This week represents the conclusion of the touring of my two WW1 commemorative arts projects – Sand in the Apricot Jam and A Home Away from Home. Sand in the Apricot Jam has been touring nationally and internationally since 2014 and A Home Away from Home, created this year was exhibited to mark the conclusion of the centenary commemorations. Both the artworks and myself have had an incredibly journey since I decided to tackle these commemorative arts project – As it is the conclusion of the WW1 centenary commemorative period with the anniversary of the Armistice having recently been acknowledged, I thought it was a good time to reflect upon what it’s meant to myself and my arts practice to have created and toured these public interest arts projects.
I had decided to tackle these WW1 commemorative arts projects because my grandfather (John Culleton, known as Jack) had served with the NZ Mounted Rifles (NZMR) at Gallipoli and the Middle East during the First World War. My grandfather passed away when I was a teenager and as a child I had spent many a night and school holidays at my grandparents home (my poor grandfather enduring my dreadful piano playing as he was confined to a chair in the same room as the piano). I think because I knew him it had made it more accessible for me to tackle the project. Certainly not easier, as it was painful to imagine this man I loved as a young man in the middle of a dreadful conflict. It was hard to distance myself from this imagining but I do think that painting through the tears I shed for these young lives lost and damaged, my paintings were the stronger for it.
The historical research was important to these projects. I needed to understand what the conditions were like, what uniforms were like, what the state of the men were like, the campaigns they were involved in and their relationship to the horses they rode. There was no way I could completely understand what they had endured having never been in a conflict (thank goodness for that!). I could only ever come from a place of how I personally responded to what I learned and I can’t deny that this response was influenced by the fact I was a mother of sons, and a sister to brothers and I know that this impacted on how I painted what I did.
The men were skinny, malnourished a lot of the time & being in the desert (as the NZMR served in the Sinai & Palestine) they were tanned and often dirty & wore hats to shield themselves from the sun. The light conditions & colours needed to reflect their environs. I read official accounts and stories from the men themselves & it was the men’s stories that resonated the most with me. From this research I found avenues that would then influence what I chose to depict in the composite narratives of each work.
The journey for Sand in the Apricot Jam started in 2014 to mark the beginning of the centenary period of WW1 at Expressions Whirinaki in my home town of Upper Hutt, New Zealand. Since painting and showing Sand in the Apricot Jam there it has been exhibited at The National Army Museum, Waiouru, NZ; the Waikato Museum Hamilton, NZ; The Museum of Rishon LeZion, Israel; St Patricks College, Silverstream, NZ and finally concluding it’s exhibition journey in 2018 back at Expressions Whirinaki with the showing of one of the pieces there.
I never imagined, when I first conceived of the project, that these large scale narrative oil paintings would have such a journey. But what I did recognise quite early on, as I was painting way in such a public space as the gallery of Expressions Whirinaki, was that people connected with the narrative work. It seemed to activate an opportunity for sharing of stories and photos and memories for people whose family members had served, some who survived and others that had lost their lives. Not only those that served in the NZMR, but those that served in other regiments at Gallipoli and the Western Front. There were many who didn’t know that New Zealanders served on horseback in the Middle East Campaign, so I was able to share their story through the paintings. At each place the paintings were exhibited I met and talked with people about the NZMR and they shared their stories – it was the meeting of people and the exchange of stories and memories that has been the most rewarding aspect of this project.
I also never imagined that I would connect with the daughter of one of the soldiers who not only served with my grandfather but was a dear friend of his (his name was Alfred Victor Smith – Smithee to his mates) and that poems were written by Smithee about their time together. I am thankful and immensely grateful that because of the backing of all those that supported my crowd funding campaign that I was able to take Sand in the Apricot Jam to Rishon LeZion in Israel, a place that was special to the NZMRs. And that I was able to travel there too, during the ANZAC Battle of Beersheba commemorations, to see the work. I was also incredibly touched that The Right Honourable Dame Patsy Reddy, the Governor General of New Zealand chose to open the exhibition in Israel on my behalf. I was thrilled that audiences around New Zealand and those in Israel, including visitors from Australia & New Zealand saw and engaged with the work.
WW1 means so many things to many people. For me it was the incredible loss of young lives that was never far from my mind. The millions who died on the battlefields, hospitals, and ships, numbers far too great to get my head around. A generation lost and scarred by their experiences. Some critised me for painting about the war, but if they took time to look at the work they would see there was no glorification of the battle grounds. But their point of view I can respect.
In my second WW1 project on the NZ women who ran the Aotea Convalescent Home for NZ soldiers in Egypt, I wanted to celebrate kindness and compassion (something I fear isn’t extended enough today in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty and mistrust). A Home Away from Home celebrates the women who volunteered to care for our sick & injured soldiers and was exhibited at Aratoi museum and gallery, Masterton, NZ and WHMilbank Gallery, Whanganui, NZ during 2018 (the regions the women were from and these same communities that supported them and Aotea).
This group of 8 women recognised the importance of Kiwi women caring for Kiwi soldiers and set to to make this happen. I have a huge amount of respect for these women which is why I thought their story was worth telling. For this arts project as it was with Sand in the Apricot Jam it was connecting with people through the artwork that was so fulfilling. Just to think that through this I met with the relatives of these nurses who 100 years ago had cared for my grandfather when he was sick. It’s fair to say I considered that without this compassion would I be here today?
So now as I reflect on what the past 4 years with these projects has been like. I can openly admit that there has been tears shed for lives lost. I am of the belief that history should be remembered if only to save us making the same mistakes again and that through art these conversations can be had. I have witnessed the strength and togetherness that comes from shared stories and memories; and that communities, no matter what form they may take, are as important now as they were 100 years ago. I am proud I have been able to contribute to the New Zealand WW1 story and have done so in my own way. People have been asking me what next for me and my arts practice … perhaps it will be more Grimm’s Fairy Tales told in paint or perhaps something a little lighter, I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to finding out.