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Drawing Room Talk – Fay Ballard

Notes from a 15-minute talk given by Fay Ballard to artist members of the Drawing Room’s Professional Network, London, in September 2014.

I’m going to begin by describing some recent drawing and then go on to look at the research which underpins it.

I’ve been working on a series of Memory Boxes which explore my childhood memories. Each Box contains a number of individual drawings. I’ve selected objects from my life and drawn them either from direct observation or from memory. The first three were made between 2010 and 2012 and are called ‘Drawn from Life’, ‘Drawn from Memory’ and ‘About My Father’. I have just completed a forth, ‘Memory Box: Dead Mother’.

Each Box is accompanied by an inventory – a list describing each object briefly – in the style of a local house clearance sale. This reminds me of the time when I accompanied my parents to a local house auction to buy some furniture and returning with a small pink chair. For ‘Memory Box: Dead Mother’, however, I hand wrote the text and incorporated it into the picture.

I’m telling a story which centres on my mother who died suddenly on holiday in Spain in 1964 when I was seven. My father never discussed my mother with me after her death; she wasn’t mentioned amongst my siblings. There were no photos of her at home.

I took her watch from the room where she died and kept it hidden. It was only after the death of my father, the novelist, J G Ballard, in 2009, that I felt able to think freely and speak openly about her.

As I began to clear my father’s home, the place where I grew up, I came across photos of my mother and some of her things which my father had kept hidden –her powder compact, a box of agfacolor slides of her on holiday when she died, and a group of small black and white photos of her playing with me and my brother on the sands at Prestatyn in North Wales. For the first time I was able to study her face, her body, her clothes and her shoes. Did I have the same eyebrows and nose?

Through drawing, I began to give ‘voice’ to my mother -to make her explicit. I drew her watch and powder compact and I made pencil studies of her face, body, clothes, bag and shoes to help bring her back and make her concrete.

Then I began a process of drawing other objects which held personal significance which I’d found when clearing the family home.

I then made a second series of individual drawings, drawing objects from memory, followed by a third set of drawings of objects which represented my father. I’ve just completed a forth, ‘Memory Box: Dead Mother’. The drawings from memory are fragmented, improvised, out of scale, and at times false. I recall folding an origami elephant with my father, and made a drawing, but when I found the origami book afterwards, there was no elephant exercise. Had I imagined the memory or perhaps we didn’t use the book on that occasion?

So what are the ideas associated with these Boxes?

In her book ‘Evocative Objects’, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at MIT, says: ‘We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. She refers to Claude Levi-Strauss, who described bricolage as a way of combining and re-combining a closed set of materials to come up with new ideas. Material things, for Levi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with. Turkle’s book makes the case for the object as a companion in life experience.

Daniel Miller, an anthropologist working at UCL, goes further in his book ‘Stuff’ when he claims that objects not only represent us but also create us. He says: ‘Our houses, with our stuff are our autobiographies. In homes, people create themselves through stuff’. He quotes Hegel: ‘We are able to see ourselves in this extension of ourselves. We can come to understand who we are.’

Miller believes that moving house becomes a means to reshuffle relationships and memories by bringing them back into consciousness, by making them explicit and for deciding which ones to reinforce, which ones to abandon or put on hold. The paring down of objects transforms the memory from a more actual to a more idealised one.

The importance of an object as an emotional companion can be traced back to the toddler’s ‘transitional object’ as defined by the psychologist, Donald Winnicott. At around two and a half years old, the child begins to act out the child/mother relationship where its state of mind is partly me/partly not me. It does this through play-acting by choosing an object, such as a teddy bear and acting out small dramas with this object. So it might say ‘good teddy, have some more food’, or ‘bad teddy, time for your sleep’. The object becomes smelly and dirty, and its familiarity becomes a comfort to the child. It can’t be washed because that would change, in fact, destroy, the object. It would become alien.

