I have struggled to talk about Grenfell because I am an artistic "witness." I made a deep connection with the estate and its gardens several years before I started working here on an art residency. When I was officially contracted to produce a film and mural in 2015, several residents kindly opened their front door and hearts to a stranger. I navigated a delicate path between authorities and residents at a time when the latter were in dispute over the tower’s regeneration. After the tragic event in June 2017, I handed over all my photos and films to the police as part of their criminal investigation. I gave a witness statement. As we try to understand what happened at Grenfell, artists and film makers will all have a challenging but important role to play alongside the media.
I’m trying to objectively recall how I approached making art on the estate when I was commissioned by the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) to create a tiled art work and short film. The TMO were impressed with my V&A Museum and RIBA funded residency on Silchester Estate. I convinced them that an open-ended, durational process would work far better in delivering the outcomes rather than the original two weeks envisaged. As it transpired I was on the estate for approximately 1 year 2 months. When the time is right I will talk about the film, The Forgotten Estate, in more detail.
The original plan was to design a large tile art work to cover an area approximately 3.6m wide by 2.2 m high in the newly formed ground floor entrance at Grenfell. This was to be created with the residents and children of the tower block. I was given a completely free brief as regards design. I decided to use large scale drawings as the blueprint. But as the drawings were so impressive in their own right, I decided to just stick with that as the completed art work. In total, 4 large scale drawings were made in the temporary lobby, on the elevated concrete deck just outside the tower and during the Grenfell fun day.
The design for the art work was inspired by the classic blue and white willow pattern used in pottery. I was constantly sketching in the ceramic gallery at the V&A where this pattern had caught my eye. I always envisaged using an image of Grenfell tower in the completed design and perhaps to have this framed by an equally large tree. I saw a flock of birds in flight as representing the residents energised by their newly renovated building. The sessions with the kids would allow space for their own images and experiences to be added. That was the plan. As it transpired, the most successful drawing was realised at the Fun Day.
The Grenfell Fun Day on 30 May 2015 was held mainly as a form of respite from the conflict taking place during the renovation. I was invited to attend and hold a workshop. A teenager looked at a blank sheet of paper. "What do we draw?" "Absolutely anything you like." Most children had the desire to draw or write what came naturally to them. The tower block they lived in. A girl picked up a leaf and sketched this. Animals started to appear. One wrote the memorable words: live, laugh, love. The cultural identity of the children also became a point of self-reflection with a Moroccan and British flag. The outline drawing in oil pastels was made by approximately 20 children and I then coloured it in.
The art work then fell into a state of limbo. I had shown it to the TMO who were happy and also took it to a residents meeting. This would prove to be my last engagement and memory of the estate in May 2016. In the middle of that meeting, shortly after I had talked about the art work, one of the residents had challenged me over my film and this annoyed another resident, whose tense relationship with each other I had observed before. They then had a fight, then and there, in the meeting at which children were present. It lasted for about 5 minutes. Blood had to be cleaned off the walls. I believe they shook hands shortly after.
I could understand how the residents were wanting to get on with lives after the huge impact of the building works. But the TMO? Why didn't they contact me again to hang the art work in Grenfell? I can only assume they were not pleased with the way my residency had developed, especially in terms of the film project. I held onto that art work for a year. After the fire it assumed importance as a visual and textual testimony to a destroyed community: Live, laugh, love. I'm pleased that this has been handed over to Grenfell United and is in the new community space for survivors and the bereaved.
I have now started work back on Silchester estate across the road from Grenfell. After the anniversary of the fire, we will hold an Open Estate Garden weekend on the 30 June and 1 July. This will display the art created by residents. I have plans for a dance or performance piece facilitated by Dance West, although this might have to be staged later on in the summer.
Over the years I have self-published photo books as well as making hand crafted books. I have increasingly turned to the latter as a means of reflecting on my engagement at Lancaster West and on the people I met and befriended. I am constructing my own self-questioning narrative. Did I make the right decisions in terms of my engagement? How will my imagery and art work be reproduced and the film footage help with any inquiry or criminal proceedings? Above all, how can I help the victims and community? I know that this was a "voiceless" community that nobody really listened to. I have also thought about my interaction with the press as they strive for the dramatic and poignant human story as well as the political message behind Grenfell. During the previous 9 months, I have developed an inner artistic voice that has kept the media, by and large, at arms length. These books, as I turn the pages, are part of my opening up.
Imageless and Voiceless
Booklets, 32 pages each, 2018
Oil pastel drawings, 5.5 x 4 inches
Just heard about Grenfell Tower. Ghastly. What on earth went wrong?
