Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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During her first term in college, Eileen clearly had time on her hands. She saw a lot of the walls of her rented room and Mrs Duke’s house rules enforced a concentration of thought and energies that Eileen had not previously achieved and would not attain again. She took the instruction to keep a journal seriously and clearly spent some hours during those months before the turn of the year faithfully, seriously and conscientiously reflecting on her classes in college.

I found these pieces in her sketchbooks, which Marion had preserved. They were written by hand on lined paper, but bore no comments from her tutors, so one must presume they were never submitted for assessment. I conclude, therefore, that they represent the closest we have to her own, personal thoughts. They have been edited, but the content has not been changed.

Introduce Yourself and describe how you discovered art

My name is Eileen McHugh. I was born on the eighth of August 1952. It was a Thursday, unfortunately, which means I have far to go. I am eighteen years old. I have never been abroad. I went to primary school in Sandal. But it’s not really in Sandal, which is posh. It’s more like Agbrigg, which is near the rugby ground.

The school was walking distance from home, but you had to cross a busy road to get there. When I was small my mum always took me as far as the zebra crossing. I always used to complain, because that meant walking in the wrong direction for a whole fifty steps. My mum then went the other way to get the bus into town.

Down at the school, there was always a lollipop lady on duty, so I was all right to walk the rest by myself through the streets. I used to call in at the shops on my way home to buy sweets or crisps. For some reason I was always allowed to cross the main road by myself in the evenings. By the time I was eight, I was doing the whole trip by myself. But by then my parents said I shouldn’t call at the shop any more.

My mum was often at work when I got home. She worked in Wakefield town centre and had to get the bus home. The buses were often crowded and she could be late. I stayed for school dinners so I could wait for my tea. My dad was usually home about half past five from his office. He worked for an insurance company. I left home at half past eight and got home about five, unless I stayed longer at my friend Julie’s house, which I often did, especially when I knew my mum would not be in until six anyway.

If the weather was fine, we would take Julie’s dog for a walk as far as the park on Sugar Lane. If it rained, we stayed in. We used to finish school at half past three and then it became four o’clock. The walks round the park were the best. Sometimes we crossed Doncaster Road, which we were told not to do, so we could get as far as the canal. The walks made a change from being bored at school all day, because there was always something interesting to find.

People used to drop their rubbish by the canal and Julie’s dog, Sam, used to go rummaging about in whatever he could find. He would bring back things to us and drop them at our feet. It was almost as if he was proud of what he had found. We often used to try to work out why he might have chosen this thing rather than that, but he always seemed to choose things at random. Anyway, we used to throw the things back where we found them, and Sam would run after them and fetch them back. We would always laugh. Every time it was funny. It was almost as if he had discovered treasure every time.

We used to run through the park as fast as we could and Sam would have to chase us. We always did a run if he had been into the canal so he could dry off before we got home. Sometimes we did get wet as well, in which case I always used to wash my school things out by hand when I got home. My mother always liked it when I did my own washing, especially when she was ill.

Sam used to bring all sorts of things. There were bits of rubber tube, pipes, sometimes stones, sometimes old toys, or bits of wood. Now, when I think back to those times, what interested me is why Sam chose one thing rather than another. We used to talk about it, and we had some ideas. We thought it might have something to do with the colour, but it didn’t. We did some experiments, but he seemed to choose things at random.

Obviously, whatever he chose he had to carry in his mouth, so the size was important. But as often as not he would choose something he couldn’t carry, and it used to drag along the ground by his side as he pulled it out of the bushes. That used to make us laugh, especially when he got stuck in the undergrowth. Sometimes the thing he was carrying wouldn’t go past a bush or tree trunk. But he would never give up on what he had chosen. He never went back to get something different just because what he had chosen proved hard to move. It’s as if he had made a choice, a real decision about the thing he had picked up. It’s funny how I always refer to Sam as “he”, as if he was a man, but he wasn’t. He was an ‘it’, because he had been doctored. He didn’t have a tail either. He died.

