Chris was an amazing woman whom I was privileged to know as a teenager and young adult. She was boundless in her energy and enthusiasm, and in her skills. From the start Chris always loved soft toys and made many of her own. I admired one that she had with her when we first met (I joined my mum – a teacher- and her pupils on a trip to Germany), and shortly after our return was given one of my own; a Snoopy, beautifully modeled and sewn, dressed in dungarees and a hand painted t-shirt. In the pocket of the dungarees Snoopy had his own hand-made passport. Marvelous craft skills for anyone, let alone a 14 year old.
I met up again with Chris when I went to do A’levels at the High School. I felt a bit intimidated anyway, coming as I did from the local Secondary Modern. Chris was the star of the school, a real all-rounder, who even the teachers spoke of with moist eyes and hushed tones. I felt shy and kept my distance, but our friendship was re-ignited on a school trip to Amsterdam. Chris’s boundless energy and voracious interest in all things made her a perfect traveling companion. At the end of the trip we were inseparable, laughing, laughing, laughing so hard on the bus home – In retrospect I wonder whether the teachers suspected us of smoking grass, but we were just heady with the joy of life.
Sunshine and laughter in Amsterdam. Chris kneels above me as I sit on the ground.
After Sixth Form we spent a year together on an Art Foundation course in High Wycombe, which was a great release from the constraints of school, and much fun. However Chris and I lost touch when she went to Bristol to study Graphics, and I to London for a Three-Dimensional Design degree. The truth is, I took on the mantle of an 80’s feminist and didn’t approve of her boyfriend at the time. He was a biker, who (I felt) treated her just like ‘a blonde on the back of his bike’. Now I think back on it, I realise that that was just what Chris wanted, or even needed, at that point. After years of people marveling at brain, she just wanted to live life for a while with the wind in her hair.
Chris got in touch with me again several years ago, having seen me carving on an episode of Time Team. It was great to see the woman that she had become. Her work was an intriguing blend of art and business, using art to resolve problems in the workplace. My reaction was to think ‘This sounds bloody mad….but knowing Chris, it’s brilliant’. And it was.
Our next encounter was much sadder and stranger; An unexpected email to say that she had a brain tumour and wanted to commission a memorial for herself. It was a big shock, and a very curious experience. I have carved many memorials (that’s my bread-and-butter) but never made one with and for a friend -still very much alive, and yet dying.
When I carve memorials I focus very much on the person; the person who is being commemorated, and also the person who has commissioned the piece. There is much dialogue between the commissioner and myself so that the final artwork is the distillation of their memories, a simple statement of their love. On this occasion it was Chris who wished to leave a statement to those she left behind, and I think to have done so is a wonderful and powerful gesture.
Although we initially discussed installing the memorial in her local cemetery, Chris soon concluded that a conventional headstone would be ‘too Munster-like’ to suit her taste and character. The conventional rectangle of stone wasn’t the parting gesture that she was after. She considered her own cottage garden (an increasingly popular choice which allows the memorial to be part of family life), but in the end chose a lovely site, a short distance from the home she shared with her husband; The Matara Center, a place of retreat and celebration in the grounds of an 18th century manor house, where Chris and Geoff had recently celebrated their own wedding.
Chris had a lifelong passion for bears so it was obvious that a bear would feature somehow within the design. She sent me a photo of a small greenstone ornament of a polar bear, given to her by her husband. The small carving had great presence – striding forward, it looked like a strong, sassy mama-bear going purposefully about her business. It was such a great emblem for Chris that we decided to let this bear do the talking, and keep the rest of the memorial simple and uncluttered. On one side of the block of stone was written ‘CHRISTINE SEELEY – artist’, and on the other her dates, as in my layout below.
I suggested that my colleague Dave Crowe should undertake the lettering. As a graphic designer Chris had always admired the work of Eric Gill and Dave was apprenticed to Gill’s apprentice David Kindersley. Christine loved this connection.
In the end Dave Crowe carved the bear too – Chris wanted to see the memorial before she died and I, unable to put aside other commissions, asked Dave to push ahead. Having worked with him for many years I knew the memorial would be in expert hands, and he skilfully translated the design into stone. All that was left for me was to soften the edges of the base and to whittle some of the features.
Unfortunately we were too late and Chris died without seeing her memorial. I am very happy that it is now in situ, ready for the ceremony that will be held later this month. This will be a two day event attended by two hundred people who will celebrate Chris’s life with art, storytelling, music and dance (- and mayonnaise making).
Chris was, and always will be, an original and inspirational figure.
And read the story of breakage and resolution