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.

 

To Pee, Or Not To Pee, That Is The Question

Well, not so much a question, as a potentially explosive necessity. The very epitome of a modern Shakespearean dilemma. Oh, how little I knew…

So, first time on a plane in more than twenty years, determined to give my hapless carcass its best chance of survival, I fly half way around the world with the words of my good friend Elizabeth ringing in my ears: get up, move around, stretch and, especially, keep hydrated. I diligently do all those things – particularly the latter. I drink like a camel who’s heard whisper of an impending assignment that might forgo water for a month. As soon as I reach Heathrow, I begin storing water and secretly wish I had a hump.

Throughout the flight, encouraged on by a growing headache, I consume a small village reservoir in Derbyshire.

And I pee on the plane; a lot. I visit the transatlantic Mile High Club, uh, lounge close to a dozen times during the flight. And each time I go in there, I wonder what would possess anyone to do such a thing: I barely want to touch myself in there, let alone anyone else! I’m even tempted to wander into first class and use their facilities: half expecting handmaidens feeding you grapes with one hand and asking ‘How many shakes?’ on completion with the other. So, imagine my surprise to find them exactly the same: cramped, odorous and devoid of any temptation to linger.

I eventually reach my destination and after one last visit – to the almost absurdly spacious airport toilet, where you might not be able to swing a cat around, but could potentially swing something around really quite large – I’m scooped up by Michelle at arrivals and we head back to her family home.

It’s about 7:30pm for them and 2:30am for me. I’m warmly welcomed into my new home for the week with offers of potatoes and other culinary treats. And although my body declines food at such a subconscious hour, I’ve brought tea. Yeah, I can drink their present! So, the adrenalin of the new adventure and new people kicks in and I drink tea. And water. And another tea. And more water.

It’s now midnight, and slightly hallucinating, I head up to my bed with a large glass of water; I fully expect myself to collapse into an all-consuming slumber, not unlike that Sleeping Beauty, uh, fella. And I go out, like a light, almost as soon as my head touches the pillow.

My eyes open; a fairly urgent need to pee. It’s still dark. I refuse to look at the clock and head to the bedroom door knowing the loo is just across the landing. The door knob spins in my hand, no sign of engaging with any mechanism. My bladder nudges my brain: we’re shifting from code ‘Urgent’, to code ‘We really can’t hang about here’ quite swiftly.

When I went to bed, I’d been warned to close my door, otherwise I might expect a visit from one of the dogs, Boo, who often sleeps with Michael – whose room had been given up to me – or the cat; one of those hairless things, which has an expression of being inhabited by the devil, even in broad daylight! Confusingly, the door latch was jammed open, and when I went to close it, the affect of the house’s air-con had the door gently swinging back and forth. After a little fiddling with the door knob, the mechanism pops back into life and I close the door. Click. Shut.

 

In the words of the Boston classic: More Than A Feeling…

 

Something really disconnects from the brain when a code ‘We really can’t hang about here’ shifts to panic, and I hear Scotty from Star Trek, deep down in my engine room, yelling “Captain, she cannae take any more! She’s gonnae blow!” I quickly scan the darkened room for anything remotely possible: a vase; a ceramic dish; a pot plant that would later mysteriously wither and die within a fortnight. But there’s nothing! I make one last pitiful attempt at opening the door and imagine Scotty jumping out of me wearing a parachute and muttering something along the lines of “Yer on yer own, laddie…” when I spot my large glass of water.

I drink it down in one go and pee into the now empty glass. I should think the relief was not unlike that felt by the Mission Control ground crew when hearing the voices of Apollo 13 after its tension-filled re-entry. [A doubly ironic metaphor; given that a misunderstanding prompted the crew to store all urine for the (rest of the) flight. Albeit, presumably, not in their bladders?!]

I look down and my relief is seemingly short-lived as my pee climbs inexorably toward the rim of the glass. I leave it as long as I dare and duly clench that muscle, and the pain immediately sears again. I glance around the room and see the pile of four towels that Michelle has given me, neatly stacked in a tower of descending size. I pull out the largest one from the bottom of the pile, straddle it on the floor and the last of me leaks into its welcoming folds.

I look at the clock: 1:40am. I can’t believe it. I clamber back toward my much needed sleep and resolve to deal with the situation in the morning.

And then, as sleep begins to rapidly fold back into my edges, the realisation dawns on me: I’ve just downed an entire tumbler of water. It’s only 1:40am. This is going to happen again!

 

A door knob, recently. [Not *the* door knob. That would’ve been far too traumatic!]

