10 August 1999
Hi Rita :)
I've just been reading your proposal and the booklet about Mount Grace Priory which The Art House sent me, and now - first contact! I do wonder what you look like, particularly as there is so much information about me publicly available via my Home Page site. How about using the digital camera to take a self-portrait for me? And later, it would be really good to see you within some of the photographs that you will be sending me of the work in progress. (I don't know whether you're using a digital camera with a reversible lens, which is what I used to take the self-portraits within My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg on my Home Page site, but if so it should be possible to take self-portraits fairly easily if you use a tripod.)
I was so interested to find out that your work includes so many Goddess images. When did you first become interested in these, and how has this manifested itself in your work? And is it possible for you to scan and send me some photographs of this work - and in fact, of any of your work that you want to show me? (As with my life, you can find out more about my work on my Home Page site.)
I've been interested in the Goddess tradition myself since my mid-twenties, originally simply because, having been brought up in the Christian tradition, I was surprised to find that so many female images of a deity actually existed around the world. I've been collecting Goddess figures ever since, and have displayed these on a shelf over the door to my studio. I have to admit that this was originally to wind up my mother ;) . . . but since then I've grown to appreciate them as spiritual symbols, particularly of female creativity, and have become increasingly interested in paganism.
As this can mean many things, I'd better explain a bit more about my interests, which are primarily in the many belief systems existing internationally which forefront the cycle of nature, and thus in the triple Goddess tradition. As a disabled person, I'm also interested in the opposition between these belief systems and the later, Cartesian idea of the mind/body divide which is so prevalent today - impairment reminds us that we are one with our bodies. There's also the Christian idea of "man" made in God's image, with nature making "mistakes" and disabled people as ungodly, versus the pagan idea that nature *is* God and that nothing is "unnatural". The idea that a "normal", "perfect" body exists also contributes greatly to the oppression of disabled people (I discuss this more within My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg).
I was interested, too, that you frequently use bird, snake and dragon symbols within your work. Does this mean that your interest is primarily in the Celtic Goddess tradition? I have dug out my Merlin Stone books on the Goddess, and also a book on the Celtic traditions, and will start re-reading them when I have finished this email. One of my favourite Celtic Goddesses is Bridget, who I see from Merlin Stone was once worshipped throughout Yorkshire by the Brigantes!
I particularly like idea of using the snake symbol in the context of Mount Grace Priory, because of the links which the snake symbol has with Judeao-Christian tradition. The Bible story about the Garden of Eden must reflect the overthrow of the matriarchal Goddess religions by patriarchal religions - there's too much evidence around to think otherwise. Later I will find, scan and thus send you a cartoon I produced some years ago with Jacqui Adams, which was included in the Italian biennale exhibition of women's cartooning on the theme of "Herstory". (Jacqui and I collaborated to produce a number of cartoons, and I am sure that the experience will come in useful in this process.) The cartoon is captioned "In the beginning . . .", and shows a blindfolded Goddess playing "pin the tail on the donkey" with Adam, while Eve, munching an apple, looks on laughing, as does the snake ;-)
I was interested to find out that you are not-disabled - and pleased that I do not take this for granted - but that you work part-time as a "carer". I don't want to make judgements from your choice of language, but are you aware of the ethos and philosophy around the use of "personal assistants"? I think that awareness of this will be quite important to the dynamics of the collaboration, and it's also fundamental to the ethos of independent living. We could talk more about this if you want?
Anyway, back to the work itself. There are links between my interests in Goddess traditions and my other creative work in that my landscape photography has principally been carried out in the Trefdraeth (Newport) area of the Pembrokeshire National Park in West Wales (the only coastal national park in the country). I don't know if you're familiar with this area at all, but it's a very beautiful, depopulated landscape which contains many prehistoric monuments. Some of the Stonehenge stones are also believed to have come from here, specifically from the Preseli Hills.
I've been camping every summer in this area for many years, next to the water in Newport Bay. It's a very special place to me, where I recharge my physical, creative and spiritual batteries. It's also where I learned to sail (which I talk more about in Who is ju90? within my Home Page site) some years after becoming disabled, and this has been a great joy to me as well as generally increasing my confidence. I haven't been able to sail or to return to Wales since 1996, due to a combination of illness and living independently for the first time, but by next year I hope to be in a position where this is financially and practically possible for me again. I also have a proposal to develop my photographic work to create an installation, and the recording part of this process would be carried out there.
I've never published my Welsh photographs, but one of my proudest moments came when two of them were accepted into the permanent exhibition mounted on the walls of my sailing club. I was even prouder when, the following summer, I discovered that one had been stolen . . . and relieved the following year, by which time it had reappeared again without explanation! Anyway, a selection of the rest are framed in the upper part of my studio, and I look at these daily. This is the space where I carry out my non-digital creative work, and generally sleep too, and it's my thinking and chilling-out space. I see from the booklet about Mount Grace Priory that the monks' cells have their own set spaces for meditating, making further links between my home set-up and the monks'.
