A new role for the artist?

16th August 2017
Fourth Commission: WIND August-October 2015
16th August 2017

A new role for the artist?

“Modern art has taken a wrong turn in abandoning the search for the meaning of existence in favour of individual self absorption”. Andrei Tarkovsky in Sculpting Time 1986.

At the end of 2017 emergency is in the air. Population growth, global warming, scarcity wars, religious wars, famine, environmental degradation, cyber wars, nuclear proliferation and disease loom before our grandchildren. As our financial and religious frameworks also appear to be collapsing, and our media are driving and thriving on the anxiety, (and it is very easy to get depressed), we need to look at ways of marking what is worthwhile. What gives us peace of mind, what values fashion the ideal and how may we celebrate such values?

Traditionally some artists have offered inspiration. In our consumer culture however many of us have been hi jacked by cultural industries, surrogate social work, monetary investment and the cult of celebrity, spectacle and novelty. So in this unsettling time of enforced hysteria it could be useful to lay down the initial ground rules of a culture which may be less materially based but where more people will actively participate and gain the power to rejoice in moments that are wonderful and significant. These could be where more people grow and cook their own food, maybe build their own houses, name their children, bury their dead, marking anniversaries, creating new spaces for new ceremonies,and producing whatever drama, stories, songs, rituals, images, pageants and jokes that are relevant to re- discovered values.

In such a context this artist would become facilitator and fixer, celebrant and stage manager, a visionary linking the past and the future, and a shamanic poet, the revelator of layers of perception and the holder of what used to be called spiritual energy. Equally of course this kind of artist would also acknowledge the artist in us all and offer testament to the innate creativity recurring in every generation and every community where the intuitive is given freedom. Where re -generation is of the soul and not of economics. Where a holistic way of being is given credence and where making art is a daily experience.

This is part of an article from the New Ground Project in Castlebar in County Mayo in May 2008. Do let us know if it strikes any chords or thoughts. Thanks.

Muriel Law wrote on Oct 3rd 2010 from Hongkong University: ....... it is so elegantly written with such a passionate call for us the artists and the artists-at -heart to make wherever we are a better place to live. What is most important of all, it reminds the actor inside us to exercise the power of creation and creativity over fits of frustrations, moments of despair and temporary sight loss, a state that I have been experiencing these past few weeks with work. Identify the actionable and engage with it, mark moments of the celebratory, be with the others ....

Dec 7th 2011 NATIONAL THEATRE WALES   'Making Ideas Concrete'

Sue Gill and John Fox lead a 1 day workshop for newly appointed Freelance Facilitators for NTW's Assembly Programme.

Jan 27 - 29th 2012 DEATH: Southbank Centre's Festival for the Living

Sue Gill and John Fox lead a public workshop DESIGN Your Own DEAD GOOD FUNERAL in St.Paul's Pavilion, Level 6, Royal Festival Hall. The workshop set out to dispel common myths, to demonstrate the nuts and bolts of planning a funeral, to inspire and to give confidence. 70 people squished into the room where we were expecting 30, yet managed to follow the guided process, committing their funeral wishes and requests onto a document to take home and discuss with those nearest to them. 'Your workshop was by far the most insightful and interesting talk/workshop we attended. You presented a really great insight into the logistics of planning a funeral, as well as demonstrating how amazingly creative you can be!' Antonia Beck

Feb 22 - 24 TIPPING POINT CONFERENCE Newcastle upon Tyne      ' What am I doing about the future?' Short provocation/ reflection from John Fox 'Thank you so much for your contribution. It combined a masterful precis of some of the event with an even more powerful call to arms. Precisely what was needed - and more'. Peter Gingold, Director.


for staff at Tullie House, Carlisle, the county's museum and art gallery, facing redundancy and job losses. Old documents such as job reviews, assessments and reports were creatively recycled, thresholds were crossed, validations were read out and witnessed, fancy home-made certificates were distributed. To ensure we left traces behind, the afternoon ended with a bit of guerilla gardening, before we went to the pub, replenished with new directions.

March 30th ISAN gathering at Lanternhouse, Ulverston

of producers from the outdoor arts sector when Fox and Gill of Dead Good Guides orchestrated a wild walk and environmental workshop along part of the Cumbria Coastal Way at a mystery destination. '.... the day was inspiring in a very subtle, calming and serene way. As a group we are still talking about it, and it has raised many professional and personal issues for us - how we want to try and live and work, work/life balance, and how we look creatively at the next phase of our careers .....'

