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March 23 2012

June 28 2011

Older cricketers' skills go on show in exhibition

Runs on the Board exhibition in Barnsley celebrates older people's contribution to cricket teams in Yorkshire

Test-match cricket is aptly named. It's a test of skill, strength, stamina and character. But cricket is played at many levels, and the second and third teams of amateur club sides harbour those whose ability to bowl fast and sprint between the wickets is a memory as distant as having a full head of brown hair. "They're still respected as elder statesmen because they know how to organise a field, rotate the bowlers and mentor teenagers still learning the game," says Andrew McMillan.

He's not an old cricketer; he's a young poet of 22 who has spent many a weekend afternoon prowling the boundaries of Yorkshire fields, clutching a notebook and jotting down impressions of these gurus of the game. Close by was documentary photographer Anton Want. McMillan's words and Want's pictures have come together for an exhibition called Runs on the Board, at the Civic in Barnsley, McMillan's home town. He is the son of performance poet and radio presenter Ian McMillan, who insists that the commission was "nowt" to do with him.

The Legacy Trust donated £42,000 to cover not only the fees of photographer and poet but also the cost of staging the exhibition and publishing a book as part of imove, Yorkshire's cultural programme for the 2012 Olympics. "The project is an artistic celebration of the character of cricket and the characters that play it," says the man behind it, Graham Roberts, a public art consultant still turning out for Wellington Gold in York at 63. "I felt that the money for the Cultural Olympiad was going mainly to youth and thought: 'Hang on; let's get older people involved as well.'"

Roberts has also organised the Grey Fox Trophy, a tournament between 10 teams of over-50s cricketers, women among them, to be played throughout the summer with a final at Yorkshire's county ground at Headingley, Leeds, on 2 September. Cricket is one of those pursuits allowing those of advanced years to stay active, he maintains. "You have to be alert or you'll get hurt, and you have to be fit enough to run between the wickets. But it doesn't demand circuit training and it almost invariably ends in the pub."

Sometimes it starts there as well, in McMillan's experience. "But being Yorkshire cricketers, they're desperate to win, even if they're in the third team. The old timers take it very seriously to the extent that they're constantly challenging the umpire's decision."

Sometimes, indeed, they're older than the umpire. And sometimes there are three generations of the same family playing for the same club, he says, before adding: "That wouldn't happen in any other sport."

Runs on the Board is at the Civic, Barnsley, until 31 July. The book of the same name is available from graham@runsontheboard.co.uk for £12.50, including UK postage.


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January 13 2011

The art of ageing

Art exhibition uses work of famous artists to challenge perceptions held of older people

Negative perceptions of ageing and older people are being challenged through the works of famous artists at an exhibition that opened today.

The show aims to celebrate and explore age and the ageing process. It includes works by Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Moore and Maggi Hambling, as well as newly commissioned pieces by three contemporary artists.

"Ageing is the most important subject on the planet," said Tom Kirkwood, director of Newcastle University's institute of ageing and health, which is behind the exhibition at the city's Great North Museum: Hancock.

"Life expectancy is the biggest thing that will change humanity in the 21st century. We face other major challenges of course, climate change say, but the fact our lives are getting longer is just enormous in its implications."

Degas had a progressive retinal eye disease from his 30s which, in all likelihood, contributed to the wonderfully blurred, hazier backgrounds of his later and better works, including the Ballet Dancers painting in the show on loan from the National Gallery.

Arguably, this helped secure his place in art history, with Renoir writing that, had Degas died at 50 he'd be no more than a footnote.

Renoir was so affected by rheumatoid arthritis that he couldn't hold a paintbrush in later life. Instead he turned to sculpture and employed a younger artist to form the clay following his instructions, as in the Mother and Child bronze in the exhibition.

The show is trying to shine a light on many aspects of a large subject. For example, the inclusion of Henry Moore's illustrations for The Seven Ages of Man aims to highlight the fact that ageing is a lifelong process that begins in the womb. Another Moore drawing is of the hands of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of Britain's most important scientists, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from the age of 24.