In fact, I was amused to find out what big residences the monks had - not my idea of cells at all! I live in a 19th-century terraced cottage, which is arranged as follows. Downstairs I have an office, where I carry out my commercial work, and a sitting room, which is also my library and video-viewing room and where I keep my games (from chess to a Megadrive). I also have a small galley kitchen, and a downstairs toilet converted from an understairs cupboard to prevent me from having to use the stairs constantly. (Before I had this, I used to spend most of my time upstairs.) The kitchen leads on to a very small garden - it's great to be able to spend time out there, and I really enjoy what gardening I do.
Then upstairs I have a bedroom which I principally use as a dressing room and spare room, and a studio which has been created from knocking the front room and boxroom together, with an internal staircase to a loft conversion. I've also got quite a reasonable size bathroom upstairs, which I one day want to convert so that the toilet and basin are high enough for me to use easily and I have a bidet and a proper shower for the days when I can't use the bath. My guess is that I'll have to wait until I can pay for this myself - as you may know, there is supposedly a mandatory disabled facilities grant available, but in reality there is a very long waiting list and social workers are reluctant to give you the official recommendation that you need to qualify.
My local council is currently trying to persuade me that I can use a special stool to sit at the basin instead of raising it - but I can't lift the one that they've provided and am not convinced that anyone who needs one could do so. Likewise their solution to my desire for a fitted shower seat is to provide a board which goes across the bath, but which is also too heavy for me to move. Both of these "solutions" reflect the fact that so-called aids for independent living have not actually been designed for independent use. As for their solution to raising the toilet . . . a raised seat, which works well in theory, but in practice becomes disgustingly unhygienic very quickly indeed. As I am unable to do my own housework and shopping, I have a great guy who assists me for five hours a week, financed by social services and my Disability Living Allowance, but there should be limits as to what you have to ask . . .
Anyway, I've lived here since 1985 - first with my brother and partner, but more latterly on my own - but the house hasn't been redecorated since before I became disabled in 1990. I really want to manage to get this done soon, because I want to make quite drastic changes to the colour scheme. There are currently a lot of primary colours - with red in the studio - but what I've wanted to do for several years is to change it to lots of white, with jade green, blue, purple and silver. I think that my desire to do this is as much physical as mental, but either way I'm in a very different place now to the last time it was decorated, and these colours will reflect that. Once I've managed redecoration, the house will also reflect the colours that are used in my spinal brace (there is already a lot of pagan and seashore imagery within my home) - from snail-shell to snail-shell . . .
Thinking about Wales just increases my envy of you working on-site. As well as longing to return to Wales, I spent 1996 and the first half of 1997 living in south-west Cornwall, first in the surfing community of St Agnes on the north coast, and then in the fishing village of Newlyn on Mounts Bay, which has attracted artists for a long time. Although I love the city and have never had any desire to move to the country, I fell in love with Cornwall when I went there - supposedly for just a year - and would loved to have continued to live and work there part-time. But life didn't work out like that . . .
Anyway, those parts of Cornwall are rich in prehistoric monuments, which thus become part of daily life, and probably for this reason there is a thriving pagan community as well (the local hospital even retains the services of a pagan chaplain!). It was impossible, too, to live there without being aware of the cycle of nature, and to find a reality in those beliefs. And the light is so amazing . . . Being there was definitely a transformative experience for me artistically, and it's where I wrote up and programmed my PhD site, Virtual Worlds of Girls, and began the work which is recorded in my site My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg.
Discussing paganism, particularly in this context, strikes me as being rather funny today, as yesterday I was asked how it would appear if anyone knew of my pagan beliefs? I had already found that funny because I mention them clearly on my Home Page site, and they are thus public knowledge! Also, I am on the management committee of a Christian-led night shelter project here in the East End (I was heavily involved in the public housing movement in the 1980s, as you can find out from the CV on my Home Page site), and the Church members simply believe that they have a lot in common with anyone who believes in a deity! But now that pagan beliefs have become central to this work, well, LOL (Lots of Laughs :)
Although the Home Page site inevitably detracts from my privacy and can thus leave me feeling vulnerable at times, there really is an upside to being completely out about who I am on the Net, which is the level of comfort that you feel IRL (In Real Life). I also feel comfortable because I have Pride, and do not have the slightest desire to be anyone but who I am.
The genetics debate fills me with horror, particularly as I can imagine my mother opting if she could to have changed my sexuality, to have removed my visual and spinal impairments, to have dropped my IQ a few points to help me "fit in", to have made my appearance more "English" . . . or just to have terminated me, as is already happening to so many disabled people before birth. And I hate this general assumption that disabled people would prefer to be non-disabled - my life is not a tragedy, thank you very much, and I think that my visual impairments have taught me a more intense way of seeing while my other experiences have given me a much greater self-knowledge, which in turn have enhanced my work.
