Nige' Ollis

Photographer and Writer

There Really Is A Hell On Earth. I’ve Been There…

It’s called Tulsa, Oklahoma in summertime!

When Michelle and I first discussed the possibility of the Where The Land Meets The Sea exhibition, after the proposal was accepted in December, for various reasons I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come. The only realistic possibility, with my teaching commitments, would be to coincide with our school summer holiday here, in August. I seem to vaguely recall Michelle telling me it would be warm in August. But it was now January; a distinctly chilly January. “I can do warm.”

When my plane from London landed in the Minneapolis [or, as the pilot continually insisted, The Twin Cities: as I later discovered, the name given to Minneapolis and St. Paul – the two distinct cities that face one another across the St. Croix River] it was a balmy 89 °F. And, after leaving the wettest summer in over 100 years behind in England, my inner thermostat smiled contentedly. Two hours later my connecting flight landed in Tulsa. As I got off the plane I thought I was downwind of the engines. The stewardess piled some flour into my palms and I walked through the boarding bridge – essentially, a non-air conditioned metal tube with carpet – and as my forehead sweat dripped into my upturned hands, in the 20 seconds that it took me to reach the terminal, I had bread.

Tulsa summertime airport arrivals bread

Even at 7:30pm, it was 109 °F! From that moment on, the temperature rather set the theme for the week. On Thursday, Tulsa was the second hottest city on the planet, just two degrees cooler than Baghdad. I’m sure Michelle used the word warm to describe the summer, she insists it was hot. I now simply insist that Tulsa, too, has a twin city: The Gates of Hades!

 

Not my golf card. Actual air temperatures for the week!

And, of course, you’re right, with an introduction like that, this blog could conceivably drift on longer than a, uh, Sunday mass delivered in a specially decreed month of Sundays with on-going, compulsory mass! [A’yup, even longer and discomboulatingly disconcerting than that metaphor. And this sentence!] And it’s also probably one of the reasons why it’s taken me so long to start writing! So… relax! I’ve decided to go for supremely edited highlights. [Ed: actually, this still goes on for quite some time! But I’ve still barely even scratched the surface.]

Just know this: it was one of the most extraordinary weeks of my entire life. And I will be forever grateful to everyone that made it possible – more of which later.

The Monday of my arrival will always be fondly remembered as the day my bladder exploded. [For anyone who may’ve missed this previously reported tortuous episode: Click here]

Tuesday began at the framers and the wonderfully helpful Susan and Tom. We left all my images in their safe hands and drove to Michelle’s studio to meet James Watts, the arts journalist from Tulsa World who, the preceding week, had asked Michelle for a possible interview. It was there James witnessed me seeing Michelle’s paintings for the first time: they are so beautiful; sadly, flat photographic images will never do their complex textures any justice. A few minutes later, lost in the paintings, we realised James was being inadvertently ignored. And I believe he had a deadline to meet! Despite the jetlag, and me still in desperate negotiations with my brain to join my body in its new time zone, the interview was really enjoyable. The photographer’s presence, less so. Photographer’s, eh? Don’t you just hate them and their intrusive lenses?! You’d never catch me taking photos of people when they’re… Ahem.

Wednesday and we don’t appear in the arts’ listings in the morning paper. Maybe we missed the deadline? We go and pick up my framed images from Susan and Tom and I’m really delighted with what they had done. The previous day they, and Michelle, had also persuaded me to title, sign and make them limited editions.

Photos by that Michelle person

I begin to feel a little like an artist. Weird. We then drive to the TAC Gallery and meet Steve Tomlin who’s going to help with the hanging.

Steve Tomlin and a bowl [left]

It was really useful to have that additional, third-eye perspective from someone who’s hung so many exhibitions; juggling and moving things around; in pairs and/or stacked. We were always a little tight for space, but then hit on the perfect compromise.

We also have some fun putting up the vinyl lettering on the curved end wall. Well, that is, I was mostly confused by the procedure, and a little scared, as I watched them begin their ‘You only get one chance at this,’ before I leap up on a chair to stop the whole lot peeling off the wall! Then, as I realise how it works, I suddenly become aware that I’m up there on my own! “You’re doing a great job.” Uh, thanks!

