Manchester Art Gallery

Making Conversation in Lockdown

By lead artist Naomi Kendrick

Making Conversation is an adult learning workshop the gallery that was established in 2006. Each workshop is led by me Naomi Kendrick, artist Helen Newman and a dedicated group of volunteers. It is a friendly social space where people gather to explore the gallery’s exhibitions, discuss their feelings about the artworks, and then make something in response. What is made is very much led by the maker and people work alone or in pairs – for practical reasons as some participants are blind or partially sighted or just because they want to collaborate. At the end of each workshop we come together to find out what has been made and discuss it. Making Conversation participants are a mixture of regulars (some have been coming for over a decade) and people who drop by. The relationship we have with each other during each workshop is just as important as the one that we have with the artworks we discover and create each time. 

Apart, but still connected

In March 2020 we were parted. Our first ‘remote’ workshop was at the end of March, and the participants, Helen, and I  communicated through phone calls, email and the post depending on each participant’s access to technology.  We sent out images of artworks from the collection with a guide showing how to spend time noticing and absorbing those artworks, to think about them and then make work in response (using basic materials from around the home). In an attempt to keep people connected and to stick to the familiar Making Conversation approach we asked people to let us know how they got on and share with us what they had made.  These responses ranged from sculpture, music, textiles, writing and photography, or even just a note to say how much they missed everyone. Helen then turned these responses into a newsletter which we sent back out to everyone. We’ve managed a workshop in this way each month since, and had new people join us as a result of the workshop being on the gallery website, social media and in the Creative Care Kits distributed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Is it real if it only exists in our respective imaginations?

During this time, I have been phoning one of our participants, Tony, once a fortnight. Tony is blind, lives alone and doesn’t have access to the internet and therefore my audio description enables him to continue participating in the workshop. Tony had been about to receive a new guide dog before lockdown but that had to be put on hold, so he has been very isolated.

In my first call with Tony each month I audio describe and read the newsletter showing what the rest of the group have been up to and then describe the artworks for this month’s workshop and discuss them with him. Two weeks later I phone back and find out what Tony has made in response. This has been a really interesting part of the process for me. For Tony the audio description I provide over the phone is the same as when we are at the gallery. But when Tony describes what he has made to me the roles are reversed, I am relying on his description. Sometimes what Tony has ‘made’ only exists in our respective imaginations. It began with a drawing which Tony described to me, he had physically made the drawing but it was then lost somewhere in his house. I wonder does it matter, neither of us has the means to look at it and Tony had described it beautifully, I felt I held it in my mind’s eye as clearly as he did.

Tony loves music, he plays and teaches the guitar and he began to select songs in response to the artworks I had described to him, playing them to me down the phone via Alexa if I hadn’t heard them before. One workshop featured an Issey Miyake dress, not something that particularly appealed to Tony as he “isn’t interested in fashion”. However, when I called back two weeks later he described an animal rights protest outfit he had designed (to both our surprise!) and described to me in great detail.

Tony and the other participants we have been in touch with are desperate to get back into the gallery, to be in the building and be with each other. Their exploration of art is a shared experience not one undertaken alone. The repeated question “when will we go back?” throughout this time has been hard to hear and impossible to answer – though I am recently told the staff at the gallery are working on establishing how this might safely happen again.  Until then, as Tony said of our fortnightly phone calls:

I love art now [since coming to Making Conversation over the last 10 years], and your phone calls have kept me in touch with the art world, it [art] doesn’t come across the same on TV. If you stopped phoning me I’d really, really miss it. It’s a lifeline keeping in touch like this.


You can follow Naomi on Twitter @naomikendrick

And try the Making Conversation lock down activities here.

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