40 WALKS: Dee Heddon To mark a significant decade birthday Dee invited 40 people to take her on a walk of their choice throughout the year. Read about them in her blog http://40walks.wordpress.com/

WALK 4 - Walking with Gerry Harris 10th April 2010 Ulverston to Baycliff and the Beach House via the Cumbria Coastal Way

extract .........

Up the path leading off the beach and into a garden packed with sculptures made from bits and bobs. In the circular studio on the left, we interrupt John, busy at work on his various pieces that engage with this particular environment (at present, pictures revealing the thousands of micro-organisms to be found in a bucket of sand from the beach below his home). Sue invites us in for a welcome cup of refreshing tea and some seasonal sustenance (toasted Hot Cross Buns and Simnel Cake). Their renovated beach house is carefully designed with lots of natural wood and glass, and curves that soften the square of windows in the living room. Looking out onto the expansive horizon (sky, sand and water), Gerry and I agree that if we lived here, that is all we would do. The landscape is so big and empty and riveting.

I tell Sue and John about 40 Walks and serendipity hovers again. Sue has given herself a couple of Birthday Walks too – including a long distance, week long walk alone for her 60th. Sue is a woman to admire.

John shares a picture book album that tells the story of Beach House. What is most evident is that its creation has depended on the continual efforts of family and friends. It is a feat of commitment, determination, community and love. We are also told about a likely wolf ghost (paw prints appearing mysteriously in the sand early one morning). Apparently, the last wolf in England was shot not too far from the beach house. It seems entirely likely that if the wolf is to return anywhere, then it will be here, close to the Fox’s home, where art and life are carefully synchronised ................

Rituals on Radio - Sue Gill 2008 - SAYING GOODBYE

We all saw the helicopter last year but we didn’t see the person. Rumours flew around the festival site . …. Rushed to hospital …. Someone’s died …. It’s a lady ….. Heart attack … My own mental image was of an elderly person here for the August Bank Holiday, who may have over exerted herself. Just how wrong could I be?

The festival is far off in the top North West corner of Cumbria, occupying a high open site, perpetually windy, offering its panorama of the mountains of the Lake District and of Scotland, sunsets over the Irish Sea and glimpses of the Solway Firth – hence its name SOLFEST. Dressed with avenues of huge silk flags which sparkle and flutter by daylight, and hugely dark night skies, SOLFEST is animated, not only by the music and the people, but by its connection with the elements – earth, air, fire and water. The festival draws 7000 people, who gather to live, eat, drink, listen to music, sing, dance and celebrate outdoors for 4 very long days and nights. Now in its 5th year and Winner of the UK Festival Award 2007 Family Friendly Festival.

We have been part of the crew running SOLFEST FM, the festival radio station on site for the past 3 years. 4 days of round the clock broadcasting on 87.7 FM. Live feeds from the 3 major music stages, interviews with bands, features, live music sessions in the temporary studio. Everything from early morning cockerel impressions via a SOLFEST Archer’s Omnibus/ Ominous to Book At Bedtime. Schedules created in the moment.

A week before the festival we were contacted by a friend of the bereaved family, saying they would be returning to SOLFEST and would like to do something, but were not sure what. That allowed me to include a couple of books in the packing that I would have otherwise have left on my rites of passage shelf. We arranged to meet up at the radio van on Friday afternoon, where I was handed a CD. On the cover, a vibrant woman in sunglasses stood in the SOLFEST campsite, smiling to camera, as her hair blew across in the breeze. The atmosphere present in the photograph is of a classic relaxed holiday. Impossible to tell she suffered from a heart murmur. “This is the last time we spent with her …” Could this be the person soon to be in the air ambulance?

The 2 sisters Kirsty and Lycette – probably in their thirties – and brother Lewis sat down with me. From the portrait on the CD cover, Samantha would have been their slightly older sister. The CD has a dozen tracks on it, all Samantha’s favourites and had been created as a memory and a tribute. 3 of the tracks were played at her funeral, which had been attended by family and friends and crew from SOLFEST. We talked about making a small piece for radio, which I suggested might be best scheduled to go out on Sunday morning between 10.30 and 11 o’clock. It turns out that it was Sunday last year when she died. Should it be live or pre-recorded? We decided to pre-record – less pressure – and then they would be free themselves to listen to the broadcast along with everyone in their circle.

The CD became our touchstone. We opened the piece with music, then Lycette spoke into the mic, with a background of festival hubbub which we agreed felt just right. “Everlasting” by the Manic Street Preachers was the track we played as we brought our sister Samantha into church a year ago. Samantha died at SOLFEST last year. She was a lifelong music lover and festival goer”. Kirsty took up the story.“She influenced much of our musical tastes over the years. Her first love was David Bowie and so we’d like to play Ziggy Stardust”. After Bowie we had a poem which the 2 sisters read in turn. I suggested “Antidotes to Fear of Death”, written by the brilliant astronomer Rebecca Elson, who died in 1999 aged 39 from cancer. With a couple of edits, they agreed it was perfect.

