Voices: John Fox

Feature in Issue 23-3 | Autumn 2011

John Fox in his own words.

I have always grabbed whatever was appropriate and available to reveal the poetry and make ideas concrete. I learn the necessary techniques myself or work with experts. I have never been led by style and I am amazed to find things we stumbled on naturally now institutionalised in jargon such as ‘site-specific’, ‘installations’, ‘applied’, or ‘cross-artform’.

A big question for me is, where does motivation come from? Our motivation has always been to make relevant art accessible. This goes from making glove puppet pantomimes as an 11-year-old (which I performed to children’s parties, for half a crown!); shifting the Trident sheds in The Golden Submarine in Barrow-in-Furness (1990) or Raising the Titanic in Limehouse, London (1983) as an allegorical intervention in the Thatcher years. In Limehouse we learned, on site, how to raise and lower tons of scaffolding into a dock twice nightly. It’s what we had to do.

I’m an ‘ink on my fingers’ artist. I enjoy working with my hands and using tools. In printmaking it’s rolling ink onto a chiselled board; in the kitchen gutting fish; and outside, in all weathers, trying to knock up a log store with 6-inch nails. If I sit at a computer all day I go bonkers.

For me, the old triangle of head, hands and heart is essential. I try to get below the top of my head and work with the brains in my fingers. Apart from the physical pleasure I am always surprised at the results. The poetry seems to somehow emerge. Our culture is, I believe, dangerously locked into abstracted concepts and phoney futures neurotically out of touch with what I would call everyday common sense reality.

The division between art and craft is false. Part of the problem now is that some artists have been persuaded to despise craft, are educated not to use their hands and prefer to delegate the actual making of their work to studio technicians.

I first used the term Vernacular Arts in 1991 when I wrote a provocative Plea for Poetry for the Arts Council’s National Arts and Media Strategy (NAMS). In asking where circus, fairground, street arts, carnival and indeed ‘cross-over arts’, as it was then called, sat in the Arts Council England (ACE) halls of ‘excellence’ – at that time they were non existent – I quoted Clarke Mackey, a Canadian filmmaker, who in turn quoted from Ivan Illich’s Shadow Work (1981). It’s a Latin term to designate any values that are homemade and homebred and of the people.

I believe that there are traditional patterns and methods of making art where the creative process is accessible to all and fully connected to the way we live our lives. Building houses, cooking, devising ceremonies, making parades, pageants, graffiti, songs, storytelling…

Contemporary art has become a professionalised, institutionalised, academicised and bureaucratised product impaled on the multiple horns of industry, investment, celebrity, careers, consumerism, pretend radicalism and media reinforcement. It’s as if a huge fossilised aberration, a static volcanic plug, has been dumped on the flowing rivers of tradition, where people’s history has been anesthetised. Our job is to sail round and beyond it. It is complicated. Popular and populist forms – whether through shamen or tricksters or Big Brother or the X-Factor – have themselves meandered between manipulation, wonder, exploitation and identification.

I merely desire a creative society where everyone’s potential is developed and everyone’s art is recognised as a participatory mode of knowledge and a way of being. Such a way might free us from our current state of unfulfilled economic conscription. A naive vision, of course, which won’t happen in my lifetime. But it’s important to try to achieve it.

We archived Welfare State International on April Fools Day 2006 partly because the pyramid of desks was squashing spontaneity and creativity and that was not why we joined. PAYE management, health and safety, tick box evaluations, community art as surrogate social work, output planning, and the expectation of touring repetitive product, for a start. Also because the tourist spectacle industry was whipping up more and more fireshows, and commodifying carnival into boutique spectator sport. The edge had gone.

We weren’t quite sure where to go, but guessed we had to look at climate change, ecology, shifting consciousness (ours and other peoples)… How to live a creative life and invent new ceremonies for rites of passage. The latter is the one thing still missing from the ACE agenda (which I had queried in 1991) – and yet funerals, marriages, separations, baby-namings and loss (of for example jobs, health and houses) are the certain milestones in all our lives, where a connected and even spiritually based art might help. Hence Dead Good Guides. Smaller. More focused. More hands-on, connected and necessary. More training of celebrants. More pleasurable.

