Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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A document in Marion’s box was one of the first written assignment her daughter did in college. It was clearly an introductory exercise, no doubt aimed at beginning a process where the budding artists would examine themselves, their interests and their identities so that later they might discuss their personal artistic aims and direction. The document was undated, hand-written, and had clearly been sent along with a letter from London, possibly the first letter Eileen wrote home after staring her course. The letter, itself, is lost., but a credible scenario is that Eileen was proud of what she had written, proud enough to want her mother to see it.

There was a comment from Eileen’s tutor at the end. It was probably the nature of this comment that prompted her to send the document to her parents, probably as a way of confirming that her decision to attend art college had been the right one. The tutor had written, “An excellent start to the course, Eileen. Let’s get together soon to identify ways in which you can develop your original ideas. JD.”

Later in this remaking of Eileen’s life, I will include descriptions of her work. These were taken from pages of the sketchbooks where she originally wrote about her ideas. In later texts, there have been significant changes to what she wrote, largely because it was in note form. This separate document, however, is entirely in her own words.

What do you want from the course and what do you think makes an artist?

I want to be an artist. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. My parents don’t understand me. My friends didn’t understand me. But I want to create. I don’t want to make things. I don’t want anything that can be put on a pedestal or preserved. All I want to do is make thoughts. And once they are thought, they have to be re-thought, remade, reconstructed. I never destroy anything, but I don’t keep it either. I want my work to have its own life, not a permanent death on display. I don’t paint. I don’t sculpt. I make. Then I unmake. And then I remake.

I want to learn to paint, make prints, sculpt and do ceramics. But I want to learn those things to make sure I avoid them. I want to create ideas, ideas that will last maybe only an instant and then they are gone. Art is the idea, not the object. It’s not the writing in the exercise book that should be marked, but the ideas that were trying to express themselves. It’s not my fault if my words written in ink don’t properly represent what I have in my head. If I had one leg, I wouldn’t be criticized for not running a hundred yards in ten seconds. My body doesn’t work through words and my brain seems to hate anything permanent.

I suppose it became serious with our dam. We were all about 11, 12 or 13 at the time. There was a stream called the beck at the back of the school. I was quite new to Crofton, but the others said they knew where it came from. I can remember a summer evening when we all walked up Cock Lane and around the corner. And then we turned past the pub at the top down the main road towards Doncaster. Beyond the pub and its car park, going down the hill, there’s a pavement on one side of the road. But on the other, there’s a high stone wall that looks like it’s the boundary of a private estate. My friends told me it was originally just that, the boundary of the grounds belonging to the New Hall, which was now my school. Except that when the land was sold by the original owners, the grounds were parcelled off and local farmers used them as meadows. There’s a pigsty up the hill and then a field of barley before you get to Slack Lane. Now, most of what were meadows is covered with the new estates but back then some of the newer ones hadn’t been built. Just at the back of this wall on the main road there was some land that was never used by the farmers. It’s a lake surrounded by trees, part of the landscaped gardens that the original owners of Crofton New Hall designed along with the house. Basically, the beck that runs across the back of the Hall originally comes from the higher ground towards Sharlston. It used to go under the main road and then on the other side ran down the hill towards the old house. The people who built the New Hall dammed the beck to make a lake and then, to create the view they wanted, they built an underground passage for the stream out of stone and then landscaped the soil over it so that it disappeared until it got to the gardens at the back of the house where it came above ground to create pools and other features. They are all gone now, of course, as are the house’s original gardens, which have become the school’s playground and gym. The dam is still there because it would take a big effort and a lot of money to demolish it. I suppose the underground channel they built also still exists There’s a weir at one end where the stream drains from the dam and there’s a stone tunnel, but it’s dry nowadays and the water goes through a pipe further down. We tried crawling down the tunnel, but you can only get a few yards along it before you reach a wall of earth. There’s a couple of old stone boat houses at the other side of the lake, just by the wall next to the main road, but they’ve been abandoned for years. The roofs caved in years ago and the window frames and doors have all gone, but there’s a fireplace in one and part of an old stone table in the other.

When we first went there, the boat houses were full of junk and rubble, as was the stream that ran past them from under the road, the inlet to the dam. Where it comes through the tunnel under the road, there was a mountain of junk, most of which of been dumped over the wall. In those days, you could stop the car on the road and throw your junk over the wall into the stream. Lots of people had clearly done that and there were pieces of furniture, old clothes, vacuum cleaners and all sorts of junk in a great big pile. The junk had partly blocked the inlet stream and the whole area was muddy. It was clear that if we moved some of the junk, then the stream would not overflow, and the ground would dry out.

I was only eleven at the time and new to the area when I first went there. We were all like that really, kids who had been brought up somewhere else, whose families had moved to the new houses. Most of us had no links to the village because we weren’t from there. We had no idea who owned the dam and the land around it. All we knew is that there were sometimes people fishing. It just seemed like an abandoned place.

I didn’t know my friends all that well, and I suppose the project we started brought us together, gave us something to share that later became a symbol of our friendship. I suggested we clear away the junk, put stepping stones across the stream and then clean up the boat houses so we could meet there. And it was when we started our project that I suddenly became aware of the history embedded in each of these discarded objects. To me, this was not rubbish, it was discarded life. Someone, somewhere in a different life from ours, had used, cherished, taken for granted, loved, hated or made each of these things. Now they were ours. My friends thought I was daft because I wanted to use everything and throw nothing away. It was stupid, I suppose, because it had already been thrown away once.

Destroyed, repaired, painted, repainted, broken, forgotten, stored, rediscovered and eventually discarded… We salvaged each and every item, from shopping trolley to rocking horse, shoe to bike wheel, from curtain track to toilet brush. Every item represented some part, large or small, of those who had owned it, used it and then dumped and disposed of it. Just putting the things together in groups made families of strangers, whose experience and collective history suddenly came alive.

And, just like people meet by chance, momentarily share the same supermarket queue, watch the same football match or walk down the same road, only to reassemble in a different order in another place, then these objects put together for just a while mirrored what people do in their daily lives. And just as the groups of people deserve to reappear in new groups, then these objects could be taken apart and re-grouped. It’s as if they have lives of their own, lives, like our own, that are constantly changing, never set in stone and always impermanent. It’s not the objects themselves that create the art, but the stories they invite the viewer to imagine, to invent, to visualize. And these stories should be different each time the work is seen, so what better way to encourage the viewer to take part than to reassemble or at least rearrange things every day?

It took a while for these ideas to come together. When I first started, I wanted to assemble objects and then make up a story to go with my sculpture. But as time passed, I became more interested in the ideas that my friends invented when they saw what I had done. My teacher at school understood what I wanted to do and she encouraged me. I think she was bored with what she had to teach and really enjoyed having a student who didn’t want just to make yet another copy of the same still life set up in the middle of the art room. We had one art class a week. And each time I used to bring in a few of the bits of junk from our boathouse at the back of the dam. In class I would put the things together in some new way and then we had a class exercise to make up a story about what we could now see. In some ways, I was something of a celebrity in the art class.

I had an amazing art teacher, who was really interested in what I did. I used to have extra classes with her sometimes.

I have written too much and started to ramble. What I want from this course is just the opportunity to develop these ideas, to find new ways of making history out of objects, and then to remake them, just as temporarily.

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