Artworks displayed in tiny glass-covered niches in the wall of Midsteeple – no tags with artists’ names, no titles, no labels with written explanations, no mediation, no pre-history – are inconspicuously curated on the staggered basis to be discovered by the members of the public directly. Savoured. Experienced. Interpreted regardless of the artist’s original idea or intention…
It is a wonderful cultural practice that allows anonymous art pieces made by local artists to be found as if by chance by the ordinary folk on their routine shopping trips to Dumfries town centre. There’s a hint of the “walled” gallery ambience signified by the glass, the keyhole and the “niche” presentation. Yet the actual experience spills out of these boundaries into the unpredictability of street art. Almost.
I was drawn to these artists’ niches during #StormEmma2018. The periods of relative calm were interrupted by the flurries of snow. It was not exactly the weather for any contemplative photography exercises but the installation of black baby shoes with the attached brown paper labels arrested my attention.
The work I saw was Bea Last’s incredible Lost Voices or ‘Only God and small children have the right to blame’. I recognised it because I follow Bea on Instagram where she shared her work in progress, as well as different ways in which it can be presented. In her Broadcast on Baby Forest about her contribution to the Niches project she wrote:
My piece is … referencing stories, voices, lives that have been forgotten, not heard, or who have gone missing. Human atrocities are occurring on a global scale.
Although by chance I was aware of Bea’s title and her idea behind the project, my immediate experience in situ led to a different interpretation as I deliberately tried to disconnect and “discover” this piece anew, unfettered by what I read.
Recycled black shoes squeezed into the tiny locked space of the Midsteeple niche meant “restriction”, “inhibition” and lack of freedom to me. Black colour suggested uniformity. Just as the multi-coloured children’s shoes turned uniformly black so the colourful personalities of children were transformed into uniformity by education and society, and labelled “just so”. I felt the loss of individual voices constricted to sameness. Death/loss of life meanings didn’t come to the fore for me, although the work itself made a strong impact on me. But then the framework of the Anonymous Nichists in which Bea’s Lost Voices was presented did not impose any preconceived ideas on me.
The second niche featured a little bird nest with an egg-sized baby’s head enclosed in it, resting on the tower of faded vintage blankets, pillows and linens. It reminded me of Victorian posmortem photographic cards of children and hair ornaments preserved in glass cabinets, a slightly morbid commemoration ritual that blunted the pain of loss and death of a child or a fetus. The Midsteeple niche appeared as a memorabilia case, opening up the very private expression of grief into the public space.
At the same time one could not deny the ambivalence of this evocative installation. The way the baby’s face was nested, the effort to make the space as comfortable and restful as possible could just as well celebrate new life and birth. No labels, remember? And no names…
No names? The lack of attribution was hurting my art historian’s heart. There was a touch of delicacy about this installation that suggested a woman artist behind it, but I didn’t know who she was. I reached out to my Instagram friends and to Bea Last who pointed me to Denise Zygadlo. Denise emailed me that the pillow piece was called A place to rest your weary head and created by Kate Mink, an artist that was brought up in Dumfries, went to Glasgow School of Art and now lived in Oaklands California. So my detective work paid off. Hurray!
I contacted Kate about the history of A place to rest your weary head and she shared that she brought it to Dumfries last year when she came over as a springback artist for Spring Fling. As she shared,
It was such an honour to know that my work was going to be in the walls of this beautiful old building with so much history, the heart of Dumfries for so long. I looked up all the different things it had been over the years, a courthouse, a prison and register office for births, deaths, marriages and thought of all the heads that had lain there throughout the years, including Robert Burns, and sought to remember them in some comforting way…
And here it was how the mystery was solved, the anonymous got the name and the pre-history was revealed. The process of discovering these two wonderful women artists and their work left me totally satisfied and I am looking forward to finding some new work in the niches of Midsteeple.