And what of the photographs I found of my mother, these small black and white portraits, photos of her playing with me and my brother, and others showing her sitting with her family? These are my evidence that she existed in my life. In ‘Camera Lucida’, Roland Barthes questions the relationship between photographs and memory by suggesting that photos are the memory, can take the place of memory, or recreate ideas of the past through the present.

For each Memory Box, I have arranged my drawings inside shallow vitrines; containers where memories are ordered, edited, categorized, kept under wraps and preserved, hinting at the museum display or an archaeological find, reinforced by the inventory caption displayed alongside.

The psychologists, Martin Conway, Lucy Justice and Catriona Morrison outline the modern view of memory in ‘The Psychologist’ (July 2014). Memories are mental constructions. They represent only short time slices of experience, they are ‘time-compressed’, and because of this they will never fully represent an experience, rather the fragments derived from experience that they contain are more a ’sample’ of experience than a full or literal record. In this respect then memories are psychological representations and not like photographs, videos or other types of recording. Because of their constructed nature, memories are prone to error, distortion, confabulation, and even wholly false memories may at times arise.

Kathy Kubicki, curator and writer, in her essay on my exhibition ‘House Clearance’, references the French feminist philosopher and psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva. Kristeva writes on the importance of pre-verbal language between mother and baby at the pre-Oedipal phase, when the bodies of mother and child are in contact. Kristeva imagines the patterns or play of forces present in language before the baby can use language – the ‘pulsations’ ‘pauses’ and ‘rhythms’ as well as silence and absence . Kubicki notes that creatively, this space as described by Kristeva, is fluid and multiform, a kind of pleasurable creative excess over precise meaning.

Kristeva’s ideas may be connected to the work of Sally Jakobi, a Jungian psychologist I heard speak at the Centre for Analytical Psychology. She made electronically monitored recordings of 14 under 24-hour old babies’ sucking rates and their mother’ simultaneous heart rates at a London maternity hospital some 30 years ago. These recordings show that the mother’s heart rate frequently synchronises with the rhythm of her baby’s sucks or alternatively that her baby appears to suck in time with the beat of the mother’s heart. Thus, the human need to reach out and connect may start in the uterus. Perhaps I’m searching and connecting with my mother through the repetitive, rhythmic, mark-making of drawing?

Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic work focuses on the important relationship between mother and child, and for me, this relationship has become uppermost in my practice. In Klein’s work, the baby begins its development in the paranoid schizoid position, by viewing the mother as either good or bad depending upon the baby’s frustration with her when it is hungry, thirsty and so on. This psychic position is replaced by the repressive stage when the baby shows concern for the mother and develops the desire to preserve the mother from its aggression and destructive instincts. Restorative fantasies form part of this stage to resolve earlier depressive anxiety and this is named reparation which is viewed as a genuine expression of love for the mother.

This process of reparation has since been emphasised in writing on art and creativity as it manifests by means of creative labour on the part of the individual, most notably discussed by Hanna Segal and Adrian Stokes. For me, this means trying to reconstruct my absent mother through the act of drawing.

When my father was alive, I drew plants mostly and these often displayed an uncanny quality. The uncanny, Freud said, signalled the return of the repressed, which was one possible outcome of such denial.

September 2014

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House Clearance – Fay Ballard

I was born at home and delivered with assistance from my father on 24 August 1957, the day before my mother’s birthday. We lived at 23 The Hermitage, Richmond, Surrey. On 8 October 1959, my brother accidently broke a gas pipe in the nursery and we both lay unconscious, saved by our father performing mouth- to- mouth resuscitation.

At the end of 1959, the family moved to 36 Charlton Road, Shepperton, Middlesex. In 1964, we drove down to Alicante for a long summer holiday and rented an apartment ‘Casa Bonita’ in Campello near Alicante. There, my mother, aged 34, died suddenly of pneumonia on 13 September. We buried her in the City Cemetery in Alicante where her remains lie in the communal grave.