The vinyl lettering tensionfest. All that top lettering is individual letters!

A couple of hours later and we quite literally just finish up as the cleaners arrive and Michelle and I leave. And it later dawns on me; I hadn’t really taken it all in.

Thursday and I come down to breakfast to be greeted by Michelle smiling broadly and asking me if I recognise anyone on the front of the newspaper.

 

No, not that Colin Farrell nobody. Above him…

No, it’s not photoshopped [I would’ve got rid of my curious jetlag quiff!], this actually happened!

 

I then open to the following page and look on utterly bemused – as Neil Young and Melissa Etheridge become mere bit players to the breaking arts news. And so the week begins to take on its increasingly surreal arc.

Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs and call me Stephanie!

You can also see [and easily read] the online version of the interview here

Have I mentioned the temperature, yet?! Thursday was the hottest day at 114+°F [just a little warmer by point something from the previous day]. We went down to the Whole Foods market and found someone had dropped a smoothie onto the surface of the car park: it had baked solid!

 

Smoothie becomes tarmacadam cookie on contact!

[Note: You can click on any of the images in this blog to see the larger version.]

One obvious side-effect of the heat was, basically, not being able to go outdoors, or die! Essentially, the week was characterised by air-con hopping: from house, to car, to building… And Tulsa took on this almost unnerving air of desolation, like some chemical weapon had long since removed all human life but had left all the buildings untouched. We would often drive around these streets, equally as often deserted of cars, but it also gave rise to what will live in my memory for a long, long time…

Drive-by shooting

Yes, I now have my own revised definition of drive-by shooting. For the most part, it was virtually impossible to step outside the car for more than a few moments, so Michelle and I often found ourselves driving at night, and I started taking images from inside the moving car. [So much for my old style of photography and its near obsession with pin-sharp frames!] As darkness fell, for me, it was like being in my own movie: Ólafur Arnalds exquisitely atmospheric instrumental music providing the soundtrack to the Americana film that was drifting right past the car windows. [At some point I will process more of these and set them to the soundtrack.] It all simply added to the surreal nature of the week.

 

An in-car movie coming to an imagination near you soon

 

But nothing had quite prepared me for Friday, the opening night. All week I’d been cursing Michelle for, not so much suggesting we do an artists’ talk, but telling me we were doing an artists’ talk. Those that know me well will know I’m not the most comfortable when it comes to public speaking. Think: less graceful swan on the surface with a lot going on underneath, more, uh, frog in a blender. I’ve done it twice before: at my wedding; and as a surprise to Sue at her 50th birthday party. On both occasions I felt like I might hyperventilate strongly enough to suck everyone out of the room!

At about 3pm a degree of sanity gripped me and I began to frantically scribble down a myriad of cross pollinating words that my exploded hive of bees’ brain had been hurling about whenever I woke up in a cold sweat during the previous nights!

We eventually made our way to the TAC Gallery after a delicious meal. I say we, Michelle didn’t eat anything; too nervous about a certain opening night and an artists’ talk she’d arranged!! The talk was due to begin at 6:30pm and at twenty past it all seemed disconcertingly quiet. Perhaps the tumbling temperatures had some bearing? Five degrees colder than the previous day, I was worried that people would notice the chill in the air and it would keep them indoors!

As it happened, the room was packed, and the talk went surprising well. That is, I’m assured it went well… I certainly enjoyed handing over to Michelle for the second part and almost relaxing, but all I really recall of my own contribution was people staring at me, my mouth moving, words falling out, and all the while my insides churning like a steam train on a fairground ride shortly after being hit by a tornado. [I don’t have an image for that. Anyone?] Apart from that, I really enjoyed it!

The evening was a staggering success, though. Michelle later suggested it was one of the busiest opening nights to a show she can ever remember seeing. Undoubtedly helped by James Watts’ fabulous write-up in the Scene. And possibly the curiosity value of the Englishman in their midst? The week had already been remarkable, but this was the after-sun icing on the already moist currant bun of the sun. I took my camera with the intention of grabbing some shots of people interacting with some of the work. In 3+ hours, I got to take one shot!

