‘Life, Death, Whatever’ – a celebration of the diversity of life and the universality of death.

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Last night I attended the opening of an exhibition called ‘Life, Death, Whatever’ at Sutton House, a 16th century National Trust property in Hackney, London.

It was a fascinating assault on the senses – art, music, herbs, cocktails and poetry, and much, much discussion. Activities and installations were set up throughout the house, including a coffin filled with balls (as in a child’s play area) which you could chose to lie in (I chose not). It sounds wrong, irreverent, and yet the exhibition was so right.

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Organised by Louise Winter (creative funeral planner sometimes referred to as ‘The Mary Poppins of Death’) and end of life doula, Anna Lyons, ‘Life, Death, Whatever’ looked at death and grief squarely in the face and prompted all manner of discussion. And that is as it should be, given that it comes to us all no matter ones tastes or sensibilities.

I have carved many headstones for individual clients, and over the past 8 years or so have perceived that the zeitgeist is changing. Instead of being asked to carve gravestones with names and dates plus decorative motif, I am regularly asked to make a sculpture…a private artwork that somehow expresses the character of the person they want to remember thereby.
Fewer people adhere nowadays to common traditions, whether through their religious affiliations or sense of social obligations within their neighbourhood. As a result of this (and some logistical/ red tape reasons) fewer people feel the need to mark the death of their loved one with a gravestone in their local church yard or council cemetery. Instead I receive a flow of commissions for  unique and highly personal sculptures, either to be kept within the hub of the home on desk  or windowsill, or in the garden, as a private, personal sanctuary – accessible both day and night.

It was a huge delight when, after years of resistance, I joined Twitter and chanced upon a whole crowd of individuals who are all, together or individually, following the same path -treating death with whole-hearted respect for the individuality of each person and how they chose to approach the end of their life, whichever path they chose.

‘Life, Death, Whatever’ and the movement that gave rise to this ‘in your face’ exhibition, is not morbid or irreverently ghoulish. Far from it, it is a warm celebration of life’s diverse vitality and offers a sense of empowerment to all.

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Further review of this exhibition

My friend Chris Seeley, and the making of her memorial.

Polar Bear in situ with flowers

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.

Chris Seeley Amsterdam

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.

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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.

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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.

Sassy bear Dave Crowe's lettered backSassy bear front view with lettering scan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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To see the full glory:
Chris’s professional website: www.Wildmargins.com
The Matara Center: http://www.matara.co.uk

And read the story of breakage and resolution