I think it was when I was about nine that I really got interested in the things that Sam picked out from the rubbish dumps. I hadn’t finished primary school, but I was not going to school very often at that time because my mother was poorly. I can remember it all being a game until one day when I started to keep the things he brought. I don’t really know why I started to keep those things, but quite soon I had filled a shelf in our shed at the back of the house and my mother told me not to bring anything else and to clear out ‘all that rubbish’, but on most days she was inside, so I could put things in there without her knowing.

Sometimes, I used to keep the shape of what he brought, as well as the things themselves, exactly as he dropped them. I used to stick them on pieces of hardboard and hang them on the wall. It was like my own little house and Sam’s things were its ornaments. I used to spend a lot of time in that shed, sometimes all day.

Of course, I soon ran out of wall space, so I had to think up something different for Sam’s sculptures, as I called them. Then it dawned on me to leave them exactly where he left them. Then, not only had Sam chosen the things, he had also arranged them. I used to keep a note of what I left and where it was, so that next time we walked there I could see if someone had decided to rearrange the objects. If they had moved, I tried to work out why the person had chosen to move this thing or that, and then I rearranged them again into a new work.

I failed my scholarship, but my parents did not want me to go to the Secondary Modern School. A lot of the pupils from my class went there, because we were streamed at school and Mrs Johnson took the scholarship class. I was with Mr Cartwright. So my parents paid for me to go to Browns. They couldn’t afford Silcoates. We also moved house.

I had a really good art teacher. She was young and always seemed to be interested in the things I did. Sometimes I took some of the things I had collected into class and talked about them. She seemed really interested. I used to bring in the things from our den, which a group of us set up at the back of the dam. I had a big collection by then, because we had to clear a lot of junk from the stream. Our art teacher at school was really interested in my sculpture. She wanted me to do the kind of work she thought I personally would find interesting, so I got a free hand. I would like to have remade some of the things I did from the bits and pieces Sam collected, but it all got thrown away when we moved.

She was also into anything she could call found objects, objets trouvés, as I was told to call them when my mother asked me what they were. I now know it’s supposed to be French and I learned enough in school to be able to spell it. My mother never believed me when I told her I was doing homework when I was over at the dam sifting through rubbish.

I would put a couple of bits together. Sometimes it was funny, and sometimes I chose them just because of the shapes. I remember some of them. One was a baby’s bonnet, pale blue and knitted, with a little stringy bobble on top. I stretched it over some mangled old plumbing bits. They had started as a length of lead pipe. They were old water pipes taken out of the old houses that were being knocked down. People used to tip their rubbish in the spinney over the dam wall in those days and the pipes were all bent, gnarled and tangled because they’d had to fit in someone’s car boot.

I chose one piece and helped it on a bit with a couple more bends. I made it so it would stand up by itself and then I stretched the blue bonnet over the top. I called it Pipe Dream and the teacher really liked it. She laughed. She wrote a letter to my mother in my second year. I remember giving it to my mother, and she immediately thought I’d got into trouble. The letter said I had individualism, that I had the potential to do something unique and outstanding. My mum told me to be quiet in class and do as I was told. I still have the letter and still read it occasionally. I can’t think of another time when someone said something nice about me.

My mum patted me on the shoulder and was quite encouraging, but only for about a half an hour, when I was told to get on with my homework. My dad seemed more interested at first, but then he realised it was a letter from the art teacher. He said I should be getting letters like that from the science teacher. “Always wants to be the centre of attention, that one” is what I was told to my face when I showed it to my grandma. I don’t know why she said, “that one”, because I didn’t have any brother or sisters.

I hardly went to school in those days. I played truant or bunked off as we called it. I went to registration in the morning and then escaped through the wire fence at the back. There was a park at the back and then the dam next to the main road. At the back of the dam, not twenty feet from where traffic was whizzing past on the other side of the wall, there was our old boat house. It was across a stream in an area that was fenced off. But it was easy to get across and through the fence. It was another stone building, but the roof had gone. It did, however, have a fireplace and it was in the middle of a little wood, so there was always something to burn. I used to go there even on cold days and make a fire, rather than go into school.

I think that in that school they didn’t care whether you were in class or not. When I was about thirteen, the art teacher, Miss Wallace and my friend, Martin, persuaded me to stop playing truant. Without them, I doubt I would be in college today. I have never written this much before.