 

Er, some people what came to see me. [And one or two who came to see Michelle, I think]

It was simply too busy! A professor of photography from Pittsburgh said it was one of the best shows she’d ever seen! “I love how you break all the rules!” And another [a director of a Visual Arts Centre] hinted at a possible future offer of an artist in residence!

Uh, this isn’t my life?

This blog could continue getting seriously out of control, but one thing that I’m really pleased about, on reflection, was that I stayed for another few days after the opening night. Everything seemed to build to that point, but then everything after was simply drinking it all in and savouring such a special adventure.

On the Saturday night Michelle and I returned to do the evening’s gallery sitting. People came back for more lingering conversations that weren’t possible from the previous night. Barbara will live long in my memory: circa 70 years young [she was a bit cagey about that! : )], she told me how listening to me had inspired her like no one had ever inspired her before. And that she would now embrace her photography with a renewed passion “I never understood why my images weren’t reflecting my intention. I now know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. I was too focussed on technicalities and forgot to see with my heart.” So, so touching and deeply humbling in equal measure.

 

Jessica and her giant hair dryer

Michelle ordered the most delicious takeaway from the restaurant on the corner and people kept dropping by and sharing our evening. Most notably Jessica and James [winners of my Lovely Couple of the Week award – knocking Dylan, Michelle’s eldest son, and his double bass into second : )].

James and his favourite wall

And especially Ray, who not only graced me with his affable presence and good humour, but went beyond the call of duty to open my bottle of beer!

 

Ray and his English beer bottle openers!

And then the rain came. A quite extraordinary half an hour, as a thunderstorm ripped across the city skyline and flooded the streets with static electricity and rampaging torrents of water inches deep. Another half an later, the extraordinary heat had evaporated it all. Gone. A memory.

The Gates of Hades experiences flash flooding

 

And later, when things got quiet, that moment I missed after the hanging on Wednesday, when I was able to sit on the floor, my back against the wall, looking around the now quiet gallery and slowly drinking in what we had achieved. Together. Alone. It worked. It really worked. And Michelle and I captured some final memories:

Attempting to appear artistically aloof

Michelle seemingly missing the point. I’m a serious artist now!

 

Sunday duly arrives and begins with breakfast out at Cheri’s wonderful The Coffee House on Cherry Street. [ My second home for the week.] Then, later, one last chance for adventure and a road trip. So, Michelle and I drove out to the mighty home where the buffalo roam: The Tall Grass Prairie.

 

Americana road trip!

A buffalo contemplates charging [for the image rights]

And, after following the horizon line for a couple of hours as the sun began so sink slowly in the sky, the realisation that Michelle didn’t actually have a clue where she was any more. We were on deserted, stone track roads, in the back of beyond, no sign of humanity and an iPhone GPS that said “Don’t look at me. I don’t know where we are,” before promptly turning itself off completely! As we drove on, crossing and re-crossing the same creek [the same bridge?!], the whole atmosphere began to take on the unmistakable air of such American classics as Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

“Cow!” Every now and again, these dozy animals would loom out of the blackness standing right in the middle of the track. And why have black cows out and about under these conditions? Crazy! At least provide them with hi-visibility jackets!

I could feel Michelle’s sense of humour beginning to fade when the iPhone’s GPS mercifully blinked back to life. We were now virtually in Kansas! [At one point we drove for miles right along the state line – thinking the GPS had lost the road, then realising the dotted line was actually the road/border.] And the first sign of human habitation that we’d seen for over an hour, coming up on our left… a cemetery. In the middle of nowhere! Maybe it was filled with the bodies of people who got lost on these dirt track roads in the past? I kept my eyes peeled for cows and gap-toothed yokels with shotguns before we finally found tarmac again. And still another near two hour drive south to get home.

Still, I guess it wouldn’t have been the all-American road trip experience without at least the fear of being strung up on meat hook in a basement.

