What a strange Christmas we’ll all be having this year. Whatever your circumstances, it’ll be different. I’m thinking of people who’ll feel isolated, or people who’d normally look forward to this time with relief after a hard year’s work, but instead it might feel like more of the same – difficult to find motivation without work or the usual social groups.
I feel lucky that I’ve been able to continue working, since painting is a solitary profession, also lucky that the lockdown led to me moving in with my partner, so it’s been a happy time in many ways, though worrying in others. I was looking through my winter photos and paintings as I thought I’d post something seasonal here, and I came across winter photos from 2010.
I’d been working as an arts manager at a hospital in Birmingham in 2010 and it wasn’t going well. I’d begun to realise that the corporate world of hospital development wasn’t for me. This was a new hospital build funded by private finance, and though I loved working with hospital staff when I got the rare chance – nurses, doctors and consultants working directly with patients – I often struggled with the corporate and business people I had to work with in the hospital. My creative suggestions about the ways art could benefit patients weren’t valued. The bosses wanted statement art to suit the new hospital, I wanted local arts groups to work with long term patients on projects to help them cope with illness.
Two years into my three year contract, I was becoming morose and dissatisfied, I felt un-valued and unwanted – all my dreams of doing something positive for patients hadn’t come to much. I was depressed and demotivated. On top of all that it was freezing – the coldest, snowiest winter in the UK for years, so getting out of bed into the dark mornings was a struggle.
Once I was up and out the house though, there was a high point to my day. Birmingham has several large parks, some stretching for miles, with huge, beautiful ancient trees (the woods here inspired Tolkien in fact, as Tolkien fans will know!) and luckily my walk to work took me through some of these parks. I’d watched the birth of ducklings and goslings in spring, sunbathed after work in summer, taken hundreds of photos of the incredible autumn colours, but outside of mountain walks I’d never seen such a winter in the city.
At 7am in winter the light was just beginning to make everything visible – it was a silent, monochrome world – the snowfall had been so heavy that all trees were covered in a thick blanket of white.
I was reluctant to go to work, I just wanted to stay in this magical Narnia-like landscape. We’d all been moved the day before into a huge office, no one was allowed to display personal items. I remember one woman’s picture of her baby wasn’t even allowed, another rebelled with a wall display of her favourite shoes, which was taken down on the same day she displayed it! It was drafty and noisy – I had to wear a hat indoors because of the chill wind on my head from faulty air conditioning! One day that winter, my boss took me aside to tell me he’d had complaints that I’d not been doing my job properly.
This was true. I’d been appointed the task of itemising anything that could be described as art in the old hospital (abandoned for the new build). What this entailed was walking through an unihabited hospital; each ward sealed off with plastic sheet doors and heavy padlocks, beds left abandoned half made, syringes and medical equipment strewn on the floor – the strange, disturbing scent of old sweat and illness drenched with sanitiser. My job was to tag ‘art’ with a numbered post-it note, ‘art’ being anything from a framed photo of staff to a faded Monet poster in a broken frame. There were thousands of such peices of ‘art’ in the old hospital.
It felt like being in my own dystopian sci-fi drama, though not as entertaining being in one as watching one. I knew I was guilty of shirking my duties, but it seemed to me that this task had been invented to break me; it was meaningless – none of these things had any value, except potentially as firewood. I was being asked to catalogue endless amounts of junk. It had gone on for a month, meanwhile my other proposals – art and writing workshops for long term patients for example – were ignored. I was beyond feeling sorry for myself, I’d selfishly drifted into a dream world and I’d started taking photos of the abandoned wards.
One day, I encountered the hospital’s Christian Minister (this was a huge hospital, with religious leaders from all faiths on hand for patients and staff) in the corridors. When he said ‘hello Rose!’ I nearly jumped a foot in the air with surprise – I hadn’t encountered anyone in the abandoned corridors for days. He looked at me with some concern in his eyes. In fact he’d been proposing that I join up my arts project proposals with the ‘Dignity in Care’ organisation, a great idea in fact since Dignity in Care was a hierarchy-free semi-formal organisation of hospital staff who believed that more could be done for patient comfort and well-being, art being something that patients found helpful in many ways.
By this time though, I was off in my dream world – a method of survival I’d retained from childhood when anything upset me. I was more interested in capturing my impressions of the world around me.
I left work early that day, after the unpleasant meeting with my boss. I trudged my way home back through the park, but even with a mood as bad as mine that day I couldn’t help but feel wonder at the beauty of the snow-covered trees and frozen ponds. As I approached the bench where I usually stopped for a moment before home, a squirrel jumped out in front of me.
My first thought was that there was some sort of squirrel fight – he darted back into the bushes, then darted back out in front of me, so I though he must be confused or scared. I slowed down, but again he jumped in front of me, paused, looking straight into my eyes, then went back under the bush. He repeated this one more time, but this time he stopped near the bush, still looking at me.
I knew for certain he wanted something, I looked around, wondering if anyone was watching. ‘Get a grip Rose’, I told myself; ‘this isn’t Narnia’! I walked towards the squirrel and he stood his ground as I approached. As I bent down to go into the bushes, he took a couple of steps forward and looked back at me.
Under the bush it was squirrel pandemonium! A flock of pigeons was pecking up nuts from the ground, squirrels were running around in panic, trying to remove their winter nut stores before the pigeons made off with the lot. I loudly clapped my hands and stamped my feet as I moved towards the chaos of pigeons and squirrels, shouting ‘GET OUT!’ until every single pigeon had flown off. The squirrels carried on re-burying their nuts, or perhaps they buried them elsewhere. I walked out from under the bush and stood for a while, making sure the pigeons didn’t come back. A squirrel (the squirrel?!) ran out, darting around, so I took a photo – the one at the bottom of this post.
I can’t describe how good it made me feel to help the squirrels – I felt warm and connected, where earlier I’d felt useless and pushed out into the cold. It’s not that I didn’t have some good friends in Birmingham (it’s the friendliest place in the UK in my experience and I have good friends from Birmingham to this day) it’s simply that everyone wants to feel useful and connected. That winter I handed in my notice and returned to Edinburgh to become a full-time artist. I’ve never looked back except with relief – why didn’t I do it sooner?! I was much poorer, but happier.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my winter’s tale, and my photos from the time. It meant a lot to me, and I feel it’s a reminder that we all have our part to play, we’re all valuable, even the smallest thing might make the world of difference to another person, or creature. Yesterday I enjoyed throwing peanuts out my kitchen window to a squirrel in the garden!
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and all the very best for 2021