What is your personal artistic goal?

I want to do sculpture. I want to be a sculptor. I want to make things. I want to make people notice things, shapes and colours. What they see will change the way they see everything else. I don’t want to be famous. But I do want to make things that are mine. I want to be listened to. I want people to notice the things I make. I don’t want them just to walk past without looking. I have just finished reading about Michelangelo and I don’t want to end up like him. The teacher yesterday gave us a class on sculpture. We looked at some famous old works and some other modern ones. We looked at Michelangelo’s David and a few of us got the giggles. His head’s too big, for a start and other bits are too small. All that stuff is too fixed, too permanent for me. I want things to last as long as it takes to see them. And then they should change. And they will change, because when people try to remember what they have seen, their memories will change it.

The teacher showed us some other pieces by Michelangelo called The Captives. They aren’t finished, but to me they are more complete than the David. He is marble and seems to be fixed in stone, imprisoned by it. The Captives are trying to escape, and they are moving all the time, no matter how many times you look at them. Then we looked at some Henry Moore. I didn’t know he was from Castleford. It’s hard to imagine anyone from Castleford being famous. There used to be a Henry Moore in the art gallery on Wood Street and I’ve seen that lots of times. For me it’s as bad as the Michelangelo. It’s too fixed and for ever.

The teacher also showed us some sculptures by Man Ray, Duchamp, Picasso and Dali. I really liked the iron with tin tacks stuck to the bottom. It was very funny. I also liked the toilet because it’s the kind of thing that I do every day when I add to my collection. When I said that to the teacher, he said that would have been exactly what Duchamp himself would have wanted me to say. I did not understand that. The Dali lobster was also very funny.

But what really got me was the Picasso, the bull’s head made from two bits of bicycle. The Dali was trying to do the same thing, by putting two things together that don’t normally go. But the Dali was trying to be just too clever. The Picasso felt like it was something he had just discovered. It made me want to go through my collection and find out if I had anything that would work like that. The teacher asked us to start planning a work of our own based on found objects, as he called them. I have already started, which amazes me because if I had been at school I wouldn’t even have listened.

I was no good at school. I hardly ever went. And when you miss lessons it’s hard to go back because you don’t know what’s going on. You have also lost touch of what is expected of you, so everything you do or say is wrong. And then you stay away again. That’s what happened to me. I can do all the basic things, because that’s all they ever taught us, round and round the same textbooks all the time. It never varied, so I felt I wasn’t missing anything when I bunked off. When you have to go back, being in school is like being in prison. It takes your life away. What I want from this course is something for me, not something for the teachers, or my parents, just for me. I want to make things, things that come from inside of me, things that are part of me. I want them to say what I want to say. But I don’t want anything set in stone. Or metal. Or concrete. Or anything that will last for ever. What I want is something for now, not something for the past or the future, just now, for a moment, to be seen and enjoyed. And then thrown away, but not destroyed, so that someone else can pick it up, pull it apart and make something else of their own, something that’s all their own so they can feel the same achievement of creating something original, something personal.

I couldn’t go straight to art college because I don’t have any O levels. I wanted to leave school at 15, but I needed some exam passes. And then I did a Foundation Course but spent longer on it than I wanted. Now I am here, I will do what I really want to do.

Write down your thoughts on today’s sculpture appreciation class.

We were looking again at modern sculpture in John Daly’s class. He asked us two questions. “What is sculpture?” was the first one. While we were trying to think of an answer, he asked the second question, which was “What is a sculpture?” Now as far as I can see they are the same, except for the letter “a”. But after thinking about it, I can see what he was getting at.

He made me think because he started with a painting. It was a painting of a pipe with words in French underneath. Even I could see it said, “This is not a pipe.” I was confused and I asked the teacher why the painter had done it. The teacher answered, “Because it’s a painting, and not a pipe. A pipe you could smoke, but you can’t smoke this pipe.” I said, “Well it’s a painting of a pipe,” and he said, “Precisely.” I was confused, and so was everyone else. And he said again, “Precisely. It’s a painting. It’s not a pipe.”