There is a striking Hambling portrait of her elderly neighbour Frances Rose, whose gnarled arthritic hands may scream pain, but whose face shows liveliness and vitality. A video by Jordan Baseman portrays 83-year-old eccentric Gordon Rowley – former president of the British Cactus and Succulent Society – who maintains a joyful verve for life and living.

"This idea that you've got to go quietly into a corner at a certain age is dreadful and nonsense," said the show's curator, Lucy Jenkins.

Three artists – Jennie Pedley, Andrew Carnie and Annie Cattrell – have collaborated with and followed scientists at the institute to produce works for the show. Cattrell observed brain autopsies before creating her works which examine how memory is stored and include sculptures of the hippocampus and amgydala in a brain-shaped cave.

Kirkwood and Jenkins said they hoped visitors would leave the exhibition with more of a spring in their step.

"I hope people will take a lot of positives from this show, that we shouldn't fear old age," Jenkins said.

"The fact that people are living longer is really good for the economy," added Kirkwood.

Everyone needed to think more positively about ageing, he said.

"The way things are going now, the vast majority of us are going to live to a ripe old age and if there has to come a point when you look in the mirror and you don't like what you see that's very undermining for your self-esteem and the quality of your life.

"This is why art, which can reach in to people and get them to think and respond differently, is so important."

Coming of Age: The Art and Science of Ageing is on until 2 March.


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October 31 2010

The old masters

How did senior citizens in Derby get to curate their own art show? Alfred Hickling on a tale of canvases and cake

It's almost closing time at the Quad gallery in Derby and a group of senior citizens are making some final adjustments. Sheets of paper have been taped together and laid by walls, to indicate where pictures are to hang. Each one bears a scribbled name: Nicholson, Caulfield, Hockney. A carpenter stands by, with a tape measure and a look of concern. "Apologies for the slight chaos," says curator Jane Bevan. "We've just made some major changes to the layout – and had to massively rethink the amount of wood we're going to need."

The "we" are a group of 55-to 75-year-olds who have taken over Quad, temporarily, as co-curators. As a new media gallery and cinema, Quad is known for showcasing the latest experimental video art, photography and installations. But the pensioners were quite specific about what they wanted: paintings. And paintings require walls. And walls require wood.

"It's been such an eye-opener," says retired teacher Penny Watson. "So much goes into an exhibition that you never really think about, such as what colour the walls are going to be. Even where the walls are going to be. We've had endless discussions about whether visitors are going to turn left or right when they come in."

Like the rest of the participants in the project, Watson has an interest in art, but no experience of putting an exhibition together. "I'm used to putting up displays of children's work," she says. "Now here I am discussing whether Gillian Ayres goes well next to David Hockney."

The curatorial committee was recruited, mainly through word of mouth, among regulars at the Midweek Treat (a reduced-priced film matinee with cake and biscuits) and members of the Quad Knitting Squad. Once selected, the senior curators were given the pick of Arts Council England's collection: a stronghold of some 7,500 pieces of postwar British art. Working initially with a vast catalogue of thumbnail-sized reproductions, the group whittled their selection down to the 20 pieces that appear in the show, called Objects of Delight.

Ann Eames, a retired librarian, says: "It was an unforgettable experience, going down to the arts council's store in London and having art handlers pull out all these pieces. The big surprise was seeing the actual dimensions of some of them."

In certain cases, the group got more than it bargained for: such as Joanna Kirk's monumental pastel portraits of her parents, Margaret and Michael. In reproduction, these seem like fairly innocuous full-length studies of an elderly couple. In the flesh, they are over 8ft high and extremely delicate. "We almost had to let them go," says Eames. "We found that they had to be transported at a 45-degree angle in separate trucks."

After some debate, the group opted to blow the budget – as the portraits were seen as a vital part of the show. "I think we felt they were emblematic of us as a group," says Joan Travis, a former councillor. "They're ordinary people of a certain age, yet they seem iconic and powerful."

With thousands of works to choose from, there were inevitably some disagreements. "In the end, we put it to a vote," Travis says. "We laid out reproductions of everything from the shortlist on the floor and everyone had 10 votes each." Perhaps surprisingly, the transvestite potter Grayson Perry came out a clear winner, with Gillian Ayres coming second.

