US Book Signing at the Paine ‘Wonderland’ Exhibition
On September 17th, after frantically packing, putting Finch to bed and laying awake till my alarm went off at 4am, I left home and began my long journey to visit the Wonderland exhibition at the Paine Art Centre and Gardens museum in the US. As I previously mentioned in my last diary entry, I don’t think I ever imagined this show to become what it has, I have genuinely never had such an overwhelmingly emotional, warm and loving reception from people and I mean this most sincerely. Having a museum show has been a totally different experience to any of my previous gallery presentations and to have the opportunity to hold two book signings and a large scale lecture during my visit, enabled me to meet so many of you who have followed Wonderland over the years. So before I write another word and probably get too emotional recounting it all, here’s a little video I made on my phone of the space and the people I met.
(If you haven’t seen it already, the official film of the opening night can also be seen here)
Despite already receiving photos of the museum space from it’s staff and seeing numerous posts on social media by the public – none of it compared to entering the mansion in person. In complete contrast to generic white box galleries, the rich, dark, interior of the Paine was by far the most beautiful place I have ever seen my work presented in. As I walked through the huge carved doors, music echoed from the Wonderland films playing in the main gallery, filling the space and creating such an extraordinary atmosphere that I instantly felt goosebumps prickle across my skin. The museum curator Laura Fiser had taken the time to go through all the Wonderland diaries and select passages to accompany each artwork, so the viewer could fully understand the emotions I had gone through when creating the piece and how it represented my journey through grief.
I found myself moving from one picture to the next, reading the descriptions as the music swirled around me and found myself crying it was so overwhelming. I felt ridiculous, here I was reading my own words, looking at my own work, listening to a soundtrack I had heard a thousand times and yet the combination of all these elements in this cavernous room made it a entirely different and multi sensory experience. If I’m honest after news of the show opening had created such a stir online and people began voicing plans to fly in from different states and travel vast distances for my visit, I had inwardly panicked a little. The show was only 19 of the 74 pieces in the series… would it be enough? Would people feel their visits had been worth it? But all of that fell away as I stood in the space, it looked so beautiful, felt so emotional……. how I wish mum could have seen it.
(Keep scrolling down for the rest of the written blog)
My itinerary for the trip was pretty intense. Each day I would be meeting with various groups in the museum gallery to give talks on the work, as well as two major events – a public Q&A and book signing evening at the local university and a private book signing luncheon at the Paine the following day.
To be honest it’s difficult put into words the welcome I received the night of the lecture at the university. The room had seating for 250 people and it was reported around 300 from 16 states turned up, some as far as California. I walked into a brightly lit lecture hall packed full of grinning happy faces, people waving and then after an opening speech from the museum director Aaron Sherer, I was met with a cheer.
For the next 1.5 hours I answered questions about Wonderland from 3 of the university lecturers, as well as an open mic session with the audience. Whenever I do these events I’m always nervous, but the moment they begin somehow it fades away and on that night in particular the kindness and genuine emotion in the room was both extraordinary and tangible; I wish it could have lasted longer. I laughed, cried, said way too much …. it all felt so natural and like I was sharing these personal feelings with friends. When the session ended I was taken into the corridor for the book signing to begin. Originally there had only been plans for one signing the following day at the luncheon, but the museum had been so swamped with requests from visitors who couldn’t get tickets, that I agreed to sign books at the university too. It was my first ever book signing, I’m painfully shy when it comes to having my photo taken and was a little terrified of signing piles of beautiful, freshly unwrapped, £100 Wonderland books! But once again, I let go of my insecurities and nothing could have prepared me for the people I met and the stories they told me, the letters and cards I was given, the hugs people needed and the tears. The queue went out of sight down the corridor and slowly as each person stepped up I began to realise the gravity of what the book meant to them. Until that night my only compass had been the emails or messages on social media from those who owned the book, but this was different, so different. Many people cried, many, many people had stories of personal loss, cancer treatment, difficult times in their life, through which somehow they had found comfort and healing through owning the Wonderland book. As each person poured out their reason for being there, I began to realise that the book and the series were so much more than I could ever be, it had a life of it’s own. This project I had begun in my kitchen was suddenly beyond my own grasp and had gone off into the world with more momentum than I could have ever predicted. The most extraordinary part was it seemed to be helping people…. really, truly helping people with life altering problems.