Monday comes [and we’re still in the car… just!]. But Monday proper eventually arrives and the great American adventure creeps to departures. An emotional farewell hug and I take the internal flight to Detroit and for one last time, on an otherwise quiet plane, the stewardesses become absorbed in my story. After about 15 minutes one of them turns to the guy in the seat opposite me. “So, what’s your name?” Bob. “And what do you do, Bob?” I’m a safety director for an oil company. “Ye-s-s… Well, if you’re not going to be interesting, Bob. Tell us more, Nige’…” Okay, so maybe you had to be there! : ) But I also subsequently go on to tell them about the OK Tour Fund and one of them begins to well up. When I later get off the plane she smiles as I approach and says, “I want to give you a hug.”

Then, finally, just when I think my week can’t get any more surreal, there’s still time for one last memory:

 

Soon to be boarding at Gate 36…

I take my seat at Gate 36 and wait to board the final leg of the homeward journey to London, when my phone mysteriously bleeps an incoming text message. It’s Michelle “Come back! Just got a call from the TV company. They want us to do a live interview with them in the morning!!!”

And that was my week in hell. Heaven.

And, of course, this whole adventure, and this blog [assuming any of you read this far!] is dedicated to the special people that made this happen. To the TAC Gallery and everyone in Tulsa that made me feel so welcome. To Michelle and the whole special, creative experience: if the journey ends here, I’ll never forget the power of riding that wave before time inevitably sees it reach the shore. To Sue, for encouraging me on and conceiving the OK Tour Fund when all seemed lost. [And particularly for the sacrifice of staying at home and having to suffer my endless, rampant, random memory spillage enthusiasm!] But, especially to the people that really made this trip happen for me …

Alan & Arlene, Andrew & Karen, Dave & Su, Michelle & Rich, Rachel & Ivor, Rob, Sally G, Sally R, Steve & Claire, Sue & Tim, Glen, Mandy, Cat, Christa, Julia, Julie, Margaret-Ann, Marianne & Torbjörn, Nick Kelly and the BT Benevolent Fund [Ruth! : )]. Contributions large, small and all stops in-between, all heartwarmingly received and all making a difference. Thank you. I’ll be forever grateful. Never forgotten.

 

13 Responses to “There Really Is A Hell On Earth. I’ve Been There…”

  1. paul mccoubrie

    Sounds like an amazing and possibly life-altering trip. Remember your old fans when you go stellar

    Reply
    • Nige' Ollis

      Paul! You’re not that old, are you? 😉 Don’t worry, I’m still set to be little more than a legend in my own lunch break! Hopefully find time soon – now mad busy again back at the educational coal face – to start processing some new images [from Oklahoma, two London trips and Westonbirt’s Treefest!] on Flickr again, too.

      Don’t be a stranger! And I’m still threatening to meet you for that coffee some time, too. Then I can bore you to death with how potentially stellar I am! : D

      Reply
  2. Maria J Torre

    Dear Nige:
    So glad to see that you have become a renowned artist!. I’m sure there will be many more successes for you. You deserve it.
    Used to be one of your “Flickr friends”, now I’m your fan too 😉
    Sincerely,
    Marian.

    Reply
    • Nige' Ollis

      It’s you! 🙂 Are you still on Flickr? I’ve got a bit of catching up to do over there. But I’m glad you found me. Missed you.

      Reply
  3. Giuliana

    I finally read your blog…you are truly amazing, and someone I admire. Keep them coming, drive by, hot, cold, still. Any which way or form. I also tweeted your blog…it’s fantastic~ Congrats for al ll the good fortunes that have come your way and that many more that await… ~Giuliana~

    Reply
    • Nige' Ollis

      Hi Giuliana. Er… I’m not that amazing, really. { Insert slightly awkward at accepting compliments emoticon here } But thanks for the support. That’s too kind. And thanks for tweet, too: explains the sudden rush of blog views yesterday, it seems. [ Uh, when I say sudden rush, getting 50+ views in a day, rather than the usual they come in pairs, is considered a rush around here! 😉 ]

      Reply

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