He then said, “This is an example of painting, which is about the abstract representation of things - and not always objects - but things that can be seen and represented as flat surfaces. Even when a painting is ‘realistic’ - he used his fingers to show us where he wanted the inverted commas - it is still abstract, because the object, or even the expression being communicated is never itself flat. It is up to the viewer to interpret what the painter has put on the surface.” He even wrote the whole thing down on the blackboard, so I copied it. That’s why I knew his finger flicks meant inverted commas.

Then he asked us again. “So what is sculpture, and what is a sculpture?” I surprised myself, because I put my hand up to answer. I never used to do that at school.

“It’s the same as a painting, except it’s an object, and it has no frame.”

“Can you walk round a painting?” he asked

“Yes,” I said, “but you can’t see it from the back.”

Everyone laughed.

But it wasn’t the kind of laugh I got used to when I was at school. They weren’t sniggering. They weren’t laughing at me, they were laughing with me, because of what I had said. And I didn’t mean it to be funny. To me it was just obvious, but when I thought about it, I laughed as well. Why would anyone want to look at a painting from the back? But then that’s the difference, isn’t it? You can go round the back of a sculpture. It’s solid and an object. You can look at it from anywhere you want.

And when everyone laughed at what I said, I thought to myself that’s what I want my sculptures to do. To surprise people and make them laugh. And then we looked at some pictures, pictures of sculptures. You couldn’t walk round the back.

The first one was Saint Sebastian by Bernini. John Daly asked us to say what we thought of it. What I saw was something that was trying to be perfect. It was a dead man tied to a tree. He had been shot with arrows, most of which had nearly missed. He could easily have been asleep. I don’t know anything about Bernini. I copied down that he lived three hundred years ago. Perhaps three hundred years ago people were only shot politely. The sculpture was very beautiful, but I think it says nothing about what it must have felt like to be shot with arrows while tied to a tree. It seems to show something real, but when you think about it, it’s as far from the truth as you can get. He could be just asleep, resting his arm over a branch. There wasn’t even any blood. You could imagine people going past it in a gallery and saying, “Oh, that’s nice. It’s so beautifully smooth and finished.” I thought that Bernini could have left the back unfinished because he obviously wanted people to look at it from just one angle.

John Daly then showed us a different Saint Sebastian, this time someone called Paolozzi. I gasped when I saw it, because it was brilliant. It’s not a human being, but it’s clearly human because it’s got legs and a body. It’s made of junk welded together. It looks like what might be left of Saint Sebastian a long time after he has been cut down from his tree. Not only would you be able to look at this from every side, you would want to as well. It would be different from every angle. I surprised myself because I spoke up in class again. I never did that in school. I said I could have made that, using bits of stuff from round the dam in Crofton. I was laughing. I got embarrassed in case the teacher thought I was laughing at the sculpture, because I wasn´t. John Daly’s answer stopped me in my tracks. “That’s why you’re on this course,” he said, “because we want to help you do exactly that. And tell us, Eileen, what would your Saint Sebastian look like?”

I don’t remember ever being asked by a teacher what I wanted, and so I couldn’t answer at first and the teacher went on to something else. I was still thinking, and not listening. After a couple of minutes, I put my hand up. “Yes, Eileen,” said John Daly.

“My Saint Sebastian would look like that one,” I said, pointing to the one by Paolozzi, which was still pinned on the board, “But mine would be made of lots of different bits and pieces that wouldn’t be permanently joined together, just jammed and balanced. People would be able to walk around it to see it from all angles, but also, they would be able to take it apart and put it back together however they wanted. They could even throw some of the bits away again if they thought they didn’t fit.”

The teacher didn’t say anything for a while. Neither did anyone else. I thought they were going to laugh at me, show me up for saying something stupid, but they just stayed quiet. And then John Daly spoke.

“San Sebastian is one of the great subjects of Western art,” he said. I was ready for the put-down because of my lack of respect. “He personifies sacrifice, and the reaching out of being human to achieve something greater, something transcendent.” I realised I had never actually listened to a teacher before this. “How would your work convey these ideas?”

