She found a doll, a plastic doll, one of those that made a groaning noise when you turned it upside down. Whether it was supposed to be a groan, a sigh, a fart or the moo of a swallowed cow I cannot say. What I can say is that the item concerned was pretty nondescript. The doll itself was not in bad condition. Perhaps a better choice would have been something broken or beaten up, because that would have added to the meaning. But the one she used she had bought from a junk shop and was probably the first one she found. The idea - inspired by Toffler - was to pick up a discarded piece of rubbish from the street between Crouch End and the college each day for a month. She would fix each one onto the doll, glued or otherwise attached one by one as she found them. It ended up looking like a surreal hedgehog. It was funny rather than serious, something to be laughed at rather than being witty in itself, an object of ridicule rather than a source of humour. She had cigarette ends, plastic forks, lighters, tampon applicators, pieces of cutlery, matchsticks and all kinds of things in place. It was a mess, that was supposed to be a mess and describe a mess. But it remained primarily a mess.

She put a screw through the doll’s navel, tied a piece of string to it and then hung it from the ceiling. Her idea was that people viewing it should move it, rock it like a baby, so it would make its groaning noise and, under the weight of the trash, some of which was only loosely attached using loose wingnuts and bolts and could therefore move a little, it would settle into a new position for the next viewer. To be frank, it wasn’t a bad idea. The problem was that it didn’t work all that well. To bring off something like that, you really need to research the materials and the fixings and, crucially, plan where you are going to put things. Even chance sometimes has to be managed. The doll’s plastic just wasn’t strong enough to support the things she attached. The screw came out of the navel and pulled out a lump of the belly so it couldn’t be fixed back easily. Some of the items pulled the plastic into holes. The legs and arms bent under the weight and then some of the junk items fell off because she hadn’t really thought about how hard it is to stick lots of different materials together. Add to that the brief, which specified the work had to be something organic… She said the plastic, like a virus, was made from organic chemicals. She was not wrong, but the examiners were not impressed and failed her, which was not common. She was devastated. They told her she could resubmit before the start of the third year and they would consider reinstating her on the course. I got a complete bollocking for allowing her to continue with the idea and she protested that she had already arranged to go travelling over the summer. Your message asked if I remembered her. In all my years of teaching, Eileen was the only outright failure I had. I remember her, all right…

An agreement was reached. I told her not to worry, to get the work done and surely it would be passed. She submitted a new idea via me, which was accepted, and she promised to deliver the work, with all associated sketchbooks with evidence of research and sources by the middle of September. Of course, she never did.

I asked Charlie about how Eileen’s work might be viewed today and his response was both illuminating and encouraging.

She was probably ahead of her time, he said. If you look around at what people are doing nowadays, the big thing that people are dealing with, the big issue of our times is the environment. There are loads of sculptors working on the concept of trash, habitat destruction, climate change and the like. I was at an exhibition recently where a sculptor had made human figures and animals out of plastic bags. Leading into each of the bags was a tube and she had pumps filling and emptying the bags and a random time generator controlling all the air supplies. The shapes came alive. Arms lifted, legs extended, giant insects stood up, antennae sprouted as the plastic bags inflated and then everything went into reverse as they deflated. A plastic cow repeatedly calved and then sucked the calf back in. There were little flashing coloured lights inside some of the transparent bags, positioned at what we might call salient locations. There is nothing reassuring about being confronted with a giant, growing, flashing green ant. All the male animals - including the people - had penises with little red lights at the end, penises that were alternately flaccid and erect. The females all had vulvas that swelled and flashed green.

Another exhibition had a plastic model of a blue whale, not life-size for obvious reasons. Inside its transparent body was a collection of all the items of rubbish and plastic waste that had been taken from the stomachs of real whales that had been washed up dead on Canadian beaches.

Now Eileen was doing things like this back in the 1970s. She was certainly original and way ahead of her time. I still think it’s crap, mind you. There’s nothing like working with a living thing like wood.

I left Charlie Mankiewicz to his carving. We had spent a couple of hours chatting via Facebook and then Skype, and the experience left me feeling not a little depressed. Having spent most of the time discussing Eileen’s Virus, he then spent the last fifteen minutes explaining that, although it had been fifty years ahead of its time, he still thought it was an empty idea that perhaps would be better left unexpressed. But on reflection, some days later, I concluded that Charlie had been in a position those years ago where his decision, his opinions and encouragement had determined the direction that Eileen’s work had taken.

I was left with the impression that if he had backed her judgment in 1972 and supported her work more strongly in the examiners’ meeting, then the piece might not have been failed. He had, after all, just said that he had little time for such ideas and I now think he was not being completely truthful. It had not been the examiners’ decision to give a fail, it had been his own recommendation. If he had not taken that position, then Eileen would not have set off on her travels with Charlotte that summer feeling quite so inadequate, so defeated, quite such a failure and so utterly unsure of her future. I accept that the failed project was not the only thing in her thoughts at the time, but it certainly did not help her state of mind. Events might just have turned out differently if Charlie had stuck by her, indeed stuck by his own initial decision to back her stated aim. To hear him now effectively extolling her achievement, describe it as ahead of its time comes across as arrogant, even callous.

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