"Not everyone in the group shares the same taste," says Anne Taranto, a community nurse, "but the one thing we all agreed on was that we wanted to create a show with a wow factor. We took some leaflets to the WI, who said they'd come if we promised them proper pictures and not a pile of bricks. But we've actually got some quite challenging conceptual work as well."

Once discussions about temporary walls have been concluded, the conversation turns to other matters, including who will collect guest of honour, Joan Bakewell, from the station. Approaching Bakewell was the group's idea and her endorsement has left tickets for the opening event gratifyingly over-subscribed. There is also the matter of a three-page email from the arts council containing assembly and care instructions for the show's most complex exhibit, Anya Gallaccio's sculpture Can Love Remember the Question and the Answer, which features two dozen gerbera roses that are left to rot.

"Did someone just say two dozen gerbils?" asks former Rolls-Royce project manager Graham Parry.

"No – gerberas," replies Marie Aldridge, a florist.

"Maybe we should have gerbils starving to death in an art gallery," Parry says. "That would cause a stir."

The instructions for Gallaccio's sculpture stipulate that the roses should come from Covent Garden flower market and must have yellow, not black, centres. Also on the list of requirements are four trestles, two buckets of water and a pair of scissors.

"Where do we have to get the scissors from?" Parry laughs.

"I had no idea art could be such an expensive business," says Joan Travis, who is concerned about catering for the 200 people expected at the launch. "At this rate, there'll be no money left for cake."


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November 07 2009

David Flusfeder: I've been framed

David Flusfeder's Aunt Anne suddenly took up painting in her 50s and he promised to look after her pictures if she became too frail. That time has come, but he didn't expect quite so many ...

About 35 years ago, a day or two after her mother died, my aunt, Anne, was impelled to draw a picture. She didn't know what she was about to draw; the pencil she was holding just moved as if independent of any intention or control. The following day, she drew another. There were similarities between her first two pictures and to the next ones that would follow: both were rudimentary, almost childish, in technique; both were of unknown women's faces; and both had a striking, disquieting power about the eyes.

Anne was in her mid-50s then, and had never shown any aptitude for, or much interest in, art. She was dutifully interested in the church (both Anne and her husband, Richard, had been converts from Judaism to Christianity in their 20s, and were introduced to each other by a priest who was instrumental in their conversions) and had a taste for less orthodox notions such as spiritualism, as well as for detective fiction and the private lives of the Romantic poets. She lived in Reading, where Richard worked in the postal department of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Anne was always the best company. I was born in America, but my homesick mother, who was from the East End of London, took me and my sister every year for summer holidays back to England, where we would go with Anne to boarding houses on the south coast. She was a delight to be with, made us laugh with little poems and songs, and was reliably generous with discreetly delivered coins to pay for slot machines on the pier.

After my parents separated, when I was six, we came to live in England, and Anne was an important feature in our lives. She had a mischievous gleam in the eye that had probably been there since she was a child. And she was, and still is (she is 91 now, blind and living in a care home near Newbury), entirely unpretentious about any of her enthusiasms. So when she took up art, when those first pictures led to more, as her style changed and developed, she just wanted to show the work she had made, share her surprise that it had happened and demonstrate how she produced it.

Quite a few times, I sat with her in her living room in Reading. Anne would put on a cassette of some light classical music, half-close her eyes, gently hum along and, usually with pastel on cartridge paper, produce the first swirls of colour. Shapes would emerge, often of faces that, seemingly without any conscious decision-making on her part, sometimes she would work over and sometimes work up. Her own taste tended to sweet pictures of guileless girls, so often she would accentuate the mouth and eyes, as if applying a prettifying lipstick and mascara.

Over time, she produced hundreds and hundreds of pictures. She used charcoal and oil paint as well as pastels, and produced abstracts as well as portraits. Few of her pictures are marked with a date, so it's hard to work out now which style came from which era, but some of them were extraordinarily good and all of them were interesting. A lot of the figures came dressed in archaic clothing, and when she began to exhibit, at galleries in Reading, Henley and Oxford, it wasn't rare for an enthusiastic visitor to declare an uncanny resemblance with a lost ancestor or a known figure from history.