After the poem, Lycette ended the piece. “So many of the family and friends who came to Sam’s funeral will remember Harvest Moon by Neil Young which we used to close the ceremony last year - and its lyrics - nothing lasts forever .... ” And what about brother Lewis? He had not found it necessary to add anything to what was said. He was present throughout to support his sisters and he lit the candle on the small table between us to start this small ceremony. The sound of a match striking on radio is unmistakeable.

I made a brief introduction to the whole piece: “SOLFEST has its own way of marking the milestones in our lives – new partnerships, new arrivals, and inevitably loss. Samantha’s life ended suddenly at SOLFEST this time last year. Join me, Sue Gill, at 10.30 for a special commemoration and celebration of her life”..

ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH - Rachel Elson - abridged

Sometimes as an antidote

To fear of death

I eat the Cumbrian stars.

These nights, lying on my back,

I suck them from the quenching dark

Till they are all inside me,

Pepper hot and sharp…….

No outer space, just space,

The light of all the not yet stars

Drifting like a bright mist,

And all of us, and everything

Already there

But unconstrained by form.

And sometimes it’s enough …….

To walk across the SOLFEST fields ……

Thinking: whatever left these husks

Flew off on bright wings.

On the Sunday morning, we heard later, the whole clan gathered around the radio in the sunshine and opened a bottle of champagne. Those who could not attend were listening at home in West Cumbria. Our sound engineer put the 20 min. recording onto CD for the family.


”the shift from the mundane to the extra-ordinary is partly a choice of perception and partly a matter of wilful luck.“

In our garage a newly hatched swallow is learning to fly. It is scrabbling on the lip of an archive box, one of many containing old Welfare State documents. Twittering on the telephone wires above swallow parents search anxiously. It is a handy symbol of recurring patterns and generational evolution. Throughout our heart stopping journey we have scrabbled from one perch to another constantly learning or re learning to assert a new position.

Yesterday a new assertion was realised in tangible form. In the sixties when we were consciously seeking “an alternative, an entertainment and a way of life” the drama critic Lee Baxandall recognized the revolutionary role of theatre and performance and its contribution to a collective consciousness. In 1968 he wrote about ‘the performative’ seeping into everyday life, identifying it as ‘the dramaturgy of radical activity’ *

Stanley, a college friend from Guyana whom I have known for over 45 years has come to stay with Leila his new partner. They asked us to organise a betrothal ceremony for them so yesterday at 5 am just before sunrise I was under the wheel barrow spraying WD 40 onto a squeaky wheel. We didn’t want to wake the neighbours as the four of us set off across the sands with our load of ceremonial paraphernalia: ten small silk flags, laminated poems, a picnic hamper with fresh coffee, Bayjun Special Reserve Rum, warm croissants and accordion. Stanley was up late the night before carving the marking stick from a length of seasoned chestnut. He carried this and the rings while Leila picked fresh flowers.

At the West edge of The Rock, they face the dawn sky and the turning tide. Using the sacred stick they draw in the sand a large central heart with two adjacent diamonds. Meanwhile we place the flags to form a semi circle behind them. As we wait for the sun to rise we are rewarded by a honking fly past of wild geese. After Sue sings a welcoming blessing ( Gibran’s “Breaths’” ) and I read my betrothal poem, the couple step individually into their diamonds, to read two of Stanley’s poems Then entering the heart together they exchange rings, make vows and in duet sing the first verse of “Drink to me only with thine eyes”.

Finally they scatter petals in the small lagoon round The Rock. We make toasts (with too much excellent rum ) drink coffee and play the Westmorland Waltz. As it fades away and the couple finish their first waltz together we gabble joyously and meaningfully while the sun emerges in full monty.

Back home feasting begins with brown eggs from Brow Edge and Gloucester Old Spot bacon. In the evening it continues with a glowing gathering of family and friends. Against the turquoise dusk our silk canopy on the seaward side of the deck fluoresced into a patchwork jamboree. As an offering to the bride to be, Naomi, our son’s pregnant partner, threaded 40 grey oystercatcher feathers to dangle from a Japanese parasol. Rueben 7 made a tepee centrepiece for the table. He joined bronze soldering rods with red insulating tape and threaded this little cone with emerald green ferns which sang against the crimson tape. Grandaughter Rosa 5 drew a goodwill card, a gift, a spidery parade of travelling lovers and was engulfed in warm thank you hugs from Leila.