Again I thought. “Well, the things I would use to make him have all been used and thrown away. Every one of them has been sacrificed. And by putting them together, you are going beyond the fact that they are seen as rubbish. You are recreating them, giving them new life, and in a way that was never intended.” Everyone was quiet. I looked around the room, scanning the faces, which were all turned towards me. I decided to finish. “And yet, anyone can decide to return bits of the sculpture, or even the whole thing to the rubbish heap at the side, if they want to… But then someone else might come along and put a piece back. I suppose what I am saying is that people can make whatever image of sacrifice that suits them, that expresses what they want to see or say. Whatever anyone does, the things themselves have all been thrown away when they are still useful, so discarded or reassembled, they will always represent sacrifice.”

The teacher thought for a few seconds. I was waiting for him to come up with something crude and dismissive, like a school teacher might do to put himself back at the centre of attention. But he didn’t. He asked another question. “Why do you think that Bernini showed Sebastian like this?” He pointed at the picture pinned to the board.

“I think he’s trying to impress people,” I said. “He knows how good he is. He wants to show off. That’s why everything is so polished, so perfect. You wouldn’t even think that this was made out of stone. It’s disguised. He wants everything to be pretty. The figure doesn’t even look dead. And half the arrows seem to have missed… They weren’t very good shots…”

John Daly interrupted me here. I hadn’t even realised I was still speaking. It was more like thinking out loud. “Has anyone any comment here?” he said.

A tall, goofy lad from the other side of the room spoke up. He had a soft voice, but assured, and he talked posh, without any accent. “That’s because he isn’t dead. Sebastian didn’t die when he was shot by the archers. It was a show. I went to Saint Gregory’s, so we did all the saints.”

I heard someone behind me say “Catholic”.

“Go on, then. Tell us what you know of Sebastian.”

“Well, he was a Christian, but at a time in the Roman Empire when it was illegal. It was during the persecution. He was a soldier and his fellow soldiers were also all Christians but had not made it public. When they did, they were executed. So Sebastian said he was a Christian as well and he was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, but he didn’t die. A woman called Irene saved him and then nursed him back to health. When we see him here, he isn’t dead, and the arrows have not killed him. Bernini is simply telling the story.”

“And when he had recovered, he went straight to the Emperor and once again declared himself a Christian,” said John Daly, addressing the whole class.

And then the same lad from the side continued, without being asked. I thought he’d get told off for speaking out of turn, but he didn’t. “And then they beat him to death and threw his body in the sewers.”

“And that’s the Sebastian we see in the Paolozzi,” I said, surprising myself. Suddenly everything was so clear.

The teacher nodded. He continued. “And what is also interesting about Sebastian is that he’s not associated with any miracles or great deeds. He’s a saint because he died - eventually and not in the scene Bernini sculpted - for his faith.”

“And his body was thrown away,” I said.

The teacher nodded. “So, Eileen - isn’t it? - you were right to read into the Bernini the feeling that Sebastian was not dead. You were right to say that the arrows had not pierced anything vital, because they hadn’t. Unlike many artists who portrayed Sebastian, Bernini, though polished, finished and idealised, was actually trying to be faithful to the story.”

“And his body was thrown away…?” It was me speaking again.

John Daly nodded.

For once in my life I felt confident. “And so my Sebastian will already be dead, and his body will have been pulled from the sewers, along with bits of other rubbish mixed in with him.” It went quiet for a few moments and then I spoke again. “And because Sebastian is a saint, each generation learns about him and so remakes him, how they want him to be. That’s exactly what people will do with my sculpture, remake it if they want to, into whatever collection of objects and images they choose. I’m going to call it Sebastian Recycled. So in a way I am going beyond the Paolozzi. It’s not just a collection of rubbish from the dump, it’s a remakable pile of rubbish that can change for each different person who looks at it.”

John Daly turned to the rest of the class. I thought he was going to rubbish what I had said. “That’s how I’d like everyone in this class to think about their work. What Eileen has just done is exactly what the act of creating is all about. Think and feel. Then think again and feel again. It’s like a set of questions and answers. Not all the questions have answers, but they still have to be asked. Then express yourselves.”

It took me a while to realise that he was praising what I had said. Now I am going to make my Sebastian Recycled. And I’m going to start with a copy of the Bernini, break it to pieces, and stick it back together at random.

What colour should a sculpture be?

