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Garry Barker

I visualise the
ageing body in
lots of different
ways

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In Conversation

Garry Barker

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March 2022

Garry was born in the Black Country and grew up in Dudley. He left school at 16 and worked at a steelworks; he was an overhead crane fitter. However, he “used to draw all the time.” Eventually, Garry left work and went to art school to do a diploma. “It was so liberating,” he says. For a while Garry worked as an industrial interior designer, working on hospitals and shipping lines. He also redesigned supermarket warehouses.

 

Garry has lived in Leeds for many years and currently works at Leeds Arts University. He began his career there in his mid-twenties when the university was called Jacob Kramer College. He was recruited to set up a print department. Garry taught silk-screen printing, etching and many other art processes. Eventually he started teaching a foundation course in art and design. “I like talking about art,” he says. Over the years, Garry has inspired generations of art students.

 

He hasn’t always been paid to be an artist, but has used his creative skills in other lines of work. He believes that art can have a social purpose and can help people talk about interesting and difficult issues in different ways. “Artists help you think,” he says. We meet Garry to find out more about his art and ageing.

My frustration with
art galleries is that sometimes
you go in and think, “What’s this all about?”
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Your art is rooted in talking to people. Can you explain how this works?
 
A long time ago, I realised there was a problem with contemporary art. I’d been making art, but most ordinary people wouldn’t look at it because they wouldn’t go to an art gallery. I’ve always loved drawing. I live in Chapeltown and I used to draw on the way to and from work. I used to stand in the street, drawing.
 
I noticed people liked to watch me draw. Someone would come up and say, “That’s interesting.” They’d often think I was either a policeman or someone in authority – because I always drew in little black books. But once they realised I was an artist, they were reassured that I was okay to talk to. They’d say, “It’s like magic!” Once I got someone interested, I’d talk to them. “What do you think of the news?” or “What do you think about what’s going on?” Often the person would own the house I was drawing. Or they’d live locally and would talk about the state of the street: “Look at the rubbish here, look at how bad the lighting is.” So I had a series of drawings of the streets I was passing through. But I also had lots of conversations to go with them. I started making artwork that brought these two things together. I’d expand the drawings to include the stories.
 
You’ve done specific artwork about ageing?
 
I had a conversation with my next-door neighbour, who, like me, is in her 70s. She is from St Kitt’s and she told me this amazing story. When she was a kid, she was a runner. They used to call her “3-Speed Grey Pigeon”. Everybody in St Kitt’s had a nickname. Hers was because she could run short distances, long distances, and middle distances. But there was a problem, as she got older. When she was 11, she was picked to be in a race. And she fell over and hurt her knee – and lost the race. She had an argument with her boyfriend and not long after this, she moved to England. But this all remained in her mind. And she had this dream. In the dream, she goes to see God. She knocks on the door to God’s office. Inside, there is a giant desk. She can’t see over it but she can hear that He's there. “What are you here for?” She says, “I’m here to complain. You took away my charisma.” God says, “If you’d stayed in St Kitt’s, you were so beautiful and had so much charisma that if you’d stayed, you’d have caused so much heartache. I had to stop it!” She says, “You’ve also taken away my qualifications!” Before God can answer, she’s whisked out of the office into Nowhere. And she’s falling, falling. And she wakes up. The charisma bit was about the running. But the qualifications bit was about something else. I said, “Your family didn’t come over with the Windrush lot, did they?” She said yes. She told me her husband was having lots of problems with paperwork, to prove he was British. This was obviously worrying her.
 
I thought this was interesting. When I was a boy, I used to run. I loved that feeling of running down a hill, putting your arms out and feeling like you could fly. My neighbour and I realised we were talking about feelings from over 60 years ago, and from completely different places. I’m from Dudley and she’s from St Kitt’s. The feelings still lived in our minds, even though we were old people. It brought home to me two things about getting older: one is about how amazing memory is, how clear memories are, even after all this time. And the other is about regret and the ageing body. She had a heart attack shortly after our first conversation and was left paralysed down one side. And I’d recently been diagnosed with a heart problem myself. I’m on tablets. Suddenly, this whole process of ageing was important to my work. I didn’t know of any pieces of art that I like that tells me about this ageing process. How it feels from the inside - that the body you inhabit is getting older. These days, my school-friends are always talking about hip replacements and knee replacements! Our conversations are now all about this thing called a body that we carry around with us, and how it’s become more of a problem. Each year as it goes on it finds another thing that’s wrong with it! It’s a familiar story – we all know it.
 
How do you make art out of that?
 
There are various approaches. I think of myself as a material. I’m calcium and all sorts of stuff that swishes around in a big bag of seawater. So, I started just moving things around that dissolve in water. I take lots of bits (pigments, anything), dissolve it in water, then move it around. As it evaporates, it leaves certain types of surfaces. I also make ceramics. Somebody came to see me who had toothache. I’d had toothache and I’d made a version of it. We talked about how you visualise pain. I got the clay, twisted it and made a sharp bit. I realised I didn’t have to draw an image that looked like something, but it could still communicate an idea. But someone else’s idea of what pain looked like might be different to mine. If you see an advert on TV for a stomach pain tablet, they often show something like a knot. An entangled thing. But I needed something very different for a sore hip, or a headache.
 