 

I reach for the bedside light and approach the fateful door knob. It’s a calmer situation, without the pressing urgency, but I still can’t work out what’s going on – all the while conscious of not wanting to wake the entire house. I’ve seen this in films. I get my credit card out of my wallet. It only works in films. I go back to slowly, and quietly, twisting and turning and have visions of the door knob falling off the other side onto the hard wooden floor. For the first time I allow myself a chuckle at the absurdity; of potentially being rescued at some point, with my glass of piss and a urine soaked towel. That’s a good way to make a first impression. Yeah, the motto here: never invite anyone to stay in your home you’ve only ever known via the Internet!

A couple of minutes pass and something remarkable happens: the door knob begins to tighten, the mechanism engages and the door creeps open. Thank God! Already I feel I could pee again.
Now approaching 2am, I creep across the landing – leaving the towel, rationalising the possibility of ‘accidentally’ dropping it in the toilet, or the shower, in the morning. I open the door, the light blazes into the darkness, and Dylan, Michelle’s eldest son, is standing there in his underpants! There’s a brief, understandable, awkward silence…

“Oh, hello… ” I offer into the deafening quietude, “Sorry. I just need to use the loo. Is that okay?”

And there’s another brief moment that feels like an hour – when I later realise Dylan is probably just trying to translate the incomprehensible word ‘loo’ – and I feel he’s simply staring at this strange English guy, standing in his family bathroom doorway at 2am in just a T-shirt and holding a glass of his own piss which threatens to spill onto the floor.

“Oh, sorry… I mean toilet. Can I quickly use the toilet?”

There’s another slightly awkward moment as we exchange places. I close the door and sit pouring the contents of my bladder slowly into the bowl – without use of a bladder. [I later discover, finding Dylan at 2am in the toilet wouldn’t be unusual: now deep in their lengthy summer recess, both him and Michael are only glimpsed fleetingly throughout the rest of my stay as they’ve largely become nocturnal!]

I return to a fitful, jet-lagged affected sleep. Morning comes, or something approximating morning in my newly adopted time zone, and I glance at the urine soaked towel at my bedside. Hmmm…

I later bring Michelle up to my room. Shut the door. Spin the door knob. She’s wearing a slightly disconcerted expression by now, but I tell her to imagine that pressing feeling of desperation. And then to open the door. She can’t. “Exactly!” So what would you do?

I told her my story. I do believe she may’ve wet herself.

Where The Land Meets The Sea

Making An Exhibition Of Myself…


All the details of the exhibition can be found here: TAC Gallery, Oklahoma

The adventure begins…

All week the build-up to the London Olympics has begun to gallop towards me too, resulting in last night’s mesmerising opening ceremony; a gloriously eclectic mix of ‘What on earth is going on?’, combined with stunning lighting and visual effects, humour, emotion and all the while elegantly chaotic.

And, just as the pomp and circumstance sets up the long awaited games, I’m jumping on a plane and disappearing half way across the world in the opposite direction! It all feels slightly surreal. This sort of thing doesn’t really happen to me. I’ve not even been on a plane for 20+ years. And, in recent weeks, with the slightly bizarre timing symbiosis, I’ve subconsciously begun interchanging the words London/Olympics with Oklahoma/Exhibition. And, with that kind of emphasis, you might be surprised how much this exhibition has been all over the news! Ahem.

So, on Monday morning I fly out to Oklahoma. Almost a year since its inception, Where The Land Meets The Sea : Together Alone, for so long a purl of dust on the distant horizon, suddenly rushes into focus. I wonder if I could persuade the The Queen to parachutes out of a helicopter for the opening night?

Reality. Dreams. Reality. Dreams. It’s become an increasingly fine line!

What makes all this particularly special is the way this has finally pulled together. Around Easter time it slowly dawned on me that the exhibition was a reality, and my personal reality was that I wouldn’t be attending. But, thanks to my wonderful wife, Sue, and her inspired and secretive cajoling and corralling of my friends and family in the name of my, disturbingly fast approaching, 50th birthday {whisper it!}, you’ve collectively donated almost 90% of the cost of the entire trip. And I’ve been left truly touched and humbled by the support that this idea has garnered; a collective gesture that will live with me for a long long time to come.

It’s been emotional.

And, of course, to Michelle, whose stunning, artistic interpretation of my photography throughout this past six months has been truly humble to witness. Together Alone. Michelle and I have never even spoken.

It will be emotional.

Oh, and it seems it’s been written in the stars! [Something Michelle sent me earlier this week via her iPhone]:

There’s also two versions of a book being released to coincide with the exhibition here: www.blurb.co.uk/bookstore/detail/3382214 [As well as an eBook version – in the bottom right of the panel on this link]

Portraits [Personal & Street]