Today in John Daly’s class we looked at colour. He started by asking what colour a sculpture should be. Most people in the class just laughed. He immediately asked why anyone would find his question funny. A girl called Charlotte with a plummy voice spoke up.

“Because sculpture is about shape, form, texture and plasticity. It’s not about colour.” It was only after someone else had asked about ‘plasticity’ that I - and about half of the class - realised that it didn’t mean made of plastic.

Once we had sorted out that confusion, John Daly put a slide on the screen. It was a Madonna and Child in polychrome. And that’s another word I didn’t know until this morning. It just means coloured.

The Madonna was pretty. Her cheeks were the kind of rosy pink I might have used when colouring in when I was eight. She had lots of reds and golds in her clothes. And she was holding a stick that looked like a leg from an old chair, the kind of thing we used to find chucked away in the bushes. She seems proud of it, as if she had just recycled it from a dump. The Jesus looked more like a doll than a baby, and he was holding a blue ball. It took me a while to realise it was probably the earth he was holding, but it looks just like a blue rubber ball. What is really surprising about her is that she is standing on a row of heads. I think they are supposed to be cherubs, and I think they are supposed to be supporting her or giving her strength. But the impression I got was that she was so proud of her little boy that she was willing to walk all over everyone else to make sure he gets what he needs. She’s staring into the distance, as if she doesn’t care that she is squashing babies under her feet.

The teacher asked us to write down a few words to describe what we thought the work was trying to convey. I wrote - colour, rich, red, gold, sentimental, wealthy, queen, worship, sick.

We had a few minutes to look at the Madonna and Child in detail. John Daly then showed us the next slide, and we all expected that we would be looking at that for a while as well. But he showed us the slide for just a few seconds and then clicked the projector on to the next slide, which was blank, so we were all staring at a blank screen. Then he said, now write some words about that second image. I wrote - wood, knots, gnarled, abstract, dark, decayed, natural.

The teacher then asked some of us to read out what we had written. After a couple of people had read out their lists, he asked, “Has anyone written ‘brown’?” Only one person had and even he, when the teacher asked why the colour had stood out, he replied that he only wrote the word because the title of the lesson was colour, so he thought he had better concentrate on it. A couple of people suggested that wood and brown were the same thing.

John Daly then showed the first slide again, flicking past the piece of wood on the way, so we got another sneaky view of it. And there she was again in all her glory, the passionless Madonna holding her old chair leg with her baby Jesus and his blue ball. He told us this was an example of polychrome wood carving from the baroque period, when it was used often to make religious images, especially in places where they could not wait for or afford work in stone or marble.

He then showed us the second slide again, but this time he left it on view. He asked us to look at it in detail, and then I noticed what he wanted us to see. No-one else had seen it, but to me it was suddenly obvious. “It’s the same shape as the Madonna and Child…”

John Daly smiled and said, “Thank you, Eileen.” The he flipped forward past the blank slide to the next picture, which was the first two pictures placed side by side. It was then completely clear that they were two pictures of the same work, one from the front and the other from the back. The front, of course, was all finished and coloured and grand and rich and detailed and painted, but the back was just a grubby piece of wood. There was a close-up where you could even see the holes left by the woodworm. The work had been carved on one side of a piece cut from a hollow tree.

“This illustrates that the sculptor here was trying to produce a functional image, something to do a specific job in a church to focus people’s worship. He was not trying to produce something that would exist in three dimensions as an object. This is clearly meant to be viewed from only one side, more like a painting with a relief than a sculpture. Now I want to ask you how differently you would view the image if it were presented as a free-standing sculpture, so a viewer could walk around it and see it from both sides, both from the front and the back?”

Well, here’s my two pennyworth. I think it would completely change the experience. Seen from the front, the Madonna and Child is about power and certainty. She is confident - not particularly happy, but certainly sure of herself. Her beauty is the kind of beauty that the male church expects a woman to have… She’s meek, mild, silent, dressed well, pretty and carrying a baby. But she is confident as well, as if she knows she’s a cut above everyone else, especially the children she is treading on. It’s a strange mix, when you think about it. But when you see the wood as well, the work becomes vulnerable, a reminder that we are all made of something physical, something that can and will decay, but whose components will some day in the future grow up again into something alive. In the way we think nowadays, it’s a more religious image when you see the unfinished and unworked wood at the back, rather than the perfection of the front. When only seen from the front, the colour enhances the richness and power. But when you see both sides, it just amplifies and strengthens the contrast and the questions.