Anyway, back to the country . . . I'm already very much looking forward to coming up and spending some time at Mount Grace in the last week of the residency. I think that it will be a very emotional experience, as will be meeting you. In fact, I think that this collaboration will be a very intense experience all round, particularly as so much trust is involved, and who knows what it will bring up for us? To protect ourselves, I suggest that we reserve the right to keep some of our email correspondence private between ourselves if the need arises - at least at the time we write it, whatever we might subsequently decide - rather than agreeing to publish absolutely everything on the website.
Until October, though, I will just have to make the most of exploring the resonances which this experience will have with oppositions around the city/countryside! Those oppositions have been very apparent over the past few weeks, as London has been sweltering and humid, interspersed with monsoons (global warming again?) and accompanied, in the East End at least, by swarms of rats and fleas. But today it's turned much colder . . . and I'm not sure whether I'm pleased or not: my muscle spasms are much better in the heat (see What's Wrong With You, Then? within My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg; but when it's as hot as it has been recently, I can't use my back brace at all because it's so uncomfortable.
Actually, you should soon be able to see where I am based, as I am about to start photographing the streets where I live for an online exhibition which I want to finish before the Millennium. Our estate is reputed to be 100 years old in the Millennium, which is the tenuous connection, but the truth is that I have been wanting to photograph it for years. However, I've only had my Nikon available to me, and while it's a great camera, it's very difficult for me to work with it these days because of the weight. Now I have a digital camera courtesy of Fuji, although I still dream of having a lightweight SLR too - I love digital texture for its own sake, but I love the texture of film too.
Finally, some practical details. I don't know how soon you will visit Mount Grace Priory, but when you do, it would be great if you could take pix of all the places which you think are possible locations for work and then send me them over the Net. From the booklet, I would be particularly interested in seeing more details of the outer court's pond, the fireplace of the sacrist's cell and the spring house behind cell 4. But I can't wait for you to tell me about it for real!
In terms of finding a way in which I can contribute to the work IRL, I would really like to photograph it when I come up in the last week of the residency. After the residency is over, I'd then like to manipulate those pictures digitally to explore the transformations of the site and its meanings over time, and its imaginative reality to me, as discussed in my original proposal. I'd then like to add these to the website. How would you feel about this?
Moving on to the website which will record the process and allow us to engage with the public, I would like to suggest the following structure -
There would also be a number of internal links: for example, every time that English Heritage is mentioned, there would be a link to their site.
Anyway, let me know what you think. Can you also ask Tim if he can write the introduction, as that will have to be included whatever the structure. If he can do that and we can get the URL arranged through Virgin (rather apt in the circs ;-) I can get started on the work, and can also register the site with search engines etc. And can you also ask Tim if The Art House has got a site for us to link to whenever they are mentioned - if not, can he send me a disk copy of their information leaflet, so that I can create a very basic one.
In terms of time, I see from your proposal that you can give two or three days a week to the project. I work part-time from home for Greater London Action on Disability between 9-12.30 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and spend Wednesday afternoons in the office. Weekday mornings are therefore out for me, and so realistically is all Wednesday because it's so physically tiring for me to be in the office, even though the employment department does pay for taxis to and from Brixton. I think that it's also important that I have one day a week off completely - although it doesn't matter to me whether it's Saturday or Sunday.
I'm also in Helsinki from 29 September until 3 October (provisional dates only), because I've been invited to speak about my "doing disability as performance art" work and the related My Not-So-Secret Life as a Cyborg website at an event called "The Disabled as a Cultural Minority" at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I will have access to a laptop and modem, so can stay in contact, but I won't be able to give so much time to the residency that week. (It's the first time that I have been out of the country on my own since becoming disabled, and in fact the first time that I'll have left the country since 1995, so I'm really looking forward to it.)
Anyway, let me know what you suggest - in any case, we don't always have to overlap. And take your time to reply to this, because I know that I've given you a lot to digest! One of the good things about communicating by email is that it's out of real time, and while you can respond immediately, even this response is necessarily preceded by thinking time (not that this is *always* apparent from my email correspondence!). In the meantime, I have plenty to do as I have to get a book designed and typeset by the end of the month. (My smallpress company, Bettany Press, is publishing a new edition of girls' school story author Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's The School by the River; you can find out more about Bettany Press from my Home Page site.)
Must stop now and go to bed - one of the pure joys of being single is the ability to spend the whole evening working without feeling guilty - only if it's fascinating work, obviously, I'm not that sad! - but I must be sensible in terms of physical effort. However, I am shortly being provided with a laptop computer for my commercial work courtesy of the Employment Department's Disability Service, and this will have voice activation software so that I'll be able to use it when lying on my back. I'm really looking forward to it anyway - TV becomes so boring, particularly when compared to the interactivity and the variety of the Net, and even if one could have enough books, they can be so heavy - but it will also help me to cope physically with the residency.
Oh, this is very exciting, isn't it?
All best wishes,
Webmaster/site slave and Multimedia Storyteller
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