After I left home in 1980, my father continued living in Shepperton almost until his death from prostate cancer in April 2009. In May 2008, he was unable to look after himself and moved in with his partner, Claire, to her flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Needing to return his car to Shepperton for the final time, we arranged to meet at the house so that I could drive him back to Claire’s with a couple of bags of belongings and his typewriter. While my father was saying goodbye to his home of nearly 50 years, I was returning to the childhood family nest which I hadn’t seen for some 15 years.

Opening the door with the house key I’d kept all those years, the home had not changed since my childhood; the holiday flipper was holding the nursery door open, the dried lemon was sitting on the nursery mantelpiece, the plastic flower ornament was lying on my old bedroom window sill and our family hairbrush, still full of strands, was there on the bathroom ledge. Time had stopped still.

We didn’t visit the family house in Shepperton as my father liked to meet us in London, at our homes or in local restaurants. Over the summer and autumn of 2008, when he was well enough to travel in my car, we made fortnightly visits to the house together to pick up the mail, water the yucca and use the local cash point. As I reconnected with the old surroundings, and noted how the local high street, the library and the community hall seemed so small, he remarked that we’d found ourselves in Alice in Wonderland. After he died, I continued visiting the house to water the yucca and collect the mail until it was sold a few years later.

It’s a daunting task to clear a parent’s home after their death. In the house where we grew up, the past is present in each room, on the staircase banister, on the light switches, the window ledges, mantelpieces and door handles. We can sense the particular atmosphere of each space, hear and smell the past. As we make our way through the myriad of stuff which remains– the familiar, forgotten and unfamiliar, we discover and rewrite the past, calibrating our memories and thoughts, shifting the sense of ourselves and our life story.

It’s the little things – the broken ice bucket, the holiday flipper, the dried-up lemon – which resonate. These are precious because they unlock memories. Yes, I remember making pies in the garden with that Wedgewood bucket, mixing soil and water with a twig and feeling the cool mud slip through my hands. Yes, I remember how my brother swam across the bay in Rosas wearing that flipper as my father and I looked on from our apartment balcony at the tiny dot moving across the horizon terrified he’d be swept away by the currents. Yes, someone placed the lemon on the mantelpiece when I was about twelve and it remained there. Look at the yucca, once a small plant from Marks and Spencer which I’d given my father for Christmas 1976, and now a multi-headed monster overtaking the nursery and pressed up against the windows trying to break free to find the sun, fed on copious quantities of Baby Bio.

Discoveries are made too, some uncomfortable and painful. My father didn’t talk about my mother to me after her death in 1964, and we didn’t have any photographs of her on display at home. She became invisible, almost erased. All I had was her watch which I’d stolen, aged seven, from the bedroom apartment where she died, and I never told my father. Perhaps he knew I had it, locked away in my bedroom drawer for all those years and then taken with me when I moved away. Like an archaeologist looking for clues to the past, I found a golden Stratton powder compact on my father’s writing desk after his death and researched its design to the early 1960s. It must have been my mother’s because she powdered her nose with a gold compact.

I discovered a collection of tiny black and white photographs of my mother, infant brother and me on Prestatyn beach, North Wales, near where my maternal grandmother lived – all never seen before – thrilling and upsetting. Then a pair of small black and white photographs, one of my mother and another of my father holding baby me in Chiswick House Gardens. My parents are standing in front of a large stone statue of the sphinx, the man-eating mythical beast who guarded Thebes, and they look so happy, unaware of my mother’s death seven years later.

Importantly, the discovery of these photographs has enabled me to piece together a picture of my mother for the first time. I’m curious about my resemblance to her – do I have the same nose and eyebrows? I can now see the clothes, hats and shoes she wore, the design of her handbag, and her necklaces. And, yes, I did have two parents and I now can place myself with her as well as my father in my life story.

The Memory Boxes commemorate and celebrate these objects which stir the memory and unlock the past. The drawings of my mother make concrete her presence. The process of drawing and making marks on to paper brings her back, and makes her real. They reinstate her into my life.