We then went to the next slide and looked at it for a minute or so. He then went quickly onto the next one and we looked at that for about a minute. John Daly then moved onto another blank screen and asked us to write down our impressions.

For the first one I wrote - group of figures, people look as if they are praying, kneeling, beautiful, sad, detailed, coloured. And for the second I put - pain, screaming, fear, terror, crying, brown, not painted, dead Jesus Christ.

John Daly then asked a question that baffled most of us. “Now who can tell what the figures are made of?”

A few people offered their ideas. Someone said wood, others said stone, some even thought it might be plaster. Then plummy-voiced Charlotte spoke up with the kind of confidence that only comes with having rich parents. “I think they are terracotta. I went to see the second group last year when I went on holiday with my parents.”

John Daly nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “In fact, both groups in both pictures are made from terracotta, essentially the same material we use for plant pots. The first group is painted, and the second group is the colour of the pot. And both groups are in fact witnessing the laying out of the body of Christ after it was taken down from the cross. In the first group, the body of Christ is missing. It’s been lost. Now is the way we respond to these sculptures influenced by their colour?”

“Completely,” I said. “The colour in the first group almost hides the emotion. The lack of colour in the second group strengthens it. It’s as if the bland colour forces you to concentrate on the message, not the appearance.” To my great surprise, most of the class agreed with me.

“But both were originally painted,” said the plummy-voiced girl. I spoke to her after the class. Her father is a solicitor.

“That is right. The second group probably were painted just like the first group, but the paint has either fallen off or been removed. And what about some dates for these groups? Charlotte, you clearly will know, so please let the others guess first.” She smiled.

And we guessed. We all thought the second group was more modern than the first, but then John Daly told us they were both made in the fifteenth century, the first by someone called Mazzoni and the second by Nicolo dell’Arca. Then he continued his explanation.

“I think we can all agree that using colour in sculpture can change how we respond to an object in many different and often surprising ways. Now let’s look at a couple more, very different images. No comments, please, until you have seen both. Here is number one... and now number two.”

“Why purple?” asked Charlotte.

“You tell me,” replied the teacher.

I was ready to speak again because what we had just seen was a collection similar to Julie’s dog Sam might have found, Sam’s droppings, as we used to call them.

“The colour makes you notice it,” I said. “It makes you realise it’s not just bits of iron dropped at random. The colour says, ‘Look at me. I am art. I’m here. Notice me’.”

“And does it change what we see, as well as how we see it?”

I had to think for a moment or two. I really knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to say it. Luckily, John Daly waited for me. I now realise that everyone else was waiting for me as well. They really did want to hear what I would say.

“When my friend Julie’s dog, Sam, pulled bits of stuff out of the bushes, he’d drop them at our feet. In some ways they were just random piles of things. Sometimes I would rearrange them, sometimes not. We used to call them Sam’s droppings.” People laughed. “I left them there deliberately to see what would happen. I sometimes used to sketch exactly what I had left and where I’d left it. What I now find interesting is that almost always, when we went back to the same place, the things had been at least moved and sometimes they had disappeared altogether.”

“Perhaps people thought they were rubbish blocking the path,” someone said.

“It’s possible, but they had hardly ever just been pushed to the side. Sometimes it looked like somebody had deliberately rearranged the objects and left them there.” I paused again to find the words. I was flabbergasted that people were actually waiting to hear what I would say. “But if I had painted them bright purple, I reckon that more often than not they would have been left where we had put them. The colour seems to make an object more permanent. It’s almost as if the colour allows the object to claim ownership of the space. But then… the colour has also taken away the objects ability to change or be changed.”

Another student spoke. She’s called Linda and is older than the rest of us. “Last week we looked at the Picasso Bull’s Head and the Dali Lobster Telephone. The fact that the Dali is coloured has the same effect as what Eileen is saying. It makes it an art object, whereas the Picasso feels more like a passing thought.”