One day at ACE there will be an artform relationship manager, in a new department of Applied Anthropology, who will be responsible for re-activating the sacred in the everyday!

The Weather Station project is the next stepping-stone on our continuing journey of discovery. Five miles and five years from Lanternhouse (the £2.2m lottery funded centre for the celebratory arts we generated in Ulverston) we acquired a derelict chalet on the edge of the west shore of Morecambe Bay. Once a wartime pigeon loft, it gave us space to fly again. We have reconstructed this wreck as a wooden house on stilts with a turf roof; our personal Ark. Following the end of WSI, after a harrowing 18 months of bereavement, we were recharged.

The tides with their magnetic tonnage of sea, the ever-changing horizon, the immediacy of extraordinary bio-diversity, all helped. Our creativity has leapt into new zones. Whirligigs of submarines, snapping wolves and golden salmon placed on the garden wall, (with techniques filched from American Outsider Art) reach passing walkers. Books of poems and illustrated fables for children mark and celebrate the changing seasons. Gatherings round bonfires on the beach draw celebrants and scientists, academics, and trainee practitioners. With scientists we dug into the Bay mud and filtered amazing critters, minute molluscs, worms and shrimps – 29,000 of them per square metre, though microscopes.

All this data has fed into mythic films, drawings, etchings and paintings, and led to research into bio-degradable funeral urns to dissolve and disperse cremated remains into the tide. And more. The liberation has been astounding. For the time being under the title Fragments from the Weather Station we have put a lasso round this stage of our research to cart it into an exhibition and three performances in Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin by Coniston Water (Lake District, Cumbria). We are moving in there, temporarily, 140 years after him but still quote his best known aphorism: ‘There is no wealth but life.’ Ruskin knew a vernacular thing or two.

The gift relationship offers one framework for an alternative economic structure, an alternative to capitalism constipated as it is on money and growth. Marcel Mauss set us thinking with his analysis of exchange in archaic societies, Lewis Hyde fleshed it out in The Gift, with his descriptions of the true value of art, and Richard Titmus in his book The Gift Relationship (‘from human blood transfusion to social policy’) showed altruism may prevail over selfish profiteering.

Whenever we have the opportunity we exchange our skills for goods and knowledge. I wrote a poem for topping out a warehouse in exchange for a carload of firewood. Sue [Gill, Fox’s partner in life and work] designed and officiated at a hand-fasting ceremony in return for a wildlife photoshoot of bugs and birds around the Beach House, and I swapped a drypoint etching (of a desperate man on a bike) with my dentist for a tooth extraction. Visitors work on our garden in return for seminars on art and society. We regularly make individual hand crafted artworks for friends’ special occasions. Only yesterday evening (3 September 2011) for a tenth wedding anniversary, in a magnificent decorated yurt, we performed a 15-minute shadow play, designed and directed by Hannah Fox.

We are amongst the most fortunate people on the planet. We have gained some peace of mind though connecting with a place, with what used to be called nature, with our talents and with our family and friends. All good ‘Occasional Remedies’ (the provisional title of our next book). Nowadays underlying family structures are shifting. Networks of friendship both actual and virtual may well have more meaning and be more liberating than traditional blood bonds. For us however, with huge luck, we have maintained close family connections. In 2012 Sue Gill and I will have been married for 50 years. Dan and Hannah, our adult offspring, live close by. We have three grandchildren – one nearly eleven, one eight and one nearly three. We are all artists/musicians. We vigorously maintain our individual journeys, although we support each other, especially our wild imaginative fledgling grandchildren from whom we always learn.

In Welfare State’s first manifesto in 1968 we maintained we were seeking ‘an alternative, an entertainment and a way of life.’ We always, variously, waltzed round this tripod. But today, after four decades, when our family ceilidh band is stomping, I am in paradise. I reckon then that our art has indeed become a way of life and there is a welcome for a seventy-year-old lumpy accordion player.

I fantasise such belongings might occur on everybody’s doorstep. A welcome, wherever, for every lumpy obsessional grumpy, (if not cross)-artform granddad. Why not?

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Issue 23-3
p. 24 - 25