The feeling of surreal disconnection from that night rolled on and continued to magnify the next day as the guests for the luncheon arrived. I was so taken aback by the distances people had travelled (one young girl had flown in from Washington DC for her birthday and was returning that night!) it flawed me. At this point I had been talking non stop for so long, that to my horror I had almost completely lost my voice and wasn’t very well at all. I’d left the UK with a cold and was about to sit on a podium in front of 180 guests with barely any ability to speak! For the lunch I was seated at a table with the exhibition sponsors and sat quietly mortified, staring at my soup barely able to reply to any of their questions properly. By the time I sat on the stage for a brief Q&A I could feel myself shaking and a cold sweat on my neck, but once again, when I looked up and saw a room full of such joyous faces, I managed to whisper and squeak my way through and hopefully shared as much of myself as I had done the night before. Apparently the attendance for the luncheon was the most people the Paine had ever had in that room without breaking fire regulations. Once again I found myself feeling like I was waiting for someone famous to arrive, it all felt so far away from our small band of friends making these pictures in the woods, out of nothing but blood sweat and tears. As my time ended and I stood up to leave the stage, more people approached me with their stories, there were more tears, more hugs, it was deeply humbling.
After the lunch had finished, the book signing stretched beyond any point where I could see the end of the queue. Just like the night before, everyone had a reason to own their book and I was left emotionally drained (in a good way) once it was all over. Pure adrenaline had kept me going for two days and I could feel myself crashing inside, but in the same moment I wanted it to carry on and to hear more stories from visitors. Later that afternoon I sat in the museum office and confided in Laura the show’s curator. Before I’d left the UK I hadn’t known what to expect from the trip and I had become so invested in my plans for the new series, that Wonderland felt like something I needed to let go of. It had been my life for so long and I have been through so much in the last two years, that I hungered to create something new and to show people what I am capable of now. But my time at the Paine had completed changed all of these feelings, especially one brief exchange I shared with a grief councilor who had stopped me in the corridor just as I was preparing to leave. She held my hand and told me how she wanted to bring a group of her clients to the show, to sit them down and talk about death in a positive way and show them it can be beautiful, that there can be hope at the end of it all. My heart crumbled at these words, it meant so much to me. My grief has returned in a very prominent way since my son arrived and he has no grandmother to meet and I have no one to turn to for guidance as a new mother. So the acute emotions I experienced on this trip have once again brought my loss to the forefront of my mind, but these words from this woman made that ‘ok’.
In my final hours at the Paine, as I took photos of the show and filmed little clips on my phone, I encountered two groups touring the mansion. The first were pensioners, many with walkers and trolleys, who sat entranced in the gallery watching the films on loop, some even cried at the work. They shook my hand, asked for a hug and one woman who was around 80 years old bought a book so I could sign an inscription to her mother, who had passed many years before. This is what the book has become, a kind of talisman for families and loved ones past and present. I met mothers and daughters on their 3rd, 4th, 5th visit to the show, friends who had travelled together for miles on road trips, children who had made their own Wonderland projects in their garden. The feeling of community, love and togetherness was so powerful and something I have never experienced before at a venue showing my work. As I stood by the entrance in my old sports top getting ready to leave, a group of school children arrived and sat down in the gallery. I watched as they were taught about the photographs, what they represented and why this woman had made these pictures for her mother. It completely finished me off and I left the building with tears in my eyes.
I never expected any of this. I wish my trip had been longer, I wish I could have given more time to everyone who shared such personal stories with me, I wish I could have gone and sat on that mat with the little kids and told them all about the pictures myself. I want the people who gave me letters about their lives, to know that I have read them all and am so moved by the things they wrote and so grateful that they felt they could share that with me.
I want to thank all the staff at the Paine for being so amazing and connected to the show. You all made me feel so welcome, especially Laura Fiser the museum curator who became such a dear friend that I was genuinely so sad to leave her at the airport!
I left the US profoundly changed inside and determined that somehow, someway Wonderland has to become a full major museum show of all 74 pieces. Simply because after witnessing how it has touched and helped people, I almost feel a responsibility now to make it reach others. Since I’ve arrived home the show has also been extended due to the museum receiving over double their original estimate of visitors, the director wrote to me to say they have never had such a reaction from the public, it was beyond anything they could have anticipated.
Finally I know I am still yet to write a more personal entry about how life has been throughout my cancer treatment and how I’m doing. But for now I have wonderful news … something that is still sinking in and I simply had to blurt out at the end of this diary entry. Upon my return from the US I had my first annual mammogram, a whole year has passed since my diagnosis. I had to wait two agonising weeks for the result, but on Monday 9th October (my mother’s birthday) it was confirmed I am clear.
‘NO SIGNS OF BREAST CANCER WERE SEEN’
And so I end this entry full of hope, knowing I’m going to be around for my family, cancer free and bursting with excitement and passion to begin my new series (something I will be telling you all about very soon)
Good news feels so strange, today I am grateful for everything xx