John Daly nodded and then spoke to the class. “These last two images are works by Anthony Caro. Over the next week, I want you to look in the books over there on the shelves. There are more examples of Caro’s work illustrated in some of them. And there are more by this next artist as well.”

The teacher then showed two more slides. We looked at each for quite a long time. It seemed that the more we looked, the more we saw. Both works were quite big and heavy. The previous sculptures might have crawled out from the undergrowth, but these ones had very much been built where they stood. Like the Paolozzi from last week, they were obviously human figures. But they were made from bits and pieces of junk, some of them coloured and some of them not. There was no obvious colouring, like in the previous slides, just shades of what might be white, perhaps a brown streak, possibly grey, or even black. But the shapes themselves were really interesting. They appeared to have been chosen at random, but then when you looked longer it was clear they had been put together with care. Some of the shapes were even regular, being smooth curves or boxes. They had been deliberately placed.

“What about the use of colour here?” asked John Daly.

“There’s not much of it…” someone muttered.

“Do you think there could be or should be more?”

“We were all silent for a while. It was Charlotte who spoke up. “It depends on what we want to convey. Do these works have titles?”

John Daly answered immediately. “They are both called Tanktotem, numbers nine and ten.”

“Tanktotem,” I repeated, just trying to get the word into my head. “Like a totem pole we see in Indian camps in Westerns on the tele?” The teacher nodded. “And tanks because they both have enclosed spaces that could contain things… It’s as if the sculptor is deliberately taking everyday objects, things with a clear use, and making a structure that itself could be used, but making it totally abstract at the same time… so that it becomes transformed into something that also has religious significance… hence ‘totem’.”

John Daly smiled. “Thanks, Eileen. You have made my day.”

I was not sure what he meant because everyone laughed.

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” he said, much to my relief. I blushed. He smiled. “Let me explain. When I put this class together, I wanted it to come full circle, so that we arrived back where we started. At the start there was a Madonna and Child, a functional, devotional image that became abstract when we walked around the back and realised it was just a piece of decaying wood. And now,” he said, gesturing towards the image on the screen, “we have a work that is clearly abstract in its conception, but also invokes the idea that it might be a functional and a religious item at the same time, a tank and an object of worship. Here, however, unlike the Madonna and Child, the material of the sculpture is at the front, on show, and we have to confront that first, not go round the back to discover it.”

I spoke up again immediately. I wasn’t satisfied. “But what about colour? You haven’t mentioned the colour. And that’s where we started.”

“And colour, Eileen, is where we will end.” He did not pause. If he had, I would have spoken, but he answered a question I didn’t ask. “These are both works by David Smith. He was an American sculptor, working in the fifties and early sixties. It was Smith who convinced Anthony Caro to use colour in his work. But, like the Nocolo dell’Arca we saw earlier, that should have been polychrome, but has lost its colour over the years, some of Smith’s work has had the colour he applied taken away. Much of David Smith’s work was reworked by a critic friend of his, who thought that colour got in the way of any appreciation of a sculpture’s form and shape. The friend, therefore, deliberately removed the colour from some, though not all of Smith’s work, so now we might have to imagine - just like with dell’Arca’s terracotta - what it might originally have looked like.”

We were all quiet for a while. Perhaps we had all had enough by then. I was confused, however. “So what did David Smith think when this friend of his started stripping the paint off his works?”

“I’m afraid, Eileen, that David Smith was dead by then. He died in a car crash in 1965 and the re-evaluation of his work happened afterwards.”

“So his work was changed without his knowledge?”

“Exactly,” replied John Daly. “But then your work, as you yourself described it, invites people to change it and without any reference to yourself. And the people who change the things you have left on your path by Crofton dam don’t even know it was you who left them there. They don’t know they are changing anything.”

“But they do know exactly that. They might not know why they are making changes, but they know they are doing it.” I paused, surprised that everyone was listening to me. “I didn’t have to die in a car crash to make it happen.”

It was the end of the class and I closed my book and stood up. I then felt my knees go like jelly and had to sit down again for a moment. Plummy-voiced Charlotte put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right. I nodded. After a moment I said to her, “He said Crofton. Not only did he listen to what I said, he actually remembered it.”

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