During COVID lockdown, I was commissioned by Collective Encounters to create a piece of art that reflected the thoughts and feelings of my local community.
Do you remember how great it felt when your school mates (and one of two of the more sound teachers) signed your leavers shirt? Do you remember finding it hanging in the back of your wardrobe or rolled up in a memory box in the loft years later? How wonderful does it feel to remember those life events?
I took my cue from this feeling. I remember leaving primary school with the positive weight of good and hopeful wishes, literally on my shoulders. Fast forward five years and there I was again, leaving senior school with messages from all my friends scribbled and drawn all over my sleeves and chest.
Physically wearing thoughts and feelings is a truly transformative experience and one the majority of us remember fondly. Sadly it only seems to happen in childhood.
When I first moved to Liverpool age 8, I remember hearing my mum say ‘Oh, she’d give you the shirt off her back. referring to a friend who would help anyone and everyone, whenever she could. The saying stuck with me.
As my teen years wore on in L13, I became increasingly aware of labels. I wore Bon Bleu, Sweater Shop, Fila and Nike Air Max 95’s. Our school coats were Helly Hansen and Sprayways. The lads all wore Rockport (in tan, obvs). Labels enabled us to fit in where it mattered. If you didn’t wear those labels, you weren’t cool, or in with the popular kids. It’s an age-old cycle on which we’ve all been on one side or another.
I looked more closely at how labels and their meanings change to us as we grow older. During the pandemic, labels such as Key Worker, NHS, Furloughed, and asymptomatic became more prevalent as we learned new ways of social acceptance.
Back in May 2020, Collective Encounters commissioned 10 new works by emerging artists. The commissions form part of its Above & Beyond project, and respond to themes of “community power” and “community action”. To fulfill my artistic brief, I combined the ideas of wearing feelings, labels to fit in, and labels to stand out and engaging with a community with human kindness at its heart.
I created a coat. It’s a run of the mill, beige trench coat that you’ll see on any street in any town or city, around the world. Men and women wear this style and its colour is universal.
I began collating input from friends and family, then on social media and then with my neighbours, local food bank, and volunteers involved with food hampers and medicine deliveries.
I asked the questions: “What does community power look like, to you?” and “What does community power mean?”. The answers to these questions, coupled with the labels, words, sayings, and phrases that have become the ‘norm’ during the COVID pandemic, then formed the pattern for The Community Coat.
The more I explained to people what I was working on, the more giving they were with their own experiences and feelings. Grief was an overriding theme as elderly loved-ones in care homes passed away without family members present. This gave way to rising anger as political figures were seen to be flouting the rules while funerals were watched through Zoom.
New behaviours and hobbies came to the fore. Family bike rides, street bingo, and making masks all got a mention. While riding the highs and lows of mental health on the Corona Coaster also featured heavily.
I used mixed textiles to recreate symbols old and new during this time. Black Lives Matter protests and moving tributes to the late George Floyd are there alongside nods to the International Space Station, our incredible NHS, and our city’s iconic architecture – surrounded by wildflowers, reminding us that the world revolved, without us.
From crayons and sharpies to embroidery, temporary tattooing, stitching, gluing, painting, stenciling, feathering, and caligraphy – The Community Coat pays homage to a city filled with passion, dealing with grief, injustice, and new normals, all while having each other’s backs.
My profound thanks to Collective Encounters for allowing me to do something different with a creative brief, and for helping me to bring people from my community together, during unprecedented times.
Thank you so very much to each and every person who generously donated their words to The Community Coat. I hope it speaks volumes about our lives during the lockdown.