Bird's eye view of the studio. A bike sits in front of a large drawing of a chapel, on the floor is a long piece of paper on which, in red ink, is written, 'Welcome to the Chapel of Life'
Welcome to the Chapel of Life, image courtesy of the artist

The People’s Chapel in lockdown: “we got here by hoping and dreaming”

Not long ago, John McDonald was exciting us with tales from his project at Chapel Arts Studios which saw him create many meaningful relationships and experiences with his participants. Then, we went into lockdown. Here, John talks about the ‘disbanding’ of the People’s Chapel and how creativity has survived, just at a distance.

Themes of Life was in full swing, full of Life.  I wanted to create artists, find them… finding themselves. It was happening.

…And then it happened! To them and me: lockdown.

I was told the exhibition and project were being mothballed; I’d not heard that expression before. But within a few minutes, I was trying to take it in and trying to convince my director, David, that I understood.

Something I do understand now, on this project with these artists, is just how emotional I am or have become.

I am trying to pretend to David that it is not a tear that he can see. Our People’s Chapel, as it has become known, is closing its doors.

CAS locked down before the Government, and I worked in shut-down for a week or two in the chapel with Kathy, my assistant, who is an artist in her own right.

A work-in progress painting of a woman in a purple dress carrying a coffin made for a small child.
Work in progress John’s portrait of Hannah Joyce of Andover Workhouse

It’s a scary time. No one knows how bad this will be, how many will die.

Is the government getting this right? Will we be safe? What about others who rely on family and carers?

After the government’s 23 March lockdown announcement, I got sent home up a near empty motorway.

I live alone on a narrowboat. I took my work home to complete: a seven by seven foot peregrine falcon flying high above our people’s chapel and beautiful burial ground, and a six foot painting of a young woman carrying the coffin of her pauper child.

Grief carried alone. Funerals without mourners. How that affected me as an artist painting her during this time, as a poignant reminder, this scene I am painting from over a century ago is happening now all over our communities.

John stands on a small step ladder to paint a large falcon, the sky behind the falcon is many shades of blue.
John working on Andover’s Angel before lockdown

I miss everyone. My boat seems to get smaller as the weeks go on.

The uncertainty. In isolation, I become quiet and stop communicating with most or all of my new friends and artist collaborators! It’s a bad feeling, like when I first became profoundly Deaf.

Themes of Life should’ve taken place, with the grand opening on 11 April. The date was getting near. Bad news everywhere. And even fear to go shopping. Births and birthdays missed. Deaths on the rise. Why should it matter, the grand opening of Themes of Life?

John takes a selfie on his narrow boat. He is wearing sunglasses and the sky is very blue
John on his boat.

But it did matter.

You see, we got here by hoping and dreaming, trying to shape our lives, sometimes, into something liveable at least.

Fantasies and daydreams are my way of thinking. Is this the mind of an artist? An artistic mind? As I assume, we are all like that fundamentally. Art is my world now. Not the world of art.

The surreal world of lockdown at times has been hard.

So, I played out my dream 100 times.

11 April turned out to be a beautiful spring evening, with the sunset screaming through the doors of the people’s chapel, just as I imagined. But I sat isolated on the bow of my boat in the same beautiful sunset. A nice bottle of beer and a tear, watching as my artists arrive, down the path between the trees and the gravestones. They are dressed to impress. And me bursting with pride. The chapel artists together.

John's narrowboat is docked to a green and vibrant bank. The boat is red and black.
John’s home, Cobweb.

A few more tears and a couple more beers.

I’ve introduced a few of the artists in my previous writing. So, we have passed our planned date.  Here are a few more of their thoughts about exhibiting in Themes of Life:

A close-up of an artwork depicting part of a chapel. There is impressive stone masonry surrounded by ivy.
Art by Nigel Chilton.

Nigel Chilton: “My picture is finished now. In terms of how creating it made me feel. I was amazed I was able to do it. I didn’t know I had it in me. I still look at it and wonder how I managed that.

“As to it being in the exhibition in September, knowing it would be exhibited, I think added pressure and pushed me to greater effort. I’m no artist, but I didn’t want to let the side down, so to speak.  Hopefully it’ll fit into the exhibition.”

Alex Marshall: “When painting this piece, I wanted to focus on a theme of life that means so much to me – wildlife.  After a walk around the cemetery it was clear to me that I needed to make ivy my focus. I wanted to highlight the ecological importance of the ivy that lives here, as well as the importance of all kinds of lives that inhabit the graveyard, not just those who are carved in stone.

Painting of some green ivy dangling in front of a pink and yellow background.
Art by Alex Marshall

“I care deeply about our environment and our connection to nature and this has always influenced my work.

“Finishing this piece has left me feeling eager to start another. It has reignited my love of painting and left me with lots of ideas for future projects.  I’m honoured to be part of the exhibition and can’t wait to see everyone else’s creations.”

Kathy Jones: “I’ve assisted John on lots of creative projects; this is the first one that turned me into a participant. I am indebted to John and the Themes of Life artists, for inspiring me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time in 20 years. It was more than inspiring: like being led by a pied piper, except each follower starts playing their own pipe to their own tune and the magical melody leads to the beginning of freedom, not the end of it.”

A painting of a woman in traditional embroidered dress resting on a sofa. On the wall behind her is some religious imagery.
Art by Kathy Jones.

Not all our artists are featured here and, hopefully, I can show you more before the Themes of Life exhibition.

Yes, we have a new date for our grand and socially distanced launch: 26 September to 17 October at Chapel Arts Studios.  The Themes of Life artists together again.

Hopefully,

J x