Up and Down, Up and Down and Up and Down Again

The following writing and text was commissioned by Clayhill Arts, Somerset:

When the Lockdown took hold and we saw the impact this was having on cancellations of shows and exhibitions that had taken months to put together, we got in touch with people we had been working with here at Clayhill to see how they were getting on and coping. We asked Mark, from Mark Devereux Projects to reflect on how it was to be living and working as a young artist family at the moment and if there was any advice he could offer for those experiencing the same.

Shortly after contacting him, Mark contracted the virus, so this is very real account of the reality we are all living at the moment. Thankfully, Mark is past the worst of it now, but a scary and unnerving time that we’re all coming very accustomed to.

In this piece Mark offers some valuable advice on what to be doing at the moment, and some of that might be different to what you think…

 

I sit down at my computer. I switch on Spotify for some concentration music. I start thinking through what I am going to write. Bang, crash, wallop… scream! The sound of my little boy (Francis – nearly 3) refusing to clean his teeth. Stop. Pretend play to encourage teeth cleaning. Start again. Sound familiar…?

Covid-19 and ‘lockdown’ has brought about illness, financial pressures, deterioration of mental health and many other difficulties to our young family. As two self-employed individuals working in the arts sector, the uncertainty and unanswered questions have caused deep anxiety. My wife (Liz West) and I have had all our work cancelled or postponed, leaving us with few creative outputs and no income. What remains though is our strength and ability to cope with everything life throws at us, reminding us of the importance of family.

CONTRACTING COVID-19…
Rewinding to that awkward moment watching Boris Johnson’s clenched hands and reluctant address placing the country into ‘lockdown’ (without mentioning the word), we made the decision to voluntarily self-isolate at home. Having not left home for 2-weeks, we changed our focus to the huge job list we wrote for our house / garden and were trying to enjoy quality family time together. This is when my symptoms started.

Having spent much of the previous week enjoying the sunshine in the garden, digging, jet-washing paths and playing with Francis, I put the initial tiredness down to the physical work I had done. I rapidly deteriorated and was soon confined to bed in the spare room, isolated from Liz and Francis and unable to do anything other than sleep, watch on-demand TV and listen to music. The simplest of things, like going to the bathroom, caused me to sleep for an hour or more. My body was clearly sending every ounce of energy to fight this terrible virus. My voice was weak, my breathing difficult, my chest tight and my anxiety high worrying about how my asthma could worsen.

The overriding sense of guilt grew as I heard the strains and pressure this was putting on Liz downstairs. Leaving food outside my door was the nearest we got for a week. Juggling cooking, answering constant messages asking how I am and trying with all the energy she had to entertain, nurture and ensure Francis remained unaffected was a huge task. On day 6 of self-isolation – the notorious tipping point, there was a slight improvement. Day by day my energy and strength started to return and I was able to come out of isolation and start taking the pressure off Liz. Over 2-weeks later and I’m up to around 85% of my normal self.

 

Mark, Liz & Francis. Photograph taken on the day Mark came out of self-isolation

 

BE KIND TO YOURSELF…
Liz and I are now back to the point in which we can think again about our respective work and businesses (alongside that ever increasing list on the fridge!) It isn’t easy though – how do you find inspiration and drive to do this when there are no outcomes in sight?

We have all heard about and hopefully experienced some of the great projects, opportunities and virtual presentations arts organisations, theatres, musicians and artists are sharing. We are encouraged to be creative, but it is not always that easy. We hear stories of artists calling this period a self-initiated residency and being the most productive they have ever been. This is, of course, excellent and fantastic to hear about, but what about those artists/creative’s with other responsibilities – carers, parents, key workers or those that suffer with their own or others mental health and wellbeing?

I wanted to share our story to hopefully remind or emphasise to everyone that you do not have to be creative – you do not have to be a machine of productivity. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not making, reading, thinking about your practice – this will all return when it is right for you.

Liz and I talk regularly about each other’s work, projects and ambitions – we’re lucky to understand and be in each other’s world, but not everyone is that fortunate. Being an artist / creative is often an isolating experience in itself, so with this new dimension, it is now emphasised to an even greater degree. Yes, there are many excellent and important opportunities being created by organisations / individuals around the country, but they are not right for everyone. The key recommendation I would make is to somehow find the time and capacity to think about what it is you need. This could be someone independent to talk with, it could be a mini project to think about, it could simply be time on your own away from everything else to think. Find a way to communicate this to your family or people that could support you.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT…?
Mark Devereux Projects is in a hugely precarious position, where our future is in serious doubt. We have lost all our work, with no income anticipated or promised. During the early days of my recovery from Coronavirus, I somehow found the steel and determination to write an application to Arts Council England for their Emergency Fund for non- NPO organisations. With the support of Liz, Jack Welsh and some of our close supporters/mentors, we were able to submit an application to the first round, in which we are currently, nervously waiting to hear a decision on.

If received (which we have no illusion over the potential for success), the funding will firstly give us the opportunity to stabilise and re-assess our business model once government restrictions are lifted. The second and most important part of the funding for us will be to have the capacity and funding to provide artists from around the UK, free (virtual) one-to-one mentoring, advice and pastoral support during this uncertain period. We would dedicate a large majority of the funding to enable us to work with artists individually and in peer-peer groups, helping develop coping mechanisms, future strategies, new relationships, mini projects and opportunities to simply talk. We truly hope this can happen so we can support your future careers and help secure ours…

WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW…?
Mark and the team at Mark Devereux Projects would love to hear your stories and especially anything you feel they may be able support you with now or once restrictions have been lifted. Please do email Mark at [email protected] or via their social media channels.

Mark Devereux Projects are sharing artists’ works via their social media channels during this period. If you would like your work to be included, please send up to 5 images, your website and social media handles to [email protected].

 


 

Clayhill Arts (www.clayhillarts.co.uk) began as an idea around a kitchen table in Nottingham in 2014. Co-founders Michael and Deborah Parkes met there in 2006 and have worked across the arts, hospitality and education sectors ever since.

During the summer of 2014 they had an opportunity to do something. Being frustrated with the lack of quality training facilities and professional development support for artists and the creative industries, they put their heads together and looked at what it was they could offer.

Renting a flat in Frome they took a month long journey around the county of Somerset in search of a building to start their new idea.

They didn’t know what the site was going to be called, but they did know it was going to be a type of creative retreat, a residential learning space for the creative industries, with catering and outdoor facilities.

After 30 days, 50 viewings and 2,500 miles, they found Clayhill Farm.

It was an instant connection, having everything they wanted and more, and they moved into the farm in January 2015.

Work began on converting the old buildings in March 2016 with a team of local contractors. September 2017 saw them complete the renovations and they opened to the public for the very first time during Somerset Art Weeks as Clayhill Arts.

Since then they have been developing a programme of events to support artists in their professional practice through training, residency and exhibition opportunity.

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