A brazier of oak logs and a charcoal barbeque infused us (eventually) with sweet smoke. Stanley had asked for the occasion to be witnessed by our extended family so on the kitchen table we looped a video of the dawn ceremony. We wined and dined on local chicken and toasted our futures with fine French champagne. Drawing on our fiddles, drums, trombone, guitars, and melodeon we conjured up flamenco, diddley -dido English barn dances and Jamaican calypsos to dance and sing to in a wayward cornucopia of musical styles.

Within our self-ordained jewel of flickering firelight and delight, spirits, dreams, memories and wishes entwine. Rosa’s dancing shadow is ten foot tall. Reuben’s tepee is the central hub of a great wheel that spans the world. This is certainly “an alternative, an entertainment and a way of life” underpinned with the values of community, family, shared cultures, life-feasting and connection and teeming with personal recollection, generosity and vital art. Such affirmation and such heightened sharing may be rare and but this was a confirmation and an assertion that “performative” activity had soaked well and truly into the everyday. The specific occasions for such celebrations may be few and far between but the possibility is constantly at our fingertips. We just need to recognize that the shift from the mundane to the extra-ordinary is partly a choice of perception and partly a matter of wilful luck.

Not unlike the pressures on that fledging swallow which, naturally, did eventually fly. .

*Lee Baxandall. ‘Spectacles and Scenarios: A DRAMATURGY OF RADICAL ACTIVITY’ In L.Baxandall (ed) Radical Perspectives in the Arts. Penguin.1972



Each year we welcome visitors to The Beach House within the context of a Gift Relationship contract. In exchange for agreed periods of practical work from our visitors on "The Weather Station", we offer refreshment and discussions and/or interviews on significant cultural issues.

STRANGEWORKS ( Will Bock, Mary Doyle, Georgia Jacob) a dynamic theatre company from Hackney, London came in 2007. They wrote: "It has been a great and valuable experience to take part in this Gift Exchange ...very helpful to our own work...seeing your work has affirmed for me the importance of bringing your life and work together.."...


The Weather Station at the Beach House is an on going installation, a cliff and beach garden on the west shore of Morecambe Bay. With weather vanes, icons for an unknown faith and drypoints, collographs and etchings it is designed to examine performance and perception in an ecological context. Started in 2007 and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) from 2008 - 2011, this epic work in a teaspoon incorporates signage, printmaking, whirlygigs, pamphlets and occasional ceremonies, events and performances.

Briefly on this West side of Morecambe Bay, next to the Beach House, we have started to colonise a steep cliff and a smitch of land.   Once overrun  with nettles and brambles we are creating a terraced rockery , potential fernery, and small sculpture garden.... a peaceful nexus...., an escape from the mundane.... and a place to measure  meteorological and psychic weather. 


The artist REBECCA CHESNEY began work at the Beach House during May to create an archive of all the plants within

a 50 metre radius of the house. By July she had identified, collected and pressed 172 species. Her work on the green roof of the studio contributed to ideas for the "Garden in the Sky" children's book from Boardwalk Books, published June 2011.

HUNTING CRITTERS IN THE BAY with Professor Peter Matthiessen, Chris Matthiessen, Richard Scott and Betty Green.

The Fresh Water Biological Research Centre on Windermere provided great support and lent invaluable microscopes.



a visual poem directed by JOHN FOX in collaboration with scientist Peter Matthiessen

Camera & Post Production: Peter Croskery

Sound Mix: Dan Fox, Sound Intervention

A short film to celebrate the billions of minute shrimps, worms and molluscs to be found in the sediment of Morecambe Bay on the North West coast of England. Premiered at the Making Time Symposium at LICA, Lancaster University on 12th March 2011


SEPT 6-17 2010 

Artists' residency towards a celebratory garden event at Ox Close Primary School in Spennymoor Co. Durham.

Mysterious fire breathing ox kiln disgorges small clay oxen made by the children, musical steel ox, flags and listening post stories for Festival of Words.

Associate artists: Jon Bielstein, Kate Johnston, Martin Brockman, Dave Young, Wendy Meadley, Dan Fox, Naomi Edwards. Community Celebration 17 Sept. 1 - 3.30 and 6- 7.30 pm with fire, drums, lanterns and hog roast.

A Creative Partnerships project.

HANDFASTING CEREMONY: outdoor wedding ceremony

On the Summer Solstice for two conservationists at Hay Bridge Nature Reserve in Cumbria;
the bride arrived on horseback.
21st June 2011 

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