I was wondering if we could get this picture to do a story on.
I would be very grateful if you could give me a ring as soon as possible to discuss an article I am working on for this weekend.
I am the Dangerous Structures surveyor on the tower following the incident. If you were involved in the original construction it would be good to talk or meet you to discuss how certain elements work together.
Constantine, various journalists have tried to contact me but I am not responding, so I would appreciate your confidence and not pass on any of my contact details.
I don’t want him to think I’m stalking him! I don’t actually need him to discuss the fire. It is the building we are interested in and the original vision.
One thing I'd say is that if we want to tell this hugely important story then now is the time, before the world moves on to the next headline. We have three million readers worldwide, a lot of them policy makers. Do please let me know if you change your mind.
I am contacting you in relation to a live broadcast we are holding tomorrow evening. The event will consist of an audience of local Councillors, residents, firefighters, volunteers etc. If this is something you may consider being a voice for, please let me know.
I do totally understand your reticence to give opinions on the matter, but could I trouble you with a quick question – do you know of any nearby towers that have a similar interior, i.e. common parts and layout?
We are not tabloid journalists in for a quick story. We do very considered films on very difficult and distressing subjects.
Thanks for the clear details in each of your blog posts. In an attempt to lend a little assistance from afar, a group of us have been building up three Wikipedia articles [[Lancaster West Estate]] [[Grenfell Tower]] and [[Grenfell Tower fire]]. Please go to these pages and tell us of any inaccuracies.
I would rather use an image that speaks to the life in the community rather than awful images of destruction and tragedy to publicise the auction. The last thing I would want to do is appear to sensationalise the suffering of so many people.
If you do have a change of heart, let me know. We would happily make a £200 donation to a Grenfell charity for use of your images.
Dear Mr Gras, the V&A have been contacted by the Detective Constable from the Art and Antiques section of the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Grenfell Tower enquiry. She is working on the construction side of the investigation and has been tasked with identifying and contacting every company who may have information about the construction or refurbishment of Grenfell.
I'd like to ask some questions on a positive note. I'm not press or politics. I knew that building was fundamentally safe. I'd really appreciate some answers regarding.... Sorry I can't say here.
It was a great pleasure to make contact with Andrew Haig who shared memories and experiences as a designer. Working with the influential firm Kinneir, Calvert and Tuhilll, he produced the signage for Lancaster West and World's End estates in the 1970s.
As artist in residence on Lancaster West in 2015, I had an opportunity to use art to connect residents with the history of their estates; this is a poignant issue as many estates are now under threat from redevelopment schemes as evidenced with Silchester Estate in the same neighbourhood. This blog completes my set of interviews with former architects and current residents of Lancaster West estate.
At grammar school in England, my academic career was uneventful. I did well at art and athletics (I still compete today). Politically I was a little right-wing shit and a sergeant major myself in the cadets. At the end of sixth form I applied to join Sandhurst for Officer Training but, influenced by my art master who had been to Reading University, I was persuaded to apply to the only two institutions where you could get a degree in art in those days – Reading and Newcastle. Fortunately I failed the eyesight test at Sandhurst and got accepted at Reading despite my indifferent A level grades (including art!). You needed three A levels for university.
The four year Honours course with it's academic underpinning suited me fine. The first year was study for the 'First University Exam' in my case in Art, Geography and Ancient History. We then spent time with the main Art sections: Painting, Sculpture and Typography with a view to specialising in the second term of the second year. I realised that much as I enjoyed painting I had no special talent for it and would need, eventually, to make a living. I chose Typography. Good decision.
I should say that as soon as I started at Reading I dropped all the right-wing militaristic crap and retreated into a somewhat nihilistic shell. (subsequently I became a community-minded leftie. More of that later).
The graphic design profession was only just getting going at that time and despite the dusty academic slant of the course, a bona fide graphic designer was a once-a-week visitor and very influential too. My painting heroes had been Michael Andrews, Richard Diebenkorn and RB Kitaj. Now I started to take an interest in the burgeoning Graphic Design scene in London, particularly the work of those that were serious and analytical.
At the very beginning of the fourth year we had to submit an undergraduate dissertation as part of our finals. Mine addressed the ongoing application of a corporate identity for British Rail with a particular look at the signing systems and the emergence generally of lower case sans serif lettering as the standard (yup – pretty nerdy I know but you can see where this is going!). For my research I interviewed several of the key people at British Rail, Design Research Unit and Kinneir Calvert. Jock Kinneir was informative and patient with me when I went to see him at the Royal College of Art where he was head of course.