Some of Anne Franklin's admirers claimed that these were "paintings from the other side" – souls caught in limbo, I suppose. Anne, although quietly sympathetic to this point of view, was careful to make no claims herself. She and Richard developed a little cottage industry. She would produce, he would frame; together they were very proud of her achievements, the work that was sold, the two that were accepted at Royal Academy summer shows, the admiring remarks in the comments book. The walls of their flat became filled with her work. Every surface, all of the space beneath furniture, was used to stack up her pictures, which spilled out along the walls of the communal corridor outside their front door.

Fifteen years ago or so, Anne and Richard asked me if I would – I think these were the words they used – "look after the pictures after we're gone". My sister lives abroad, Anne's only other nephew has never been that close to her and, from the beginning, I've always been a supporter of her work. (I wince and blush when I read some of my early and unforgivably pompous remarks in her comments book.) I, of course, promised that I would, without actually thinking ahead to what that might involve.

I'm writing this surrounded by my aunt's paintings. A few weeks ago, the call came from Richard's niece. Anne has been in a care home for the last couple of years. Richard, who has his own health issues, recently went into one as well. His niece, who had volunteered for the unenviable task of clearing out their flat, reminded me of my promise. I drove from London to Reading, and it was all very poignant, going through the nearly emptied rooms of a once cluttered flat. The carpets were gone, leaving cold concrete floors. Richard's most personal belongings had gone with him, and what was left were a few boxes of books, papers and knick-knacks, a vintage radiogram, stacks of chairs and the rest – possessions that might once have been integral to their lives and were going to be given away or sold. And, of course, Anne's pictures.

We carried them down, stack by stack, and used a shopping trolley to transport them from the courtyard of the sheltered housing complex to my car. And then I drove them back to London, the car – the boot, the rear seats, the front passenger seat – filled with them: faces and abstracts, brown and purple and orange, creaking against each other, some broken glass scattered around from where the frames had come apart.

She used to give nicknames to some of them. One was Blackie, another Rembrandt; in the front passenger seat, the Queen of Sheba looked at me with the sort of gaze that made Anne's enthusiasts think these objects were in possession of some kind of hidden knowledge. On the motorway, I tried to remember if it was Blackie or the Queen of Sheba who had the hair in which Anne was sure you could detect the face of John Lennon.

I work in a pleasantly shabby room, where I choose to have hardly any pictures on display, because I resist any visual or sensory influence to deflect me from writing. Now I have many hundreds. And a major task awaits. These pictures are going to smear and spoil unless I remove them all from their frames, spray their surfaces with fixative and store them away somewhere between acid-free tissue paper. Until I do that, they'll remain behind me, waiting for attention (a picture, like a story or a song, doesn't really exist unless someone is paying attention to it), or awaiting the gallery or art angel who will offer to store them in perfect conditions.

After I got back from Reading, I visited a friend who lives round the corner. I told him what I'd been doing and about the car filled with paintings waiting to be unloaded. "Just wait until she dies and then torch them," he helpfully said.

Really? Is that what people might do? And in that case, why would I have to wait until she dies? Patiently, as if to a moral simpleton, he explained that I had promised to take charge of her pictures after she was dead, so only then would I be within my rights to destroy them. I thanked him for his advice, and then asked a different friend to help carry the pictures into my workroom.

There are two issues here: one is that I like Anne's pictures. I've always been impressed by anything that is made that exerts a power, especially if there is a mystery to it. These pictures deserve to be looked after and they deserve to be seen. I had been expecting, when surrounded by so many, that my liking for them would be reduced, but the opposite has turned out to be true: in the company of so many of them, I like each one more.

And I gave my word. Maybe it's partly that I'm paying her back for her friendship to my mother and to me and my sister, the love she gave along with the surreptitious coins for trips to the slot-machine arcades on the seaside piers in family holidays. Not much sustains, but a promise is a promise.


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