The other part of the conversation with my neighbour is about memory. It’s amazing how detailed people can be about a street they lived in when they were 5, but they couldn’t tell me where they lived when they were 50. My parents moved house quite a lot when I was young. I made a series of drawings based on how much I could remember from the streets I lived in.
 
I visualise the ageing body in lots of different ways. At one point I started visualising it as something that could be entered in lots of different ways. Like in the mouth. Older people talk a lot about orifices. Your ears get bigger. More people get nosebleeds and problems swallowing. There are always problems peeing and pooing. The body gets more visceral. People fart more! And we can’t control it. We usually don’t talk about these things.
 
Is it that as you get older, you’re forced to pay more attention to the body?
 
You start to think about what time you eat, to make sure you can sleep. It’s about the corporeal weight that you carry with you.
 
How might you begin to make something visual from a feeling?
 
I’m talking about the body as a physical, weighty form. And we can think about that with clay. We are like clay. I start to take some clay and mould it in my hand. And I can make a shape that feels like the shape that I’m feeling inside. Someone I know has Crohn’s Disease. I sat next to him, making an object. He talked to me about how it felt and I shaped the clay in response. He said that Crohn’s Disease feels like it starts in the neck. So I made a sort of windpipe, a column. Then in the stomach, I made what looked like a big dog-turd shape. He said he got pains that were sharp, so I made some very thin spiky bits that come out. And I stick
those on. We talked about colour. At one point it’s purple, then it goes green, because he said it feels kind of gangrenous. Once I’ve got an object, I can draw from it. I’ve managed to get something externalised and physical out of a feeling.

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Ageing & Art Left: The Blind Leading The Blind, Right: Hand Arm Ache.

How do people respond to that process?

 

Most people enjoy it! They feel like someone’s taken an interest in them. “How does your pain feel?” We like to talk about ourselves! What came out of all these conversations was this idea of votives. At my age, a lot of people have frozen shoulders. I talked to someone about theirs and I made a shoulder for them with clay. “You know,” I said to them, “This is like the old votive thing.” The artist would sit by the side of the road, with a bag of clay. You’d go to the temple to pray about your bad leg. On your way, you’d go to the artist and say, “I’m going to pray to Artemis (or whoever) for a cure for my leg. Can you knock me up a quick leg that I can put on the altar?” And the artist makes a leg out of clay, gives it to them, and off they go. And they feel better! I realised I was doing something a bit like that. The person I made the shoulder for, they came back a few days later and said, “You know, my shoulder’s better!” I said, “How did that happen?” What had happened is they’d externalised the pain and put it into the object. I started writing a little ritual about these objects. It was almost like a game. “You tell me about your pain, then I’ll make an object. Then you decide what you want to do with it. Break it, bury it, or put it on the mantelpiece?” Some people gave it back to me, so I had the “pain”. But it did sort of work! Almost like a placebo effect. Then I deliberately made some votives. I had to be careful because I got some people who came to me thinking I could heal them. I said, “This is not about healing, it’s art. I can’t cure you!” So I thought I’d better draw the votive project to a halt!

 

Art can have a positive effect on health though, can’t it? Tell us about the cards you’ve made.

 

I took the idea of votives and turned them into packs of cards that you could give to people to play games about the body. A bit like Tarot Cards. I worked with an older people’s group I was part of called Life Hacks for a Limited Future. We’re a group of professionals over 65 – I’m the embedded artist. One of the women said there weren’t enough cards about women’s bodies, so I changed that. People had these cards distributed to groups. Older men, in particular, who didn’t like to talk about their pain and their bodies. But were perhaps interested in developing a card game. This was banjaxed by Covid so I was asked to put it online, which I did. But people wanted real conversations.

 

And you’ve made some artwork about vaccines?

 

I’d had an argument outside Cantor’s Fish Shop in Chapeltown. We were waiting to go in. I’d just been vaccinated, so I told this guy. He said it was a big lie, we’re all going to die, you know all those conspiracy theories? I thought, you need something to make you proud that you’ve been vaccinated. I came up with an enamel badge: a shield with a syringe in the middle. Locally, that went quite well! So now my art is a practical thing that might help spread the word about how good the vaccine is.

 

So there is a use for contemporary art?

 

My frustration with art galleries is that sometimes you go in and think, “What’s this all about?” I made the votives into charm bracelets, into jewellery. So I could talk to people as if their body was an art gallery. My parents were from the Black Country and they used to be interested in “tranculments”. These were objects you’d put on the mantelpiece – little ceramic frogs, that sort of thing. When I went to art college this was disparaged as lower working-class stuff. But I was lower working-class lad, so I decided to make tranculments instead of sculpture. I’m always wondering what I make as artist. The “art world” doesn’t worry me. The fact that I might make something that my neighbour up the road (who doesn’t go to art galleries) might like and find useful – that interests me.

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