On leaving Reading I interviewed with Kinneir Calvert (Tuhill came several years later) and from my dissertation they could see that I fitted well with their set up and I was offered the job of junior designer.
Their office was in Knightsbridge so I started in August 1967 in the heart of 'swinging London'. Bliss!
KINNEIR CALVERT (TUHILL)
Initially I assisted senior designer David Jones who was working on the signing for the miner's new town in the North East, Silksworth. I helped with the visuals for presentation. Soon I was assisting Margaret Calvert with her airport signing system as well as other more general graphic commissions. I must say that Margaret it is who taught me all there was to know about typography, layout and systematic thinking as well as the thrill of finding the right metonymic image; in graphics a well chosen image or symbol speaks volumes! She was very much a mentor for me.
Once a signing scheme was accepted, there was much detail work to be undertaken and I was involved with drawing symbols, doing technical drawing for sign manufacturers and writing and laying out pages of instruction manuals.
Meanwhile, I was accepted as a capable typographer and either worked as an assistant in that capacity or otherwise entrusted with the odd annual report or piece of publicity. In those days we still worked largely with hot metal so layouts were traced with precision on typography paper, the compositors instructed and the resultant proofs pasted up as 'artwork'. I loved every moment of it.
In those days it was considered a matter of status for a young designer to take a day part-time teaching somewhere. In 1970 I started at the London College of Printing on The Diploma in Typographic Design course where I remained for a decade. Jock and Margaret were happy to indulge me. After I went freelance I picked up a second day at Camberwell school of Art 1971-1973. From 1980 to 1986 I taught for two days a week at Middlesex Polytechnic. In each case my speciality was in the basic principles of typography and layout. An underpinning if you like of the work of many a creative student.
I turned freelance in July 1971. This was a moment when Jock demonstrated his inherent generosity. I had learned all the essential procedures for devising a signing system and he tasked me with the job of undertaking such a system for the new London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea estates at World's End Chelsea and Lancaster West in Kensington.
Initially this involved pouring over architect's maps and, indeed, talking to them when necessary. I also met them frequently on site and determined the routes through the development and each point of decision. The job involved not just the signing but given the complexity of horizontal and vertical streets intersecting, working out the most efficient addressing system for the benefit of the postmen as much as residents. An analysis of this hugely complex task was written by me. It was accompanied by display boards which Jock and I presented to a huge planning committee at Kensington and Chelsea.
Using Margaret's slab serif update of her Rail alphabet, the job involved tracing each and every sign onto sheets to be supplied to the sign manufacturers in dyeline form. Margaret's alphabet eventually became formalised as the typeface called Calvert and to this day is used for the signs of the Newcastle underground system. The dyelines would have been backed up with precise technical specifications. The lettering would always have been accurate courtesy of Margaret's tiling system where artwork was pasted up from lettering printed on paper with each letter on a 'tile' to distance it accurately from its neighbour.
I have located some reference photography (1976) of a few of the signs in situ. The blue signs at Lancaster West and the brown ones at World's End, including the large 3D floor numbers that Margaret designed; not sure why she thinks the scheme was not implemented, these shots seem to prove otherwise. (3d signs were only installed at World's End estate, but now not in evidence - Constantine's comment)
Note that our signs took due note of horizontal and vertical brick intervals and used those as sign size determinants. One decision we made and justified at the time was my idea to, instead of using arrows, use words (left, right, upstairs etc). Forty five years later it seems just plain wrong. Not everyone reads English or reads it well. What's wrong with good old arrows?
I continued with teaching and freelance work specialising in non-commercial clients such as charities and public bodies. For several years in the eighties I shared studio space in Islington just down the road from the GLC Learning Materials Service for whom I did a considerable amount of work.
In the mid seventies I had bought a house in Graham Road Hackney (I had to take a full time job for a year as studio manager with Tauber-Fandora Colour Printers – impossible to get a mortgage as a free lancer in those days!). It became obvious that the GLC were planning to formalise our street as an HGV route through from the Blackwall Tunnel to Archway. Along with some neighbours I formed the Graham Road Neighbourhood Group which became a really influential force in the area. I was its first chairman. We did a considerable amount of lobbying and even direct action. We used to do 'zebra walks' back and forth across the road – 70 or so residents, old and young, at 7 o'clock in the morning. This is where I start to connect with your residents!
In 1993 I moved to Brighton where I set up a freelance design "collective" working still for the non-commercial sector. In 2009 I retired and still now am involved with my community but otherwise enjoying getting back to my own creativity. I paint and write short stories and poetry which I self-publish. I am also a heavily involved with a local running club for whom I compete frequently – now in the 70 category!